The publishers that fostered a printmaking renaissance in the 1960s are every bit as active today, helping artists create original works and bring them to an ever-wider public.
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Turning over every rock is a proverbially good way to make a discovery. But in the case of the contemporary-art print revival, the rock itself was the discovery—to be specific, a pair of Bavarian lithographic stones that Tatyana Grosman, a refugee from Russia, found in the front yard of her Long Island house in 1957. Grosman had arrived in the U.S. in 1943 with dreams of starting a business publishing European-style livres d’artiste. That didn’t pan out, though, and, needing money, she and her husband decided that they would instead make and sell high-quality reproductions of well-known paintings by such popular artists as Marc Chagall and Grandma Moses. MoMA curator William Lieberman, a friend of the Grosmans, suggested to them that while their efforts were impressive, there would be more interest in original prints than in reproductions of existing works and that they should find some artists to work with.
The Grosmans were casting about for ways to do just that when they found the stones, which had been left there by a previous owner. Soon they bought a lithographic press from a neighbor, found a printer to show them how to use it, and embarked on their first project—which turned out to be a marriage of word and image reminiscent of the artist’s-book concept. They made a 13-page portfolio of poems by Frank O’Hara with images by Larry Rivers, both of whom were friends of the printer-publishers. The project—fittingly named “Stones”—took a grueling two years to bring to fruition, but it led to the founding of United Limited Art Editions (known as ULAE), which continues today in the same small Long Island town where it was founded. ULAE was the first of a group of contemporary-art print publishers that changed the art world and the art market, bringing about a democratization that resonated perfectly with the spirit of the 1960s and the Pop Art movement.
It must have been the zeitgeist, because ULAE was soon joined by several studios that sprang up, equally dedicated to using a wide variety of printing techniques, both traditional and innovative, to create original editioned works by contemporary artists. In 1960, the Tamarind Institute was co-founded in Los Angeles (it is now located in Albuquerque, where it is affiliated with the University of New Mexico) by Clinton Adams and June Wayne, who feared that the fine-art lithograph was an endangered species, like the whooping crane—“In all the world, there were only thirty-six cranes left,” Wayne wrote decades later, “and in the United States there were no master printers able to work with the creative spectrum of our artists.” Soon that would no longer be the case. Tamarind, a nonprofit, not only trained artisans and sent them out into the world (in some cases to found their own publishing operations), but also developed new technologies (including light-fast inks and new ways to use aluminum plates) over which it asserted no proprietary claims. Tamarind can take a great deal of the credit for fostering a new generation of master printers capable of helping artists trained in other media to translate their visions into prints. Among the artists who got involved in the renaissance early on were Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Ben Shahn, Helen Frankenthaler and David Hockney.
In 1966, also in L.A., Gemini Ltd. (now Gemini Graphic Editions Ltd. or Gemini G.E.L.) was founded by Sidney Felsen, Stanley Grinstein and Ken Tyler. Tyler had studied at Tamarind and would eventually go on to start his own print-publishing operation, Tyler Graphics, in Mount Kisco, N.Y., where he worked with artists including Robert Motherwell, Josef and Anni Albers, Masami Teraoka, James Rosenquist and Joan Mitchell. In the meantime, he sand his partners developed Gemini into a major force in the printmaking world. The studio has always championed high-tech, cutting-edge methods for making bold, experimental works—large-scale presses for oversize prints, special papers, screen printing, multiple intaglio plates, and papers with complex textures that can take a print into the third dimension.
While lithography may not have been dead in 1960, there’s no question that it was ripe for a revivifying burst of energy. While fine-art printmaking was vital in Europe, with artists like Picasso and Miró working closely with master printers, in the U.S. the print media had come to be associated with the American Scene movement and socially-conscious realism in general, while the more experimental impulses were channeled mainly into painting and sculpture. Dick Solomon, president of Pace Prints, a publisher and dealer, sees the Pop Art phenomenon as having had a major influence on the resurgence of interest in prints and led to a greater acceptance of prints as full-fledged artworks in their own right. While the screen printing or serigraphy favored by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others was less complex and nuanced than lithography, Solomon says, “As a result of the Pop artists using screen printing as part of their unique work, printmaking became a significant factor in the art world. They were doing all kinds of things with technology that had not really been previously used. The scale got bigger; the work got more colorful. And it related so closely to the artists’ unique work that it gained—I won’t use the word respectability, but there was much more of a commonality, a simpatico, between paintings and prints. It became much easier for people to identify prints with the unique works, and vice versa.”
Changing tastes and economic forces combined to make a sea change in the American print market. In 1934, in the depths of the Depression, Associated American Artists, a New York gallery and auctioneer, was founded to sell affordable prints to the art-hungry middle classes, hiring artists such as Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton to create them. “Associated American Artists had a fabulous business of selling small black-and-white prints until the early ’60s, when the whole market changed to large colorful prints,” says Solomon. “The auction houses played a tremendous part, and print auctions became much more colorful.”
Pace Prints started out in business in 1968, at the height of the revival. “Our distinction is that we began to publish in conjunction with the Pace Gallery, producing Pace artists. For years we were probably the only publisher that had a gallery separate from our production studios.” (Today ULAE has a gallery space, and Gemini sells its prints in New York through the gallery Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl.) Originally, Pace’s actual printmaking was done at outside facilities, but eventually it established its own studios. Solomon is proud of the variety of resources for artists that Pace has to offer: an etching studio, a woodcut studio, an ukiyo-e facility presided over by a Japanese woodblock master, Yasu Shibata, and a screen printing facility located in Brooklyn. “The only thing we don’t do in-house is lithography,” says Solomon.
So why do artists come to these studios to make prints? The most obvious answer is that making works that are multiples enables them to expose a larger public to their art, and therefore to sell more works. But the publishers and artisans point out that there’s more to it than that. Bill Goldston is the master printer at ULAE; he came to work with Tatyana Grosman in 1969, thinking he’d stay maybe five years and then go back to his painting and drawing, and never left. Goldston believes that artists who haven’t yet made a print but “think in a manner that can be applied to printmaking, can draw on the energy that comes out of printmaking.” For someone who gets his hands dirty every day at work, Goldston can be quite philosophical. He cites Walter Benjamin’s concept of the presence of the original work of art: “For me, it means a sense of actually working on the stone, the aluminum plate, or the woodblock. That’s a moment the artists will never return to, but they can build on that moment, looking into themselves.” For Goldston, there’s a creative tension between the single original plate and the successive iterations or repetitions, with variations, of the image—a far more optimistic take on the “age of mechanical reproduction” than Benjamin’s.
Valerie Wade is director of Crown Point Press, a San Francisco print publisher that dates back to 1962, when it was begun by Kathan Brown, who was inspired when she found an old printing press in a Scottish castle and put it on a ship to the United States. Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn, Ed Ruscha and John Cage were among the artists who have worked with Crown Point; the current crop includes Tomma Abst, Chris Ofili, Jockum Nördstrom and Laura Owens. Wade says that artists discover something new about themselves by making prints, which she describes as a contemplative venture: “The artists want to get away from the pressures of their big studio practice, and here they discover this new medium that teaches them. The beauty and concentration attracts them, and they can work with master printers who help them.”
This idea of help is very important in contemporary printmaking. Crown Point, like Tamarind, is very open in its general approach, which emphasizes etching and the use of special rich, oil-based inks. “We share all our secrets,” says Wade. The press has a website called Magical Secrets, but the point is that that they’re not secret at all. The site features videos showing the whole process of an artist creating an edition, and advertises classes and books that reveal and explain the techniques. In the small, not overly money-saturated world of fine-art printmaking, few if any of the participants take a proprietary, zero-sum-game attitude.
When an artist works with the expert artisans who staff the studios, the question arises, what is the nature of that relationship? Goldston says, “The printer becomes a kind of alter ego to the artist. They enjoy the collaboration. They may say, I’ve got an idea, can you do it? That gives the printers an opportunity to express themselves, as well. It’s quite wonderful to have a collaboration like that.” Wade, on the other hand, insists, “We don’t use the word collaboration. The artists drive the project; the printers just help them.” Some master printers have been more controlling in their work style; some less. Artists, too, have different needs and approaches. “No two artists are alike,” says Solomon. “Some will take the plate and go to work on it, and some will give you a drawing and say, ‘Go do it.’” Jane Hammond, who had a show of her surrealistic collaged monoprints this winter at Pace, “spent almost three months working on the project at our papermaking studio,” recalls Solomon. “Talk about hands-on—the only thing she didn’t do was fall into the paper vat!”
The truth is, there isn’t really any basic difference between contemporary printmaking and the printmaking process of past eras. Albrecht Dürer knew how to carve woodblocks, but he was a busy man and usually created a drawing designed to be traced onto a block, then brought it to an artisan who would carve it for him. In ukiyo-e, the artist and the carver were two different people. Artists have always worked in partnership with printers, and the fundamental purpose of printmaking—which cannot be separated from the concept of publishing—also remains the same: As Goldston puts it, “the dissemination of information, and to reach a bigger audience.”
This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Freedom of the Press”