Critics Page In Conversation
BILL GOLDSTON with Bill Jensen
It is essential for the artist to feel a flow in their creative thinking
Bill Jensen and Bill Goldston graduated together at the University of Minnesota. Both moved to New York in 1971, Jensen as an artist, and Goldston as a master printer at Universal Limited Art Editions. In 1982 upon the passing of Tatyana Grosman, owner and director of Universal Limited Art Edition, Goldston assumed responsibility for its day to day operation and invited Jensen to take up printmaking. To date, ULAE has published thirty-eight editions by Jensen with more to come.
Bill Jensen (Rail): You and I have talked a little bit about your background but I would like to know more. Before college you worked on a farm. Did watching things grow fuel your passion for art?
Bill Goldston: That is a very interesting question, although I am not sure I have an answer. However, it triggers several images from my past: helping a young heifer birth a calf, hunting squirrels, rabbits, and birds; planting and picking beans, lettuce, and okra from our garden for the dinner table. The everyday essential for life on a farm took precedent over everything else. I never felt deprived of anything physically important, but I was taught if I worked hard, I could enjoy a more interesting life. When I discovered art, it was like a door opened for me to enter another world. I could work as hard as I wanted with the consolation that there was no end to what I could learn. Each day would be interesting, because there were so many things to understand.
The difference between today and back then is that now I can enjoy looking at the beauty of a cornfield, an alfalfa meadow ready to be cut and bailed, or a freshly plowed farm readied for planting, as images, rather than thinking about a farmer’s worries and the labor it took to make them. I am married to an Italian and we have an apartment in northern Italy where there is an abundance of both manufacturing and farming. We bicycle in the countryside and this is where it kicks in. To ride alongside a cornfield, to see the farmers cutting the alfalfa, to smell the freshly cut hay and newly plowed fields—these things have an artistic resonance for me. Giovanni Bellini’s skies come alive, Piero della Francesca’s shadows are obvious everywhere and are explicitly illustrated in that landscape.
This past September my wife and I were in Tuscany and we visited the Uffizi, which is always a fulfilling experience. Later that day, we marveled at the difference between plowed fields and those that are green in the Tuscan landscape. The ambience and sense of space were as different as the paintings we had seen earlier in the day. However, this appreciation is not just limited to an Italian landscape, any rural countryside will do, and I am almost certain it is enabled by my childhood experiences on the farm.
Rail: This is very important, Bill. We should have as powerful an aesthetic experience with a beautiful landscape as we have with a great piece of art. We Westerners seem to have trouble with this. Here nature has been side lined to a pastoral experience like a terrarium. The only difference between a work of art and nature is that the art is made by the human
hand which resonates to us a little differently.
What experience can you remember that lit this intense passion and dedication to bring art into the world? Early childhood, young adult, art related, non-art related? A scene, a mountain, a swimming hole, a blade of grass, a piece of art?
Goldston: Desperation! I was never a very good student in high school. My father was illiterate, but a very good auto mechanic and farmer, so I learned a lot in practical problem-solving working with him. My high school science teacher, who acted as my college advisor, knew my situation and suggested that I enroll in mechanical engineering at Oklahoma State University. Makes sense right, mechanic, mechanical? I knew right away studying engineering was not for me—I like to get my hands into what I am doing—but I stuck it out for two years. At the end of my second year I was failing almost all my engineering classes and I knew that I would be dropped from the university at the end of the semester. I enjoyed drawing cartoon characters and making objects when I was in grade school, and always drew, and made things instead of studying. My mother gave me a “paint by numbers” watercolor set when I was in fourth grade, and that stuck in my head as something I really liked to do.
In those days at OSU you never let anyone you met on the sidewalk pass by without saying, “hello.” So, one day in the spring of 1963, while walking across campus feeling really desperate, I said to a fellow student on an impulse, “Hello, do they teach art here, can I learn to be an artist?” Talk about good luck, he was an architectural student, and studying drawing at the art department! I went straight to where he told me and was greeted by the head of the art department who saw me looking at drawings hanging in the hall, and asked if he could help me. I looked at him and blurted out, “I want to be and artist!” He smiled. I told him my story and he asked me into his office and changed my major to art. As I suspected, a dismissal letter arrived later but he spoke with the admissions office and I was reinstated.
Rail: What was you focus in your undergraduate work in Oklahoma, when you switched from engineering to art?
Goldston: I needed to combine my life’s physical experiences with anything creative to try to understand what art was. It was—and it still is for me—an unknown full of possibilities. My first semester classes as an art major were drawing, lettering and design, and ceramics. I really liked them all and worked diligently learning as much as possible. I was working part time in a bicycle shop after classes to pay for my tuition, so the days were long and the nights short. The three-hour classes seemed like ten minutes to me. I wanted more class time so, initially, ceramics had the advantage over the others by being open to work at night. The professor of lettering and design was a new MFA graduate, who had been a commercial designer, with a degree in sculpture. He was a ball of energy with a charisma to match. So, during my second semester, in addition to the other classes, I enrolled in sculpture. The satisfaction I received from working with him overwhelmed my other studies and opened up all my capabilities.
We built a sculpture studio under the football stadium where we cast bronze, aluminum, and brass. I worked a second job on weekends in an auto salvage yard where I disassembled old automobiles. The pistons from the old engines were abundant and easy to transport. They were a convenient and economical way to bring aluminum to be melted into ingots. Using the lost wax process, I cast sculptures in bronze and aluminum. I had learned welding both from my father and working in the oil pipeline industry in the summer during high school. Welding became a sculpting tool. I brought old car wheels from the salvage yard and made sculpture by welding them together. Sculpture dominated all my other studies. In 1964, this professor, a couple other students and I attended a national sculpture conference in Kansas City where we met Richard Randall, professor of Sculpture at the University of Minnesota. We decided that I would submit my graduate applications to the University of Minnesota in 1966. As fate would have it, when I arrived, Randall would move on to the San Francisco Art Institute and I would then become a protege of Zig Priede.
Zig was a professor of printmaking with ties to ULAE in New York, who brought me here in 1969. I had met him in the summer of 1966 when I first arrived at the University of Minnesota and he introduced me to lithography. Between 1966 and 1969, in addition to the year in graduate school as his student, I was drafted into the US Army for two years where I was a printer and supervisor of a small offset print shop.
This was another good fortune that happened in my life. After basic training, I was assigned a job to be an offset printer in Headquarters Company at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I knew about stone lithography and told the assignment officer I was a printer. He misunderstood that I knew how to operate an offset press (I had never seen one before) and had a Sergeant friend in Headquarters Company that needed an offset printer. In a matter of an hour, I was picked up and checked in. I was sure with my mechanical and printing experience I could learn to operate an offset press. Fortunately, I was put on the night shift with a kind printer from Los Angles who taught me how to run the press. Four months went by before I was promoted and had my own shop in the reception center, printing orders, invitations, flyers, and the like for the officers that made things happen around the Fort. I couldn’t really believe my good fortune. It changed my life forever and I used my experience from that two-year period to add another dimension to ULAE.
Rail: Your anniversary with ULAE this last summer that marked 50 years of collaborations with some of the best artists of the era. You mentioned to me highlights with Jasper Johns, what are some other highlights working with another artist?
Goldston: Jim Rosenquist and his print Off The Continental Divide which we made in 1973-74 as an offset lithograph would be one; Elizabeth Murray and her 3-D print Shoe String in 1993 where she used both the offset and hand presses to complete her image would be two; and the third: Richard Tuttle bringing a piece of copper ore to make into a printing plate combined with papermaking.
Jim and his family were in a life changing automobile accident in Florida, in 1971. His wife and son were injured seriously when a car broadsided them. Jim was injured and had to stay in the hospital for several weeks. He made a full recovery but his wife and son did not. They had brain traumas and never fully recovered. There was a lot of mental pain in the family from this, and eventually Jim and his wife separated. Jim’s solution was to work as hard as he could during this recovery time to provide for his family financially and to keep his feelings of guilt at bay. I really empathized with him and our friendship deepened during that time.
Tatyana Grosman, founder/director of ULAE had 65 to 70 sheets of a beautiful, large hand-made Japanese paper, that appeared to be perfect for the proportions of the print. It was left over from a print by Helen Frankenthaler in 1971 titled Lot’s Wife, printed for the Whitney Museum’s Oversize Print Art Exhibition in 1971.There were visible hand prints on the back of the sheets made during the making process and it had a wonderful deckle on all four edges. The size was 42 × 78 inches and almost too large for the offset press, which could print a 42 inch sheet. Our good luck was the presence of a small gutter where we could put the extra quarter inch of paper that was mostly the deckled edge. It was an ideal paper for the print but the project was a serious challenge. We were going big on the offset and nothing could stop us.
Everything had to be in perfect registration, so Jim made a “clutch drawing,” as he called it. It was a large piece of frosted Mylar 44 × 85 inches. A centerline was drawn both horizontally and vertically to ensure the plates would be drawn in the proper position vertically. The paper then would be moved horizontally to accomplish registration to the previously printed plates. The clutch drawing was then made on the plastic to fit the paper so we could determine where to begin printing and placement of the plates.
Jim drew twenty-nine litho plates before he completed the image. Four of those plates were made on ULAE’s hand lithographic press, utilizing a transfer paper. He needed the look of a wrinkle surface and the solution was to tape together four overlapping sheets of this paper, crumple them up, spread them out, remove the tape, separate them and airbrush tone over the crumpled area. Registration and four colors were then easily printed on the offset press by overlaying each color to its original taped position by following the crumple lines in the paper to produce a beautiful blended color surface that looked wrinkled and like the painting.
The door frame of an automobile traversed the blended wrinkle with a black void under a violet/black staircase. These represented the car Jim was driving when the accident happened. The black void had three printed shapes within, a square, triangle and circle, representing an eastern philosophy or, in his mind, an old zen scroll. These were used to represent the western part of the United States. The Continental Divide was the enabler for Jim’s story and that required a symbolic East and West. The visual composition was split in half and the other half showed an upside down book with colored nails running left to right along the bottom, below the book, indicating the eastern part. Book learning, or learning in general, as opposed to a car culture. Although the nail images were referred to as “Snow Fence I” in his paintings, Jim said to me the idea for the image came from being in jail (during his arrest for protesting the war in Vietnam) and seeing a fellow prisoner marking off his days on the wall one by one.
Jim has written extensively in his book Painting Below Zero about the meaning of this painting and the deep sense of anguish in his life at that time. In any case, Tatyana Grosman was very pleased with the print and so was Jim. He mentioned several times over the following years how important the money from the sale of the print was to him. It was a very difficult time but making art saved him, both mentally and financially. At his death he still owned the painting.
As far as Elizabeth Murray goes, she was introduced to me by Susan Rothenberg who wanted her to work at ULAE. So I called Elizabeth and invited her to come to the studio. She came with the idea to draw an upside-down table on a stone. It was a wonderful abstract image in nine colors and she was a joy to have working in the studio. She continued with her second print Blue Body which was an abstract image of a guitar in the color blue. She really had a natural talent in printmaking and understood how to manipulate it in a unique way.
After six years and about nine editions, we had become close friends and spent social time together with our families. So, one day, on a studio visit, she showed me her new idea for a painting. It was an unusually shaped wooden armature, with canvas stretched over it, so she could paint her image. I was so taken by the beauty of the shape, I sort of half-heartedly exclaimed: “Elizabeth, how can you make flat prints after working on three-dimensional canvas?” She looked at me, and kind of smiled, and proceeded to show me a flat drawing stapled to the wall on several pieces of paper as an idea for her next print. That was how she worked on drawings: by stapling pieces of paper on top of each other and drawing another layer until the drawing was finished. You may remember seeing her Up Dog and Down Dog prints while you were working in the studio, where she used this technique in her prints also. We had lunch and I later returned to the studio with the idea to continue with the flat print idea. The next morning, about 7am, my phone rang and it was Elizabeth. She was so disturbed by my comment about the beauty of the shaped canvas, she had worked all night to make a drawing for a 3-D print and wanted me to come into the city first thing to see it.
The drawing was amazing, not only in its idea, but how it would be constructed as a print. The subject was, according to her, “road kill.” It was a shoe found on the highway, near where she had her studio in upstate New York. I had never thought of a shoe on the highway as “road kill” so the discussion was already getting interesting. But looking at it I knew it was going to be a serious technical challenge to print. Elizabeth was not one to wait around. She wanted to get to work on it as soon as possible. So, over the following weeks, she came to the studio and drew over 36 litho plates. This “Road Kill Shoe” had big holes and some of the image came from the inside of the shoe turned inside out. Ten plates were dedicated to be printed both on the hand transfer and offset lithographic presses, on the front and back of the sheet, in registration to each other, making forty-six printings total (an unusual amount of printings but a very wise use of the medium). This was possible because the hand transfer press prints a mirror image of the drawing whereas the offset press prints the image as drawn. The 3D effect was made by borrowing a technique of tabs and slits cut in a base sheet from the paper dolls kits her two girls played with. The master sheet was then die cut by using a perforate die so the sheet could be easily torn and folded open to reveal the image on the back. It was titled Shoestring and required a special designed frame with a curved glass because Elizabeth did not want to see it in a box. She wanted you to see it from the side as well as from the front. A really beautiful and creative project.
Richard Tuttle is always challenging himself, and those around him, to push accepted values and norms to another level. We were at an opening together in 2009, discussing a gift he received the day before. Someone had given him a piece of copper ore and he wanted to know if we could convert it into a copper printing plate. He laid out his idea to take the ore, make a plate, draw on the plate with dry point, make a piece of paper and, in that process, when the paper was the right dampness for printing, mix raw pigment with some plate oil, wipe the plate and print the dry point plate onto the handmade paper. Needless to say, the next day I was investigating where to find a forge to heat the ore and how to make paper.
After several phone calls with no results, I relied on my welding experience and order a welding torch to heat the ore. I borrowed an anvil with a hammer from a local machine shop, and thought it was worth a try if Richard was up for it. Well, Richard was really up for it and we spent a day, (about nine hours of me heating and Richard pounding the ore) until we had a small copper plate for him to draw dry point. The first sheets of paper for proofing were made using blenders in his and ULAE’s kitchens to make the pulp. The result was a print titled Ink in Fiber. In the end, it was kind of a spiritual experience, albeit unusual way to make a print, and carried with it, a new endeavor at ULAE of making experimental papers for other artists.
Rail: During your time at ULAE, have you notice any common traits among artists? Their attitude towards the work, towards the process, towards the materials, towards the collaboration, etc.
Goldston: I see all the artists changing each time they enter the studio. Every time with them is a new experience. Another very important common trait is they all want to make something beyond what they imagined possible in their studios. This is often enhanced by the collaboration between the printers and artists. For example, in 1969 when Zig, and I were working with Bob Rauschenberg on photosensitive stones, the end results, because of the quirkiness of the technique, were often much different than what we could have imagined. That difference often evoked from Bob, “Well, it’s not what we started to do, just a lot better!” There were many “just a lot better” because of the process. Zig and I would let the technique run its funky course trying to secure it at a point we could later control in the edition process.
You know yourself, Bill, that your collaborations produced unusual and totally unexpected results depending on the printer you were working with. In most cases, artists like you generally share with the printers this adventure and excitement into the unknown. Jasper Johns, for example, worked with printer John Lund at ULAE on several prints, and later asked him to work full time in his Low Road print studio. Lisa Yuskavage is now setting up a lithography studio next to her painting studio on Long Island, to print lithographs from stone, in addition to her digital printing research. Christopher Wool often arrives in our studio with a digital file and proofs he has made from his studio computer and printer to explore his idea further with the printers. This kind of experimental process is common among artists today and very often stimulated, or augmented, by the collaborating printers.
Rail: When you are thinking about bringing in a new artist to come and work at ULAE what do you sense in their work? What do you sense in themselves? I worked with many different printers at ULAE and I learned early on to listen to each one of them, because each one knew things about printmaking that was unique to them. What do you think about when you are putting an artist together with printers to collaborate?
Goldston: I gave up trying to be a matchmaker long ago. I discovered that some artists have a personality that fits well in our studio and it doesn’t matter who they are working with. Like you, Bill, they just pick up what that printer has to offer and, before you know it, there is creative electricity in the air. I have to go on my instincts in selecting an artist. I see or sense there is a possibility to use printmaking to expand their creative intuition. Some artists just have a feeling for making prints, and their work really benefits from the print process. This is the most important cause for inviting an artist. Personality is also a major factor and I usually invite artists that I believe will become a lifetime friend. If you start from that point, everything technically becomes simple and achievable. The printers are usually collaborators by nature and enjoy working with all artists. There is always a little creative instinct in each printer trying to get out, and the artists often become the conduit to make that happen. So, my job, if you can call it a job, is really simple: just show up, enjoy, and let nature take its course.
Rail: You are known as Mr. Tusche by all the printmakers. Explain what that means and what is the sensitivity and knowledge that is need? Here you need to toot your own horn.
Goldston: Tusche, as you know, is used as a watercolor effect in lithography. I particularly enjoyed working in this medium. During my formative years, and later when I became a professional printer, I used to make a stone each day using tusche, etch it, then proof it just to practice the technique. It was a fun challenge. My game was to print on a piece of paper what I painted on the stone. Barnett Newman said it best: “Unlike Gertrude Stein’s rose, a stone is not a stone. The stone is piece of paper,” which is true of almost all printmaking. Many of the artists at ULAE in the late sixties and early seventies, were drawing with crayons and painting tusche on stones. I wanted to be the best I could to help those artists get on paper what they painted on the stone. In 1971 the offset press became important at ULAE and I began to experiment with tusche on aluminum plates. That was a whole other deal. You see, the tusche on the stone could be etched using a traditional nitric acid and gum Arabic. Aluminum is not affected by nitric acid, nor many other suitable acids for etching the tusche. A lot of tests and failures led to the conclusion that success for a tusche drawing on an aluminum plate was for the artists to draw with a very diluted tusche mixture and to process the plate normally with an etch that desensitizes the aluminum to accept any more drawing. Tusche products available today, using a similar approach, make it a lot less complicated.
Rail: How far will you let an artist go before it is not a print (edition) or is there no limit?
Are there properties or energies in the process of printmaking or in the materials themselves that good artists seem to sense and bring out? Is there an Art to Printmaking, etching, lithograph, ect?
Goldston: I don’t believe in setting any limits. Printmaking at ULAE is an exploratory process and full of creative experiences built into the physical activity of doing it. There is no way to understand how something is going to turn out. And, sometimes the artists say they cannot figure this one out. Then the best thing to do is simply put it aside and work on it later. The artist, standing in front of it, is not the same artist that started it. They have grown, changed, and experienced different elements of life in the interim. The great thing about printmaking is; unlike a canvas or a piece of paper, the stone, plate, block, or screen, are all recording devices and can be used multiple times on multiple media, permitting the artists to confront their decisions from the past and can build on that, new creative directions. I never see an unfinished print as unfinished but rather just waiting for the artists to revisit it as a more matured master of their craft, so to speak.
Why do artists choose to work in different media in the first place? Do some just feel more comfortable with a brush in their hand instead of a tool of sculpting or creating something on the computer? This holds true in printmaking also. Bill, you know yourself from your experience in etching how seductive an aquatint or spit-bite can be. Others find their way with a tusche wash or crayon drawing, on a stone or litho plate. You could say the art of printmaking lies more in the artists finding a media comfort zone, that is often fueled by a great collaboration with a printer. A great example is Picasso and Roger Lacourière.
Rail: Printmaking is very technical, ever since the first wood block was chiseled or the first metal plate scratched. You brought offset printing into the process a long time ago, and have explained it advantages. Now you have brought computers into the process, what are its advantages? What are its disadvantages?
Goldston: You and I spoke earlier about tusche and its watercolor effects when drawn on the stone. For me, there is nothing more interesting than a beautiful tusche wash in a printed work of art. I can both appreciate the artist’s creative gesture and the skill of the printer who etched and printed it. Other possibilities that have always interested me are the relationship between scale and size, marks made by a wrist movement compared to a shoulder movement and the difference between a drawing made and printed directly or indirectly. The energy of the physical gesture to make a wash or line drawing in printmaking is confined to that printed work of art and the physics of that process. But— there is a but here—and that is how the drawing is printed on the paper. Direct printing has its advantages like contrast and richness of color, but the drawback is, it reverses the images. All gestures seem out of sync and more so when the artists try to draw or paint their images backwards. My experience from my time in the army and my research in graduate school, taught me that offset was invented to resolve, among others, this very problem. The artist’s energy needs to be captured and seen as it was drawn. It was revolutionary when ULAE published its first offset lithograph in 1971, not just because it was an offset lithograph, but also because the artist could actually see in real time his printed drawing, in the orientation he had drawn it. I am sure you have wondered how your same creative gesture would look enlarged or reduced. Would the gesture still hold the same energy at a larger size or changed scale? Can size dilute or enhance energy? Would a wrist movement hold its interest as a simulated shoulder movement? In the past, the image could be sent out to a photographer to be photo-mechanically reproduced in film and returned days later when we would not remember why we had it made in the first place!
It is essential for the artist to feel a flow in their creative thinking and the physical reality of those thoughts happen in real time. The addition of the offset press, the computer and its external tools, have an enormous advantage, in this case. Using these we have been able to up the ante for the artists’ creative instincts. No longer do we wonder or contemplate questions like size or scale, left or right, when the solutions can happen in real time. Some artists have brought digitals files to explore, and others have their own digital printer where they can proof new ideas for printmaking. The offset press, computers and their peripherals, (like 3D scanners and printers, lasers and cell phones) are the new tools of this century for artists to explore in printmaking. They will only become more powerful as they are more familiar to us, and, at this point they are so new, I cannot see any disadvantages.
Rail: Do you have any secret technologies or techniques you can divulge that you are thinking about to add to the printmaking process? What vision do you have for the future of printmaking?
Goldston: More and more of the same! I am returning to the basics: intaglio, stone and plate lithography with a little digital printing thrown in on the side. Scanners—both high res and 3D—are something I want to explore in more depth. 3D printing is very interesting but, so is printing on the old letterpress with new plate technologies. They all offer so many creative options, and I look forward to exploring them with artists, wherever they lead.
Mankind has depended on printmaking, in some form, for centuries, and I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon. It is true that some of our new digital technologies are moving us away from the physically printed to a virtual one, but, thanks to Richard Tuttle this past couple of years, we have been exploring paper making, and although paper has been made for centuries, there may be some unexplored avenues still left to follow. I will continue to support a combination of old and new printing methods, as many of the artists are doing today, no matter what media chosen for their images. Who knows what great collaborations lie in our future and what tools artist will choose?
Speaking of collaborations, I have not mentioned some of the printers that have been a part of my tenure at ULAE. Printmaking has certainly changed these past 50 years and it has been helped by many talented printers and their collaborations with artists. It would not have been possible without their enthusiasm and experience, and if I have missed someone, please forgive my omission: Doug Bennett, Brian Berry, Shelly Beech, Keith Brintzenhofe, Tom Cox, Chris Crites, Richard Dawson, Steven Fournier, Frank D’Agostino, John Lund, Hiroshi Kido, Nancy Mesenbourg, Jason Miller, Zig Priede, Michael Rahn, Judah Rosenberg, Phil Sanders, James V. Smith, Shi Ji-Hong, Lorena Salcedo Watson, Doug Volle, Bruce Wankel and Craig Zammiello.
The future at ULAE?
Tatyana Grosman’s husband, Maurice, had a heart attack in 1955. Because of his illness, she had to do something to support them, and that something for her had to have an importance. She founded ULAE in 1956 and published her first prints in 1957. When she died in 1982, she passed ULAE to Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and me. Although I have carried the day to day responsibilities for the past 37 years, I could not have succeeded without the friendship and support of Jasper and Bob. It is, and has been, a pleasure and honor to work with them.
Tatyana and Maurice had a child, Larissa, while living in Paris in 1933. Larissa died at the age of fifteen months. Without knowing this, my first wife and I named our daughter, Larissa, born in 1971. Tatyana became Larissa’s godmother and enjoyed taking her to Dalcroze school and Eglevsky ballet lessons when she was a child. Larissa has chosen to follow in the footsteps of her godmother, and has worked with me at ULAE for the past 25 years. My vision for the future of printmaking is: Larissa will find a way to continue ULAE, to find new artists, and have the good fortune I have had to see a new generation carry on Tatyana’s legacy.