The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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FEB 2022 Issue
Editor's Message Guest Critic

Printmaking: Intentions and Aspirations

Ruth Fine. Pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui. Photo: Frank Stewart.
Ruth Fine. Pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui. Photo: Frank Stewart.

This project developed from a conversation between Phong Bui and myself about art in the United States since what has long been referred to as the mid-20th century “Print Renaissance,” and my belief in the critical impact of printmaking on artists’ work in other media. The printmaking practices of artists about whom I have done research all worked with technical staff at many collaborative ateliers, including Bob Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop, Brandywine Workshop and Archives, Crown Point Press, Gemini G.E.L.,Graphicstudio USF, Paulson Fontaine Press (previously Paulson Bott Press), Tamarind Lithography Workshop and Tamarind Institute (in Los Angeles and Albuquerque sequentially), Two Palms, Tyler Graphics, and Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), among others.

Prior to my curatorial life I taught printmaking at what was then the Philadelphia College of Art (PCA, now part of the University of the Arts) and Beaver College (now Arcadia University, Glenside, PA). My education was as a printmaking major at PCA, followed by an MFA in printmaking at the University of Pennsylvania, where Eugene Feldman—one of the great proponents of offset lithography internationally—set up a workshop during my student days. I established etching and screenprinting studios at Beaver College, which previously offered students lithography alone, under the aegis of its renown practitioner, Benton Spruance, who introduced me to print history. My initiation of this project is as both a maker (my underground life for the past sixty years) and a writer about printmaking.

Ruth Fine, <em>Landscape Diptych</em>, 1986.
Ruth Fine, Landscape Diptych, 1986.

The indirect transfer processes which give form to traditional prints have been central to my writing: woodcut and other relief methods; etching and other intaglio categories (aquatint, drypoint, mezzotint, among them); lithography, which produces chemically treated images that are referred to as planographic prints (essentially one surface-level from which an image is printed), and screen prints (a form of stenciling). All require that an image created on one surface (called a matrix) be transferred to a second surface, which is considered the work of art. Such works include impressions (a reference to individual prints) in black ink, most commonly on white paper (and which may include more than one printing of black); or in multiple colors, usually from more than one matrix.

Several situations are unique to the printmaking experience. For example, waiting periods while technical work is underway offer thinking time to the artist, the importance of which is difficult to assess. It is a time for the mind to wander, but also a time when a master printer might introduce processes new to the artist, or possibly suggest a variety of potentially fruitful next-moves based on the existent proofs (discussed below) which, more often than not, will be pinned to the studio wall for both informal and formal viewing—intuitive intake as well as deep consideration of next steps to be taken.

During the process of developing a print, impressions referred to as trial proofs, color trial proofs, state proofs, working proofs, and so forth, are made, and are available for the artist to study. Making these proofs provides opportunities for a given group of matrices to present a wide variety of image ideas in ways that are impossible to document stages of work in painting, drawing, film, or sculpture. The jigsaw puzzle aspect of multi-color prints especially generates impressions from one or more of several matrices that offer diverse formal possibilities. For example, the potential to print matrices in varying orders enables the incised, carved, chemically treated, or stenciled forms to remain intact while they are presented in a variety of hues, differing orientations, and layered in diverse orders, which options together or individually emphasize some image areas over others. Making prints also introduces artists to a range of tools and materials that may be incorporated into their other work, often bringing new kinds of marks into use.

To briefly note how this has impacted a few artists about whose work I have written, Jasper Johns’s use in all of his art of reversal, for example; in prints particularly, his reuse of matrices within series—both are responsive to printmaking generated practices. Johns’s prints and proofs have been featured in exhibitions of his work, and are exceedingly important throughout the current Philadelphia Museum of Art/Whitney Museum of American Art Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror. Trial, color, state, and working proofs reveal relationships between prints made years apart that employ some of the same matrices that may or may not be altered. Some proofs account for matrices that were rejected from use in any images, but nevertheless indicate ideas that may come to fruition in later, seemingly unrelated works. Johns, now in his 90s, continues making extraordinarily beautiful and complex prints in his Connecticut studio.

Helen Frankenthaler’s proofs also have been well documented in exhibitions and catalogues. It was Frankenthaler’s frequent practice to rework proofs as unique variants that might readily be considered independent works of art. Frankenthaler, however, maintained them as “working proofs,” unlike Johns, who catalogues similar sheets independently. While true in different ways for both artists, to focus on Frankenthaler, given the importance of mark-making over image specificity, her attention to the variety of ways in which tools may be used has been especially important to her incorporating into her painting, on both canvas and paper, methods first used in print studios.

Collage has been relevant to Roy Lichtenstein’s incorporation of print studio practices in works in other media. While Lichtenstein employed collage from his pre-Pop Art days of the early 1950s, later, however, papers were printed at Gemini for Lichtenstein’s use in his collage studies. Plus, his practice of sending collage studies to Gemini and other workshops so the printers would know his intentions for an upcoming print series further increased his use of this cut and pasted paper method in developing studies and maquettes for paintings, objects, and sculpture. 

Jim Dine has focused in recent years on the close connections between drawing and painting, an important subject too large for this essay. But it is useful to note the extent to which Dine has used prints as the physical base for what essentially are drawings, or monoprints, virtually ignoring the edition aspect of printmaking to create dozens if not hundreds of unique print/drawing combinations, the prints created in a range of collaborative workshops as well as with printers in Dine’s own private studios.

By the time slightly younger artists including Mel Bochner, Martin Puryear, and Pat Steir were collaborating at workshops, print processes were readily accepted as an aspect of an artist’s practice, rather than considered “new” as it was for Johns, Frankenthaler, and others. Puryear made prints in college and while in the Peace Corps in Africa. Later, he often focused on the woodcut, the material with which his sculpture is most fully associated.

Both Bochner and Steir made early prints at Crown Point Press, which was the first workshop to emphasize intaglio rather than the lithography that had motivated the opening of Tamarind in Los Angeles, the initial technique used at ULAE and Gemini, for example.

Working now primarily at Two Palms, Bochner’s printmaking practice is intimately tied to his painting, the molds for his letter-language developed at Two Palms and essential to his work in the painting studio. Plus his work at Two Palms focuses on monotype and monoprint (the first using no set matrix, the second (as with Dine) using a matrix to produce unique variant impressions), calling additional attention to the important relationships between Bochner’s printmaking and painting.

The idea for this Critics Page has been to have a younger group of printmakers to consider the importance of printmaking in today’s artistic world. Artists and curators of generations younger than my own have been consulted to offer inspired suggestions of who might address the following prompt:

There is a distinctive nature to making prints; and working in these processes contributes to artists’ work in other media.  

Their responses are on the pages that follow and suggest the immense variety of ways printmaking has not only impacted their work in other media, but also transformed their art to highlight ways in which print-related thinking—such as replication and impression—have enabled new expressions about the critical subjects of our day including gender and sexuality; race and greater BIPOC representation in our expanding art world; relationships between philosophy, literature, and the visual arts; civil and human rights issues; climate crises; space exploration; capitalism and the growing divide between the haves and have-nots; as well as the deep understanding of all practitioners of themselves as artists within their communities. The artists I mentioned above, along with many others—Romare Bearden, Louise Bourgeoise, Marisol, Norman Lewis, Robert Rauschenberg among them—addressed many of these concerns in their work. However issues of the medium being the message, sparked by the publications of Marshall McLuhan, plus the many technical explorations occurring within collaborative ateliers (often producing sculpture in addition to prints), maintained a strong focus.

My desire was to expand my knowledge through this project about younger artists’ intentions and aspirations. But recent work by senior artists suggests the desire to find new ways of making meaning through their art does not diminish with age or time. For example, Alexis Nutini—on behalf of Brandywine Workshop and Archive—has been collaborating with Sam Gilliam on a portfolio of woodcut prints and a series of related monoprints that are rooted in a Gilliam project with Brandywine from decades ago to revisit the project. They take advantage of all Gustavo Garcia mentions in his essay about Nutini’s work with Miguel Antonio Horn to revisit in a totally new and engaging way. A subject for another day.


Ruth Fine

Ruth Fine was a distinguished curator over four decades for the National Gallery of Art, Washington.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2022

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