The 1960s have been described as an “explosive” period for the development of the contemporary print as a primary art form in America. The can-do spirit of the American printmaking renaissance gave rise to innovation that continues to inspire and inform printmaking today. Discover the radical nature of some of the artistic pioneers of this period and their “firsts” that changed the history of printmaking.
It is no coincidence that printmaking flourished in the 1960s. Printmaking seemed to embody the spirit of innovation and egalitarian idealism at the heart of the counterculture. From one metal plate, lithographic stone, or screen it is possible to create multiple impressions of one artwork. This means the print is one of the most affordable and accessible forms of fine art. Mary Margaret “Moo” and Harry “Hunk” Anderson purchased their first print in 1969. Since then, together with their daughter, Mary Patricia “Putter” Anderson Pence, they have cultivated an exceptional survey of American printmaking. The prints included in First Impressions are just some of the hundreds of prints given to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco by the Anderson family, and they represent the Andersons’ generous effort to make art accessible to all.
The technical nature of printmaking lends itself to experimentation and innovation—the making of “firsts.” Unlike some other art forms, it is not always visually apparent how a print is made. The artists represented here, many of whom lacked training in printmaking, learned from others and from trial and error to produce art that pushed the envelope.
Printing is not for the impatient! In intaglio, lithography, and screenprinting color is added in layers and printed one at a time. In order to create a second print from one surface, the whole inking process must be repeated.
For intaglio printing, an image is carved into a hard material. The material is covered with ink and then wiped clean, leaving ink only in the incised areas. An impression is made when, under the enormous pressure of the printing press, the malleable surface of the paper makes contact with the ink, transferring image to paper.
In lithography, artists create designs on a prepared lithographic stone or plate using an oily liquid. The surface is flushed with water and then applied with ink, which adheres only to the oily design. The inked design is transferred in a press to a sheet of paper.
In screenprinting, ink is forced through a woven screen and momentarily pressed against a surface below. An impression is made at the point of contact. Stencils are used to make portions of the screen impermeable to ink in order to control the application of color.
Louise Nevelson experimented with unusual materials in her first lithographs. To create this print, Nevelson pressed lace and other textured materials into tusche, a greasy medium used in lithography, and then onto a lithographic stone. She then drew directly onto the stone, obscuring some of the fabrics’ delicate and symmetrical patterns and revealing others.
The assemblage-like process adds to the illusion of depth in the final print. The jagged corners and shadowy passages are reminiscent of a city skyline at night, or one of Nevelson’s boxed wall sculptures.
Claes Oldenburg created new and radical three-dimensional prints in the late 1960s. Technicians at Gemini G.E.L. helped him invent the perfect soft, translucent plastic for Profile Airflow, a print of a 1937 Chrysler and the workshop’s first foray into three dimensions. Gemini G.E.L. went on to produce small-scale sculptural editions (known as multiples) out of a wide array of materials for artists John Chamberlain, Mark di Suvero, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Ann Hamilton (more recently), and many others.
Printing in the Third Dimension
To make Profile Airflow, Oldenburg created a lithograph and placed a layer of molded swimming-pool-blue polyurethane over the top. He spent more than a year refining the wooden relief used to create the polyurethane mold. Oldenburg wanted to create something that had an organic feel and was concerned that the artwork would look too cold and impersonal given all of the mechanical elements involved in its making. The malleable nature of the polyurethane was instrumental in giving Profile Airflow the fleshy quality that Oldenburg was looking for. After the first editions of Profile Airflow were sold, the material was found to discolor rapidly. Similar to some products of the automobile industry, early editions were recalled and replaced with new versions in a perfected medium. Undeterred, Oldenburg went on to create many sculptural multiples out of equally intriguing materials. His work sent printmaking rolling into the future.
Gemini gave you the feeling that they could do anything. . . And Los Angeles was a sort of paradise of technology: you had the feeling that all you had to do was look something up in the yellow pages, drive for three hours, and there would be some guy who would make whatever you wanted.
Consumer Goods and the Human Experience
Like many artists in the 1960s, Oldenburg was fascinated by Americans’ relationships with mass-marketed and mass-produced consumer goods. His own representations of objects from popular culture often have organic textures and appear to concede to the pull of gravity. His depictions of machine-made objects are reminiscent of the human body. The combination of natural and machine-made attributes seems to question how the world of gleaming, manufactured consumer goods fits into the human experience.
Printing workshops became breeding grounds of innovation, and artists flocked to shops willing to advance their visions. Like Oldenburg, many artists found the support and tools that they needed at manufacturers, contract shops, and publishing workshops. Artists Lee Bontecou, Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Marisol, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, and many others traveled near and far to work with master printers. The artworks created through these early collaborations now hang on the walls of major museums around the world.
A handful of creative people is all that is needed for a renaissance in art to take place.
In the 1960s (as today) men in art occupations received far greater compensation and recognition than their female counterparts in the same fields. For this reason it is particularly notable that three of the four most innovative printing workshops developed in the 1960s— Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), Tamarind Lithography Workshop, Crown Point Press, and Gemini G.E.L.—were founded by women.
The beginnings of Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) are remarkably fortuitous. Tatyana Grosman, its founder, was born in Russia to Jewish parents and spent the first half of her life fleeing war. Evading the Nazis, she crossed the Pyrenees on foot, ultimately making her way to New York. She happened to uncover two Bavarian lithographic stones in the front yard of her New York home. Grosman followed her curiosity about them to learn the trade, eventually opening one of the most successful fine art printing workshops on the East Coast.
Tamarind Lithography Workshop
June Wayne opened Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles in 1960. Wayne had studied lithography in Europe and, upon her return, was dismayed at the dearth of American ateliers and master printers. Fearful that lithographic printmaking would cease to exist in the United States for lack of trained practitioners, she opened a workshop with support from the Ford Foundation. By 1966, largely due to dissemination of Wayne’s protégés to other presses, Southern California was an important domestic center of printmaking.
Crown Point Press
To Kathan Brown, founder of Crown Point Press, printmaking seems to have been a calling rather than a trade. Her story begins in a back garden of Edinburgh, Scotland, where she discovered an abandoned press. Forgoing a quick plane ride home, Brown opted to return with the press in a cargo ship. She traveled for two and a half months through the Panama Canal to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she established Crown Point Press, specializing in intaglio printmaking.
It’s Not “Collaboration”:
Three Questions for Kathan Brown
What got you started in printmaking and how did you begin inviting artists to work with you? How do you choose?
Most of the things I do, or have done, fit into a maxim of my mother's: “Put one foot in front of the other.” In art school in London I discovered the old, slow process of etching, and then traveled to San Francisco on a freighter with an antique etching press. I had it, so I used it; in 1962, I started Crown Point Press. (The antique press itself is still here.) A friend brought Richard Diebenkorn to Crown Point in 1963, and Wayne Thiebaud, who showed his paintings in the gallery where I showed mine, did his first project with me in 1964. Your question, how do we choose artists, is the top question I receive, and I have never formulated a clear answer.
You dislike the term “collaboration” in relation to printmaking. Why?
The word “collaboration” implies that the contribution from each collaborator is equal. At Crown Point, artists draw on copper plates and printers use their skills to process and print the plates. The skills are important, and printers should be credited. But the finished art is, without qualification, the artist's creative work.
What is a favorite memory working with artists in your workshop?
So many memories to choose from! My book, Know that You Are Lucky, is full of them. Here's a good one:I moved Crown Point from my home basement in Berkeley to an Oakland loft in 1972. In it was an abandoned wooden chair, repaired many times with wire and string. Diebenkorn, who had worked with me in the 1960s and then moved to Los Angeles, was the first artist I invited when I restarted my publishing program in 1977.When he arrived in my studio, he said, immediately, “That's my chair!” I looked at the paint-splattered seat and diagonal wires bracing the legs. “Of course,” I said. “It’s your chair.”
In Search of Technique
Richard Estes pushed the technical limits of printmaking in order to capture the formal qualities of urban topography. This screenprint, part of the Urban Landscapes portfolio, is Estes’s first printmaking project and is almost photographic in its truth to reality. The reflective surfaces seem to expand and contort space, revealing glimpses of the world outside of the picture plane. Unable to find technicians precise enough to create such effects in the United States, Estes traveled to the only workshop that could, Edition Domberger near Stuttgart, Germany.
The subject of this print, the city, is also reflected in the artistic process itself. The screenprint medium, associated with commercial advertising and photomechanical reproduction, suggests the urban environment as a place of technological progress, commerce, and consumer culture. Estes did not depict the city as he saw it. He constructed his own vision based on photographs but with altered colors, shapes, and forms.
The medium of printmaking naturally lends itself to the idea of the series. From one metal plate, lithographic stone, or screen it is possible to create multiple iterations of the same artwork. The proliferation of printmaking in America emerged in an era that celebrated egalitarian idealism; the printing process seemed to propose the opportunity of art for all. At the same time, the art world began embracing Minimalism, a form of art that often features repetitive compositions that take time to view. Time is a factor in viewing a series, and each print affects and is affected by the meaning of the whole group. The print, particularly the series, was relevant in more ways than one.
Wayne Thiebaud was drawn to printmaking due to its repetitive nature. He could print, make changes to a composition, reprint, and then repeat the process. In painting, he determined the impact of each artistic decision. Could he inspire nostalgia, for instance, by manipulating sheen, texture, or hue in a painting? Printmaking offered an opportunity to experiment further with his choices. Could he also inspire nostalgia in black and white? With thin lines? Thiebaud’s first printed series, Delights, seems to be a rumination on these very questions.
When you change anything, you change everything.
Lunch with Kathan Brown
Thiebaud created Lunch while having lunch with Kathan Brown during his first working session at Crown Point Press. On his first day in the studio, he began drawing from a photograph of one of his earlier paintings: a slice of pie. Brown went upstairs to fix lunch. When she returned she said “Printmaking should be original. What’s the point of copying yourself, of redoing something that’s already been done?” Thiebaud picked up a new etching plate and began drawing the lunch that Brown had just delivered. Once he had finished and they had begun to eat the sandwiches, Thiebaud explain his process and the importance of repeating the same subject in different media. It was the first of many Thiebaud-Brown projects.
Different Takes on the Series
When it comes to printmaking, the series is ubiquitous. Like Wayne Thiebaud, many artists utilized printmaking’s repetitive process to ruminate upon and refine their subject matter. The artists mentioned below all created series that explore a single theme. These examples highlight the stylistic variety of prints made at this time.
Motherwell created a famous group of paintings known as the Open Series that are typically characterized by a single-color surface and a few charcoal lines. The artist is said to have been inspired by the color fields he saw forming when one painted canvas was propped against another. In the printed series shown here, Motherwell used the same lithographic stone to create color fields in three distinct prints with similar compositions.
Lichtenstein’s Cathedral series is an homage to Claude Monet’s series of paintings showing the Rouen Cathedral under different conditions. Like Monet, Lichtenstein has created variation throughout the series by manipulating color and tone. But instead of painterly brushstrokes and dabs of paint, Lichtenstein used the modern, mass-market printing vocabulary of Benday dots, a commercial technique for creating color and form out of closely spaced, widely spaced, or overlapping uniform dots.
Innovation expands possibilities and, by definition, describes “firsts.” Artists and publishers inspired one another to push technical boundaries and take risks in the print renaissance of the 1960s. Robert Rauschenberg is one of the most recognized risk-takers in art during this period. His technically audacious experiments advanced printmaking processes.
When Rauschenberg created the print Booster, it was the largest handmade print to date. Six feet high, Booster redefined what was possible in printmaking in terms of scale, and the complexity of materials used. The process involved two lithography stones, screenprinting, x-ray films, photographs, offset rubbings, and direct drawings.
A booster is an engine that provides the added thrust needed for a rocket to escape the gravitational pull of the earth. In this print, you can see two jet engines hovering to the right of the skeleton’s hip, as well as a star chart specific to the year the print was made, 1967. Rauschenberg found inspiration in the innovations that launched humanity into space, and Booster is one of many artworks related to this topic.
Capturing a Zeitgeist
The televised launch of Apollo 11 on its mission to the moon had nearly all Americans glued to their television sets in 1969. NASA invited Rauschenberg to observe the launch as part of an art program celebrating the achievements of the American space project. After witnessing the event, Rauschenberg returned to Gemini G.E.L. and created lithographs inspired by the mission and the culture that it represented—one of innovation and radical social change.
...Then bodily transcending a state of energy, Apollo 11 was airborne. Lifting, pulling everyone’s spirits with it.
First Impressions: Prints from the Anderson Collection will be on view at the de Young from June 2, 2018–December 8, 2018. For many visitors, encounters with these prints will be their first. Some of these prints have never before been exhibited by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Some of the artists may be previously unknown to individual viewers. Seeing a work of art or discovering an artist for the first time proffers endless opportunity to see, think, feel, or wonder something new.
At First Sight
First Impressions is the de Young exhibition debut of Christopher Wool’s Untitled of 2014. In this print, Wool has combined and layered multiple printing processes, including roulette. In roulette, a tool with a spiked wheel creates lines of evenly spaced dots when dragged across a metal printing plate. Wool’s work is largely about art making-processes themselves. This print represents the transformation that took place throughout the layered artistic process of its creation.
The Collector’s First
When Mary Margaret “Moo” and Harry “Hunk” Anderson first saw Richard Diebenkorn’s 41 Etchings Drypoints in 1969, they were so moved by the portfolio of works that it inspired in them a lifelong commitment to collecting contemporary American prints. This print collection is made up of artworks donated to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco by the Anderson family. As young collectors, the Andersons held “the best” as a criterion for buying art. Before making a purchase, they required “no” answers to the questions: Have I seen it before? Could I have thought of it? This print portfolio was the first acquisition in a collection that grew into an exceptional and extensive survey of the American printmaking renaissance. The Museums offer the exhibition of these prints in tribute and gratitude to Hunk Anderson, who died in February 2018.
I remember bringing it back with me on the plane [from New York City] and telling Hunk that I’d found a really great thing.