Published in Print Quarterly, June 2012.
Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California, Leah Lehmbeck, exhibition catalogue, Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum, 1 October 2011-2 April 2012, Los Angeles, Getty Publications and Norton Simon Museum, 2011, 260 pp., 200 col. ills., $60.
Advanced copies of the catalogue for the Norton Simon Museum’s exhibition ‘Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California’ had just returned from the printers when June Wayne, who helped pioneer the fine-art printmaking revival in America, died in late August 2011 at the age of 93. The catalogue and exhibition nevertheless stand as an homage to Wayne and the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, which she founded in Los Angeles in 1960 to train master printers and expose artists to an all-but-lost art (figs. 202-03). Both catalogue and show make clear that the period of unprecedented productivity and innovation in printmaking that ensued in Los Angeles required more than the ‘handful of creative people’ Wayne had predicted would be necessary to invigorate the print media. This was recorded in her successful Ford Foundation Grant application that enabled the founding of the workshop.
Beginning in the 1950s and even somewhat before, a complex and often interlocking network of forward-looking curators, educators, artists, printers, collectors and dealers based in the fundamentally conservative Los Angeles art world established a receptive and supportive environment within which experimental printmaking could flourish. Among those who helped set the stage were three key people: Lynton Kistler, who ran the only fine-art lithography workshop west of the Hudson and provided Wayne and countless others with their initial exposure to lithography; Sam Francis, who made his first lithographs at Tatyana Grossman’s United Limited Art Editions (ULAE), established in West Islip, New York, three years before the founding of Tamarind, and who brought his enthusiasm for printmaking home with him to Southern California; and Ebria Feinblatt, long-time curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), who mounted dozens of print exhibitions from 1947 lo 1985.
The existence of a local network hospitable to the graphic arts enabled master printers trained at Tamarind to quickly spin off and establish workshops of their own. The most significant with regard to the impact on the Los Angeles art scene were Ken Tyler, who established Gemini Ltd. in 1965 (it became Gemini G.E.L. a year later when Tyler was joined by business partners Stanley Grinstein and Sidney Felsen; fig. 204), and Jean Milant, who founded Cirrus Editions Limited in 1970, the year Tamarind left Los Angeles to become the Tamarind Institute at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. During the 1960s, both Tamarind and Gemini invited important East Coast artists to collaborate with them in the making of prints, drawing attention to lithography and resulting in an east-west interchange of creative ideas. It was, however, Tyler’s technical wizardry and openness to working in all print media, including lithography, silkscreen and etching, as well as artist’s multiples, first with visiting artists and then with major Los Angeles-based figures, that inaugurated a period of profound, even revolutionary change in printmaking. By the early 1970s, due largely to a focus on local artists on the part of Milant at Cirrus, a new generation of Los Angeles artists for whom exploring creative possibilities within printmaking was integral to their artistic practice began to emerge on the international art scene. Thus printmaking played a significant role in the transformation of Los Angeles from an artistic and cultural backwater to a major American art centre.
The exhibition ‘Proof, which was curated by Leah Lehmbeck of the Norton Simon Museum, was organized in conjunction with ‘Pacific Standard Time’, an unprecedented collaboration between Southern California cultural institutions initiated by the Getty Research Institute. For a six-month period, from October 2011 through April 2012, more than sixty museums, galleries and alternative spaces throughout the region mounted shows focussed on art produced in Southern California between 1950 and 1980. Exhibitions were devoted to work produced in virtually every medium – painting, sculpture, photography, ceramics, design and performance. ‘Proof, the sole exhibition devoted to printed art, fulfilled its mission by asserting the catalytic role played by Los Angeles print shops in the so-called American Print Renaissance and by elucidating the impact that printmaking had on the larger Los Angeles art scene.
The exhibition included the work of 90 artists represented by 150 prints, portfolios and multiples, most of them dating from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. The vast majority belonged to the Norton Simon Museum and had been acquired during its previous incarnation as the Pasadena Art Museum (the name and artistic orientation changed in 1974). PAM, as it was once widely known, took an active role in supporting the local print community through Print Festival competitions, exhibitions and acquisitions. Major pieces from Gemini G.E.L., LACMA (home of the Cirrus Editions Archive) and the Grunwald Center for Graphic Arts at the Hammer Museum, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) supplemented the selection. All of the works are illustrated in the catalogue, some as full-page colour plates and others smaller and interspersed with documentary images, such as photographs of master printers. A reproduction of a vibrant red untitled lithograph by Louise Nevelson printed at Tamarind in 1965 graces the catalogue’s cover.
While any number of exhibition catalogues and books published since the late 1960s have celebrated the contributions made by Los Angeles print shops to the American printmaking revival, Proof‘ is among the first to consider these workshops wholly within the context of the art and culture of Southern California. It is preceded only by Los Angeles Prints 1880-1g8o, authored by Feinblatt and Bruce Davis, which covers much of the same ground and remains a standard in the field. The catalogue for a two-part exhibition at LACMA in 1980 and 1981, devoted to prints made in the years 1883-1959 and 1960-80 respectively, Los Angeles Prints features cogent discussions of the use of various printmaking techniques by Los Angeles artists. However, it focussed almost exclusively upon artists who made Los Angeles their home; consequently, the contributions and groundbreaking work of visiting East Coast artists, so vital to the story of Los Angeles’ ascendance as a major centre for printmaking, received scant attention.
Proof is more inclusive in this regard and broader in its focus, benefiting from historical perspective and the developments of the intervening 30 years. Lehmbeck’s introductory essay offers a comprehensive recounting of the history of the printmaking revival in Los Angeles beginning in the early 1950s. It is followed by five more essays and a chronology that records notable events in printmaking in Los Angeles and elsewhere, from 1887 to 1980.
David Acton, curator at the Worcester Art Museum, contributes an essay that covers much unfamiliar ground. He looks back at printmaking in Los Angeles from the 1920s through the late 1950s, offering insights into artists, printmakers and printmaking communities, some of whom, like artists Frances Gearhart and Paul Landacre, deserve to be more widely known. An essay by Jennifer Anderson, professor at Hollins University, discusses print-making as advanced by teachers at Southern California universities during the 1950s and 1960s, where intaglio printing and the peinture-gravure tradition inherited from Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17 and Mauricio Lasansky at the University of Iowa held sway. It is worth noting that both intaglio processes and the artist printmaker were superseded by Tamarind’s emphasis on collaborative lithographic printmaking. Intaglio printmaking is also the subject of Cynthia Burlingham’s essay, although she focusses on the intaglio revival that began elsewhere in the 1960s and was seen in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Burlingham, who is director of the Grunwald Center at the Hammer Museum, explains that the renewal of interest in etching, aquatint and related techniques emanated not from university workshops, but from professional print shops (among them San Francisco’s Crown Point Press, Aldo Grommelynck in Paris and ULAE in West Islip). This line of enquiry was beyond the scope of the exhibition, where only Vija Celmins’s mezzotint Strata, printed at Gemini in 1983, represented this revival.
‘What’s LA Got to Do With It?’, the essay contributed by Karin Breuer, curator at the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts in San Francisco, concentrates on the impact that the Los Angeles environment – Hollywood, Disneyland, the climate, the freeways and the freedom from the pressures of the New York art world and art history – had on visiting artists as well as on Angelenos themselves (British emigre David Hockney figures prominently in her discussion). The final contribution, written by Damon Willick, professor at Loyola Marymount University, features prints made by Los Angeles artists within the context of the artistic movements that defined the city’s art scene, from Abstract Expressionism, Assemblage and Finish Fetish to African-American identity politics and Outsider art.
Although Proof is broad in scope and ambition and makes a significant contribution to the literature, a major problem resides in the book’s editing. Not only do the essays often ramble, but the lack of coordination in overall editing leads to a maddening redundancy of information and facts. Essay after essay recounts the origins of Tamarind, Gemini G.E.L. and Cirrus. Similarly, many of the same prints (most especially Robert Rauschenberg’s Booster, 1967, and Claes Oldenburg’s Profile Airflow, 1969) are discussed in detail in several of the essays with little new information offered. With regard to Ed Ruscha, whose work is given rightful prominence, pertinent facts on individual prints are dispersed throughout the catalogue. While the book’s index is helpful, catalogue entries that consolidated important information or monographic essays on a few of the truly innovative artists might have been more so.
The story told by the catalogue, however, is a fascinating one that needs to be known. It is the story of Los Angeles, which stood on the fringes of the American art scene, cultivating a supportive environment in which innovation and experimentation in printmaking not only flourished, but became tradition. Working in tandem with master printers, both visiting and Los Angeles-based artists were able to extend the possibilities of a printed work of art and to attract attention on an international scale. Thus it is the story of a city’s transformation into a major art centre propelled, at least in part, by printmaking.