1970s: Suites and Portfolios from the Hallmark Collection Essay

03/09/2001 - 04/15/2001

Download PDF

The 1970s: Suites and Portfolios from the Hallmark Collection
Melissa Rountree

“The momentous triumph of American Abstract Expressionism after 1945 had shifted the art world’s center of gravity from Paris to New York.  While this transformed the world of painting, it had little immediate effect on the world of prints, which occupied a somewhat segregated niche…Though there had been great American prints from Winslow Homer to Edward Hopper, these were either not well-known or viewed as part of the regionalist, anecdotal canon that young painters were trying to escape.  Finally the infrastructure necessary to broader print activity was missing in America: there were few print galleries, collectors, or printers who had any interest in the most up-to-date art.” [1]

With this statement, Susan Tallman succinctly describes the status of printmaking in this country before 1960. In truth, the prevailing style of Abstract Expressionism did not lend itself to the technical precision and the collaboration necessary to make prints.  It was instead, a spontaneous, automatic style of painting which was best carried out within the solitary space of the studio.  Most of the recognized American painters of the 1940s and 1950s did not view printmaking as a viable medium for their work.  For example, it was Larry Rivers’ opinion that printmaking was “the dull occupation of pipe-smoking corduroy deep-type artisans.” [2] Even Robert Rauschenberg, who later became a prolific printmaker, was initially dismissive of the medium saying, “the second half of the twentieth century was no time to start writing on rocks.” [3]

During the decade of the 1960s, however, the United States experienced a printmaking boom.  One of the major milestones in this development was the establishment of Universal Limited Art Editions in West Islip, New York by Tatanya Grossman in 1957.  Grossman’s original intention was to reproduce existing works of art in screenprint.  Several curators encouraged her, instead, to collaborate with artists to create original prints. Acting on their advice, Grossman was able to persuade several generations of American artists to make prints.  Among them were a number of second-generation Abstract Expressionists including Grace Hartigan and Helen Frankenthaler.  Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg also spent time at ULAE in the ‘60s where they found themselves seduced by the possibilities of the medium; printmaking began to inform their entire oeuvre.

A second major development in the history of contemporary printmaking occurred on the West Coast in 1960 when June Wayne founded the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles.  Established as an educational institution, its program was designed to teach lithography to a new generation of printers.  “Artist-fellows” were invited to Tamarind to make lithographs in collaboration with the student printers.  By the middle of the decade, Tamarind-trained master printers were beginning to establish their own printmaking workshops across the United States.

It was also during the 1960s that the primacy of Abstract Expressionism was challenged.  Johns and Rauschenberg reintroduced representation into painting. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein began to incorporate images from popular culture into their work.  Frank Stella and Brice Marden sought to reduce painting to its essential elements, while Sol Lewitt asserted that the process of making art was as important as the final product.  Trudy Hansen describes this period:

The 1960s saw the print, which could reflect and interpret a multitude of images, as a perfect vehicle to explore ideas and technologies, and to bring art to new and expanding audiences….As young people embraced Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that the ‘medium’ is the message, the medium became posters, album covers, television, magazines, and commercial advertising.  Given the barrage of images, artists had to look no further than the moment to absorb, react to, and interpret events around them. [4]

In this climate, printmaking studios were established on both coasts and artists began to produce a steady stream of prints.  It was a period of intense experimentation and learning as artists worked in different mediums and learned to collaborate with master printers.  At the same time, printers sought to adapt the materials and technology to better meet the needs of artists.  The availability of large-scale, color prints also fostered the development of a new type of collector who did not make distinctions among media and who was excited by contemporary art.

By the time “The Prevalence of Ritual” portfolio was published in 1974, Romare Bearden was an established artist.  His work had been featured in a major retrospective exhibition with the same title at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1971.  The portfolio, his first and perhaps his most ambitious in terms of scale, is closely related to a series of paintings begun in 1964 in which Bearden had begun to fully manipulate the collage medium.  The textural quality of the original works is translated into the language of printmaking in these screenprints.

Helen Frankenthaler was already a seasoned printmaker when she completed her first portfolio, Four Pochoirs, in 1970.  She had worked extensively at ULAE during the 1960s and had completed numerous lithographs and two etchings.  She had also experimented with screenprinting but had been dissatisfied by the results.  After seeing a book by Sonia Delanay, Frankenthaler decided that she wanted to try pochoir (from the French word for stencil).  In pochoir, color is applied through a stencil by means of sponges or dabbers.  Frankenthaler virtually transformed the technique into a direct painting method, applying acrylic paint with large sponges through a plastic stencil that defined broadly worked shapes.

The ten mixed media prints included in Cy Twombly’s Natural History Part I, Mushrooms, are formally and conceptually complex.  In these works, the artist combines gestural abstraction with a grid motif and actual collage elements with simulated ones.  The gestural elements suggest the influence of abstract expressionism while his use of the grid and photographic elements identify him with his contemporaries, Johns and Rauschenberg.  Twombly’s addition of taped, collage elements broadened the definition of what printmaking could be.

Although Roy Lichtenstein is best known for his use of comic book images, the history of art was also an important source of subject matter for him throughout his career.  He frequently appropriated images and recreated them using his signature Benday dots and exaggerated brushstrokes.  In the Bull Head Series, Lichtenstein looks to Pablo Picasso’s Le Tareau (1945), a series of lithographs in which Picasso progressively reduces the figure of a bull from a detailed representation to a few simple lines. In Lichtenstein’s version, the shift from realism to abstraction has been streamlined to three quick steps.

Frank Stella first exhibited his stripe paintings in 1960.  These works established him as a pioneering minimalist and also provided the designs for his first lithographs.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Stella’s early prints were made in series.  His first encounter with printmaking was in 1967 when he was invited to Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited) in Los Angeles.  While at the workshop, as historian Richard Axsom has noted, Stella made a series of smaller-scaled lithographic drawings that recapitulated nine of his earlier Black Paintings (1958–1960).  It was intended that these lithographs, the Black Series I (1967) would be assembled in an album that would offer an intimate record of the early work.  The Copper Series, completed in 1970, was part of the “album” project.  The prints are based on the Copper Series paintings of 1960-61.  Titles of individual works refer to towns near the San Juan Mountains in Colorado which had active copper and silver mines at the turn of the century, but whose reserves have since been depleted.

Although Brice Marden had made a number of screenprints and experimented with etching, it wasn’t until he went to Crown Point Press in Oakland in 1971 that he became seriously involved with printmaking.  Working with master printer Kathan Brown, Marden began to understand the possibilities of the intaglio medium.  He had not arrived with any preconceived idea about what he would make during his visit.  By the end of his stay, Marden had produced Ten Days, named for the period of time that he spent working at Crown Point Press.  This portfolio summarized the themes and configurations of his work to date.  It contains the triptych, the diptych, the monochrome and the grid.  It was the first portfolio of prints that Marden had ever made and it set the pattern for his future publications.

The following year, Marden was invited to make lithographs at Robert Rauschenberg’s press on Captiva Island, just off the coast of Florida.  Here, he produced the Untitled Press Series.  Working in a different medium and a different venue, Marden produced a series that is similar in composition to Ten Days. However, the Untitled Press Series has a much looser, more gestural feeling.  Marden has suggested that he was influenced not only by the lushness of the island but also by the fluidity of the lithographic medium.

According to Sol LeWitt, “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.  The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” [5]  In a sense, Lines in Color on Color to Points on a Grid is a visual manifestation of Lewitt’s philosophy.  This series is based on Lewitt’s wall drawings of the same period which were usually temporary.  His prints, however, were permanent and served as records of his more transitory museum installations.

The suite of “Wish” prints by Pat Steir from 1974 were among her first editioned works.  Like many of her paintings of the same period, these pieces explore what she describes as the fundamental components of art—form, illusion, and myth.  “Form includes the basic elements of art—line, color, shape: illusions are the images constructed with these elements; myth refers to the infinite associations and meanings we attach to the image…The grey scales, “rainbows,” and drawn marks set forth the formal vocabulary, then combine to make flowers…Flowers, in turn, evoke memories, wishes, dreams, desires—the mythic associations that we construe as meaning.” [6]

Richard Field has called Graceland Mansions by Jennifer Bartlett “a refreshing mixture of the emotional and the material.” He suggests that “it pulled from the sixties its lack of emotion and its rootedness in a few simple ideas that found form in richly materialized processes.”  The number five informs every aspect of the print.  There are five panels printed in five colors with five different techniques.  The panels depict five times of the day and the house is seen from five vantagepoints.
By 1970, the essential elements for the “print renaissance” in this country were in place.  Artists had come to respect the printmaking medium and to realize that it was capable of a wide range of expression.  Print workshops and publishing concerns were opening throughout the United States and attracting the attention of art dealers and an enthusiastic group of new collectors.  Printmaking thrived in a climate in which artists and collaborators worked together to redefine what an original print is.

[1] Susan Tallman, The Contemporary Print from Pre-Pop to Postmodern, New York, 1996, p. 15.
[2] Larry Rivers, “Life Among the Stones,” Location I (Spring 1963), p. 93, quoted in Elizabeth Armstrong, First Impressions, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1989, p. 11.
[3] Rauschenberg in Edward A. Foster, Robert Rauschenberg: Prints 1948/70, Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, 1970, no page numbers quoted in Susan Tallman, The Contemporary Print from Pre-Pop to Postmodern, New York, 1996, p. 33.
[4] Trudy Hansen, “Multiple Visions: Printers, Artists, Promoters, and Patrons,” Printmaking in America: Collaborative Prints and Presses, New York, 1995, p. 37.
[5] Museum of Modern Art, Sol LeWitt, New York, 1978, p. 166.
[6] Elizabeth Broun, Form, Illusion, and Myth: Prints and Drawings of Pat Steir, Lawrence, Kansas, 1983, p. 9.