Big Prints from Rome

2RC Editions: Tradition and Innovation in Contemporary Printmaking.
Diane Kelder
Professor of Art History,
The City University of New York

FIn from its beginnings to the beginning of the XNUMXth century in Europe, printing has manifested itself as an international phenomenon. The generally portable size of the prints and their multiple character made them ideal vehicles for the export of art and culture. While utilitarian concerns significantly influenced the character of prints in their ancient history, their particular relationship to technology and their method of production based on the separation of distinct and sequential works had a major impact on how artists and others have seen them. In the XNUMXth century, the reproductive capabilities of technically sophisticated engravings produced in large Italian workshops spread the achievements of masters such as Raphael or Michelangelo throughout Europe creating a profitable market and also providing valuable visual information that would serve the education of generations of artists. However, despite its commercial success or cultural significance, reproductive etching ultimately contributed to a negative understanding of the creative potential of print as it linked a craftsman's extraordinary manual or technical skill with an already existing masterpiece in another medium. . Without cataloging the subsequent evolution of the original print or elaborating the exceptional contributions of painters whose engagement with the technique radically influenced its formal and expressive character, a brief consideration of the historical struggle of the print to achieve its aesthetic identity and the roles covered by artists and printers seems appropriate.

There is a crucial distinction between engraving and painting or drawing: in the latter two the artist's touch or sign is direct and its result, more or less immediate, while the processes necessary to create the printed image take it away from the result, which it is also generally reversed. From the moment the corrector or acid solution for the aquatint is applied to the stone or slab, the resulting image is conditioned by a series of decisions involving tools, inks and papers, but, by far the most important distinction is that the realization of the image usually requires the participation of a specialized printer. Although his involvement may vary depending on the artist's ability to assimilate the techniques, it is clear that the making of prints is a collaborative activity that challenges the conception of total artistic control.

Since the mid-nineteenth century the most important contributions to printmaking as an independent art form have been made by "outsiders", or the most part painters with little or no technical preparation whose inexperience, paradoxically, may have prompted them to ignore conventional procedure in an effort to find expressive means that were compatible with their general artistic goals. While these artists were occasionally inspired by the examples of innovative predecessors (as witness the impact of Goya's etchings and aquatints on Delacroix, Manet, and Degas), they still relied heavily on the advice and manual assistance of printers.

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The founding of the Société des Aqua / artistes in 1862 by the publisher Alfred Cadart represented an attempt to involve some of Paris' most progressive painters in a medium that, with rare exceptions, had become increasingly illustrative, reproductive or specialized. The participation of Whistler, Daubigny and Manet, among others, was facilitated by the experience of the painter and printer Félix Bracquemond and the printer Auguste Delatre. Although the aesthetic significance of this undertaking was recognized by Charles Baudelaire ("l'Eau-forte est a la mode", Revue Anecdotique, April 2, 1862), he hailed it mainly as a restoration of the primacy of the artist's hand in the face of invasions of the mechanical arts, especially photography.

If Cadart's publishing venture failed fully in its goal of making etching a more viable creative medium for painters, it inspired some to conduct prolonged investigations. From sporadic attempts prior to his contact with Cadart, Manet's engraving business intensified over the decade. The lack of serious training imbued his early efforts with an awkwardness unusual in traditional etching, but also caused him to work on the plate with an expressive freshness. While Manet's controversial canvases provided the starting point. for most of his early prints these were not reproductions at all. Instead, the repeated number of states suggests the artist's awareness that it was possible to explore the formal properties of a painted image through new constructive processes.

During the last quarter of the century the creative role of the craftsman took on new meaning thanks to a new emphasis on the physical properties of print. In the 70s, the promotion of la belle épreuve by the critic and connoisseur of prints Philippe Burty approved the technical finishing of the prints that would have valued them as an elite commodity in the art market of the period. Delâtre's extraordinary skills have been used to serve this new transformation of printing. His introduction of special inking techniques that manifestly determine the appearance of the engravings he printed caused concern in some circles about the artist's undue dependence on his skill and the subordination of the image to the printer's technique. Two decades later, the artistic dependence on the technical know-how of printers entered another phase when the pioneers of color lithography such as Auguste Clot provided the processes that enabled Bonnard and Vuillard to greatly expand the decorative and chromatic parameters of the prints.

In the first half of the 60th century, printing was dominated by the giants of modern art. With few exceptions, the rise of the avant-garde in Paris was not initially conducive to any increase in the aesthetic importance of prints, but Fernand Mourlot's campaign to persuade artists to work in lithography proved particularly fruitful in the years following the Second War. world. In the XNUMXs, the Mourlot atelier was probably the largest in the world and its organization reflected the traditional work hierarchies that characterized the European apprenticeship system. Picasso's work broke the rigid discipline and respect for conventional procedures that prevailed. Remembering, Mourlot observed "Picasso did everything wrong". * He introduced materials and methods that seemed doomed to fail but always worked, and in the process pushed skilled artisans beyond convention to find new solutions that would meet his artistic needs.

Although lithography was probably the most popular medium among European painters and the one that developed an international market during the postwar years, opportunities in etching were not lacking. Picasso had worked with Roger Lacourière in the 30s learning the sugar-etching technique which he continued to exploit in the 50s, and the ateliers of Lacourière, Patin and Crommelynck were also frequented by younger abstract painters such as Hartung and Soulages.

In contrast to the situation in Europe during this period, the American press suffered from a lack of real involvement from leading artists. By the turn of the century, painters John Sloan, John Marin, Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper had produced exceptional etchings and lithographs, and during the economic depression of the 30s, government sponsored workshops created new opportunities for artists to take advantage of the graphic techniques. The outbreak of war and the subsequent immigration of distinguished European artists had a significant impact on the development of American painting, but little effect on print. The move of Atelier 17 from Paris to New York in 1940 by its founder SW Hayter provided sophisticated facilities and a dynamic teacher dedicated to experimenting with color carving. A brilliant technician, Hayter was convinced that artists should act as their own printers as he believed that each process determined the final aesthetic statement. Some younger painters, including Motherwell, Pollock and Nevelson, took advantage of Atelier 17's opportunities with varying results. However, most American painters diligently avoided carving, viewing it as an essentially academic and constricting undertaking. Indeed, it seemed to flourish primarily in the art departments of colleges and universities where Hayter-influenced printers taught the complex techniques and perpetuated the expressionist style associated with his workshop.

In the 50s, the energy and ambition of American painting and sculpture was internationally recognized, but the physical and emotional scale of abstract expressionism or the vast dimensions of color field painting appeared incompatible with relatively large dimensions. discrete and circumscribed techniques of contemporary prints.

The near simultaneous founding of Universal Limited Art Editions and the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in the late 50s, and the subsequent establishment of Gemini GEL, marked the initial phase of an unprecedented initiative that would virtually revolutionize the American press. The rise of Pop and Op art in the 60s was facilitated by a contemporary development of technology at the service of artists and a cultural climate that gave mechanically produced objects a new aesthetic significance. In this period of "Americanization and modernization" of print, the services of industrial designers and engineers were enlisted in an effort to attract artists whose work was becoming increasingly public in scale and direction. American painting and sculpture's obsession with monumental scale was satisfied by the design and manufacture of large presses, felts and rollers, and by the development of papers and other materials capable of supporting large images.

The radical size and expanded technology of American prints distinct from their European counterparts reflected the ambition of some printers and publishers to make them as important as paintings. Implicit in this programmatic transformation was the increasingly active role assumed by technical consultants. Ironically, the popular success of these prints has prompted some critics and print specialists to raise doubts that an overemphasis on industrial processes and materials was not compromising some of the qualities traditionally associated with prints.

Since its foundation in Rome about twenty-five years ago, 2RC Editions has been committed to discovering ways to preserve the autonomous physical and aesthetic properties of prints while responding to the diverse creative needs of the artists who make them. Over forty painters and sculptors from Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, England and the United States have worked on 2RC attesting to its deeply European roots and its marked sensitivity to the diversity of artistic language in a manifestly more international artistic world.

In the early 60s, few non-Italian artists would have considered working in a Rome-based printing studio, despite the long indigenous history of printing and the availability of high-quality papers and materials. However, in the relatively few years, a steady group of foreign visitors increased the substantial core of native artists who were taking advantage of the different media offered by 2RC. In the 70s, as more and more painters were discovering etching and aquatint, the heart and soul of his graphic arsenal, the workshop's superb structures and impressive editions began to gain international respect from artists and critics.

While the decision to dedicate one's life to the perfection of one's medium is a natural ingredient of artistic ambition, the same dedication to the perfect realization of the work of others is the sign of the virtuoso. At 2RC, two virtuosos, Valter and Eleonora Rossi, direct a staff of fourteen printers. Their personal and professional collaboration began thirty years ago as students of the Academy of Fine Arts. Valter Rossi's love for prints may have been nurtured by his background ever since he was born into a family of Milanese typographers. The desire for independence and the prospect of working with some important artists residing in Rome prompted the Reds to settle there in 1959. A few years later, with Eleonora's cousin, Franco Cioppi, they founded a small workshop that served as the testing ground for their initial program of involving the best artists available in making prints. Convinced that prints were autonomous statements, not poor in the relationship between painting and sculpture, they were determined to create a supportive environment that would allow these artists to work naturally and freely as they have done with other media.

Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri were central players in the development of Italian avant-garde art in the two decades following the end of the Second World War. Each was noted for the provocative nature of their approach to the materials and mediums of painting, and their decision to work with young and essentially unknown Rossi presented the workshop with the first of a series of artistic challenges that would require innovative solutions to print. etching and aquatint which are the hallmarks of their modus operandi. Fontana's perforated and torn canvases and paper works were the expression of a wide experimentation of new spatial concepts. They provided the impetus for a series of six relief etchings depicting the breach of support. To achieve the desired effect, a zinc plate was deeply bitten; the pressure of the press against the plate created cracks and irregular holes in the paper that contrasted with the thin line in relief produced by the more finely engraved areas. Printed in black or white, the prints force the viewer to contemplate the highly articulated surface in a way analogous to Fontana's painting, while retaining the inherent tactility of the etching. The marked quality of these prints, imparted by an exasperation of the technique, was unlike anything done in other European or American ateliers.

A surprisingly structured surface is present in numerous etchings and aquatints made by Burri at 2RC between 1962 and 1973. In the 50s, the artist's use of rough canvas, tar, burnt plastic or wood and other materials pictorials reported a concern with metamorphosis and decay. This has had far-reaching repercussions for the work of artists in Europe and America. A small book of poems by Emilio Villa, containing three prints with two collages in gold leaf, was the first of a large number of artist livres published by 2RC. It contained an etching and aquatint whose heavily cracked monochromatic surface conveys a relief-like presence that transcends its minuscule scale. The techniques used in printing this page were subsequently perfected and the size of the plate significantly increased for the Cretti series (1973), masterful examples of the union of process and content in engraving. Using a spatula, the artist applied an unconventional mixture of glue and plaster to the matrix which, when heated, produced a cracked and very variegated surface that was treated with waterproof paint. Working with the negative cast, unusually thick cast bronze plates were deeply bitten over a period of ten days. Two sheets of Fabriano Rosaspina paper were joined to provide strong enough support for the embossed impression. Though they closely resembled his paintings, Burri's austerely colored but highly tactile prints also constituted an inspired meditation on the medium's ability to generate images through process and time.

The very nature of carving (cut: to cut) may partly explain its popularity with sculptors who adopted it to explore a more pronounced dimensionality than that found in prints prior to the 70s. Relief engraving was the preferred technique in numerous prints made by Gio and Arnaldo Pomodoro. The Bandiere (1965) essentially monochromatic of the first and the Cronaca (1977) intensely rust or verdigris (1977) of the second strangely convey the formal and physical properties of their sculptural antecedents precisely because a similar working method that allowed the introduction of special synthetic molds have been incorporated into the plate preparations. The versatility of relief engraving was further demonstrated in the prints of longtime Italy resident Beverly Pepper who was the first American artist to work at 2RC. Pepper cut out the shapes from a steel plate and welded them together. The deep engraving underlined the sculptural process and the skilful blend of colored inks - black, oxidized sienna, orange and white - created a hue that enhanced the tactility of the plate's surface. In later prints, Pepper gave up on embossing but pursued the tactility he had initially proposed by working directly on Carten the same material he used for his large sculptures. Here, color took on fundamental importance as it allowed the replication of the corrosive physical and aesthetic properties of this sculptural material.

While the more apparent properties of aquatint may have been subordinated to etching when combined in some of the prints already discussed, they are manifestly present in a small group of prints made by Giulio Turcato in 1964. A remarkable range of tonal effects from transparency to Opacity emanates from these extremely painterly prints which Rossi still considers among the best examples of their work. In the following decade, the enrichment of the chromatic language of aquatint was favored by Rossi's development of enormous multi-speed presses and the construction of a gigantic bolte au grain. It was during this period that the number of foreign visitors increased significantly. The different responses to the expanded potential of aquatint reflected in the prints of Victor Pasmore and Pierre Alechinsky deserve special discussion.

Pasmore's long pictorial career was marked by periodic re-evaluations of figuration and abstraction which were manifestations of his intense receptivity to his physical environment and also of his fundamental concern to establish relationships between the world of organic forms and that of symbols. His prints have become true research vehicles as he often used the problems or images of paintings as a starting point for new investigations into their ability to grow organically from the material at hand. Since he started working at 2RC in 1970, the scale of his prints and the sensuality of their coloring has steadily increased. Buying a house in Malta, where he lives and works for long periods, made him particularly sensitive to the evocation of light and the sea. The impact of his engraving experience may also have contributed to a new sense of order and clarity in the surfaces of his paintings. Indeed, the serene and balanced lyricism of Burning Water (1982), a technical and aesthetic tour de force for artist and printer that required the subtle unification of two copper plates, inspired a request admired by a British museum director. for a painting like print.

While Pasmore's exploitation of delicate or dark shades of tone through aquatint may be associated with a more general tendency of painters to maximize his ability to produce a wide range of color effects, the calligraphic expressionism of Alechinsky's etchings and aquatints stubbornly resisted the blandishments of color. Alechinsky's long experience with carving, which included studies at Atelier 17 in Paris and frequent collaborations with other artists, may have instilled the belief that the strength of his emphatic black gestures could be compromised or interrupted by color and certainly by consistency. formal and expressive of the monumental A l'Aveuglette (1973) more than compensates for its absence. Since his initial work at 2RC, color had taken on a more significant, though still essentially compartmentalized, function in Alechinsky's paintings. After a ten-year absence, he began working with the Reds and a visit to Rome in 1988 resulted in sixteen prints that miraculously complement the impetuous forms etched with brilliant aquatints that convey the spontaneity of watercolor. Alechinsky recently admitted that the perfection and elegance of Rossi's aquatint troubled him and that he felt compelled to provoke or subvert it. However, implicit in this apparently contradictory vision of the roles of painter and printer is the recognition of the creative privilege of each, reflected through different means but nourished and energized by the priorities of the work-in-progress.

Although a large amount of critical literature on contemporary prints appeared in the United States during the 70s, knowledge of 2RC's activities was primarily generated by the work produced by a small group of American artists who had begun attending the workshop on a irregular. Among the first was Adolph Gottlieb, a senior New York School representative whose work the Reds had admired. In 1968 they convinced him to try etching and aquatint for the first time. In the same year, Louise Nevelson produced a small black aquatint with additions of etching and drypoint and a collage of gold leaves. The experience prompted her to work again at 2RC in 1973 on a group of three aquatints whose brilliant replica of torn paper combined with shards of silver, mylar and real newspapers to create a dynamic surface that evokes both the collages that inspired the prints that the resolute frontality and mystery of his famous sculptures.

Sam Francis' enthusiasm for engraving was rare among American artists of his generation. His experiences in numerous French and American workshops encouraged him to open his own lithography studio in California, where he has lived since returning from a long stay in Paris in the 50s. Before meeting the Reds in Rome, sixteen years ago, he had never tried etching and aquatint. When it became clear that his program would not allow him to work there, Eleonora Rossi left for California with some plates, paper and a small bolte au grain. After six weeks of intense collaboration, six prints were tested on a borrowed chalcographic press. When Sam finally arrived in Rome to sign the editions, he produced another group of prints with a still exceptional range of colors and materials. Four years later, he embarked on the first of a series of works on a heroic scale and in the most spectacular colors that would ultimately make up The Five Seasons (1985). Each print uses multiple plates and involves the overlapping of interchangeable lattice matrices that act as closures for a myriad of aquatint events in predominantly green, orange and blue tones. In contrast to the more calculated formality of the Five Seasons, Francis's most recent print, done in the New York laboratory that Rossi had set up in 1979, is perhaps the boldest of his long career. Like its immediate predecessors, the main technique used is the aquatint; the etching helps to contain large splashes of water with about twenty-five colors. Sweeping black gestures and small streaks of color drypoint compete with larger areas lending an unprecedented sense of exuberance and movement to what is arguably one of the most notable balancing acts in recent printing history.

Like Francis, Helen Frankenthaler was already a printer of demonstrable results when she began working with the Reds in 1973. The painter was initially drawn to lithography because it allowed her to work with grease on stone in a way that matched her broad brushstroke. and the spilled and stained color. Although the procedural and temporal constraints of etching and aquatint did not seem particularly congenial to Frankenthaler's approach, he nevertheless began working with these techniques at ULAE in 1968 his efforts are marked by a new focus on more subtle form and color. The first prints produced in Rome have already highlighted an incredible freshness of color that was the fruit of the artist's experiments with Eleonora Rossi, as well as a more distinctive concern for the texture that reflected the implementation of the laboratory's unique version of the process of the manner sugar. Yet it wasn't until 1986 when he worked with the Reds again in their New York studio that what began as a promising collaboration fully emerged in the spatially evocative and technically complex Broome Street series. Each of the six prints required two or three plates, starting with a fine aquatint base, while colored passages were etched onto a second plate and drypoint lines were subsequently etched onto the same plate or reserved for another. Using the plate with the aquatint as a starting point and reference, Frankenthaler was able to work with considerable freedom by adding other techniques to improve the resonance of the color space. The palpable surfaces and eminently pictorial qualities of the color etchings and aquatints of Frankenthaler and Francis emphatically refute the previous perception of the medium as insufficiently in tune with the sensitivity and aesthetic goals of the action or color field painters.

If a high degree of inventiveness has characterized 2RC printing since its inception, research has always been born from specific work experience. Technique is never and is an end in itself; it must always work for the image. In a sense, the traditional image of printers serving artists still prevails, although the level of human and creative exchange is immeasurably warmer. According to Rossi, the artist is rarely informed about the options available and therefore the printer must develop an intuitive sense of how to direct him towards those materials and techniques that will best translate his original concept. What evolves is a mutually didactic and almost symbiotic experience in which the consequent bond of trust increases the prospects for further growth and exchange.

The prints by sculptors Nancy Graves and George Segal reflect several aspects of the importance of this didactic interaction. Predictably, Graves' engraving career had begun with a series of lithographs in 1972, followed by some hand-colored intaglio prints about five years later. As a resident artist at the American Academy in Rome, he met the Reds and began working on several plates in 1979. His first black and white etching was followed by color prints combining these techniques with drypoint, which, according to Rossi, allowed a further measure of spontaneity proportionate to his work in sculpture. The growing role of color in his sculptures has had ramifications for the progress of Graves' prints: a new sensibility for the structural and expressive potential of color, as well as a stronger clarity of the figure-ground relationship have been distinctive results in prints such as Neferchidea (1979-85). The opportunity to work closely with the Reds of New York enriched the collaborative dialogue and subsequent prints, The Clash of Cultures and Borborygmi (1988), show an even greater clarity of the design as well as a rich articulation of the surface that are Graves products' skill and confidence most manifest with his media.

In contrast to Graves' more gradual involvement with the press, Segal's immersion was total and unorthodox from the start. Known for his plaster sculptures of figures or groups in seemingly real environments, he was looking for a way to unite two different artistic interests, namely, the making of sculptures from human body footprints and the making of brightly colored drawings. . Segal credits Rossi with opening his eyes to the creative potential of prints for the enrichment of his art. During a visit to Rome, he suggested that the greased bodies of the workshop staff be pressed against the soft-bottomed prepared plates which led to the creation of the Blue Jeans series (1974). The resulting imprints of skin, hair, clothing were disturbing as were the unscheduled distortions resulting from body twisting and time. The etching process allowed Segal to retain some shapes while editing or revising others. Fundamental to the success of the prints was the acid color that enhanced the spatial tension between the figures and the dark background of the aquatint. Despite Segal's enthusiasm for his new medium, further collaboration with the Reds was delayed until their New York workshop was created. There, in 1987, Segal produced the Six Portraits which are his largest prints to date and also feature among his most expressive and moving works by any medium. Shortly before making the prints, Segal was once again interested in drawing, making numerous pastels but also producing a black and white drawing that Rossi saw in his studio. The artist was particularly concerned about the way light hits objects and intrigued by the implications of the light and dark "messages" of old masters like Rembrandt and Goya for his own work. Working for nine or ten hours on a plate prepared with aquatint, Segal once again used soft wax etching to reinforce the blacks of the aquatint and to obtain tonal and material effects. An incredible variety of markings - cuts, ghostly negative scratches on aquatint, dry-point lines made with scrapers, brushes, nails, pieces of wood and even nails - enliven the surface and overshadow the tension that permeates these somber images. Repeated etchings also give physicality to the black areas and, at the same time, enhance the brightness of the white paper. In addition to their notable achievement as commentaries on the means and ends of the graphic processes employed, Segal's recent prints also served to clarify and inform the direction of his new sculptures.

While the creation of a complete engraving plant in New York was a manifestation of the Reds' desire to bridge the gap that separated them from a sizable group of artists with whom they enjoyed a warm working relationship, it also signaled their recognition of the 'increase in the "internationalization" of the city at the beginning of this decade. Interestingly, the Rossi's decision to expand their professional horizons coincided with the appearance in New York of a group of young Italian painters whose personal styles were included under the transavantguardia label invented by critic Achille Bonito Oliva. The organization of almost simultaneous gallery exhibitions and a prestigious exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum have highlighted painters such as Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi whose subsequent rise to prominence was both rapid and international. Clemente's first print, Semen (1987), was immediately accepted due to his ability to assimilate the technique. Rossi considers him one of those rare artists who can view the work on the plate. By combining subtle aquatints of color with an etched flowing line, Clemente achieved a physical lightness to support his floating and disembodied image. Working with Cucchi stimulates Rossi who responds to his poetic sensitivity and spontaneity. The techniques are never programmed, but evolve with the image. Rossi argues that “Cucchi is an artist who likes to exploit everything we do, everything we have done”, and prints such as the giant Lupa triptych in Rome (1984) confirm this statement. The complexity of the techniques used, the rich contrasts of color and tones and the spectacular relief effects serve to recall and expand the innovative research begun with the prints of Fontana, Burri and Turcato, reinforcing the impression of cohesion and continuity that distinguishes a large publishing production.

As its first twenty-five years and more than eight hundred prints attest, the contributions of the 2RC Editor to the history of engraving are truly impressive. By creating conditions that free artists from the constraints of technique, the Reds have allowed them to explore their imagery with complete freedom and, in the long run, this has generated a deeper understanding on their part of the distinctive components of the medium. . By overcoming material, logistical and temporal obstacles with infectious enthusiasm and technical ingenuity, the Reds have contributed to making intaglio prints a vital and independent art form of truly international dimensions.

Andreas Freund, "Mourlot, Master Printer of lithographs",

Art News, March 1973, p.32