by Barbara Morris
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, when peaceful hippies congregated in the Haight Ashbury district to “tune in, turn on and drop out,” we may also commemorate the 55th anniversary of Crown Point Press by dropping in on the San Francisco printmaking facility's Summer Choices exhibition, an annual showcase for the many accomplished artists who’ve worked with the press over the years.
Founder Kathan Brown continues to anchor the organization with a visionary focus. Voyaging to London in the 1950s to study etching, and continuing her stay in Europe, it was while vacationing in Scotland that she discovered what would become her first press, lying in a heap in a back room of a boardinghouse where art students hid it to prevent it from being melted down during the war. Trading her plane ticket for passage on a freighter, Brown brought the Star Wheel etching press home to Berkeley. With that, an old typewriter and little else, she launched what in 1962 would become Crown Point Press.
In 1965 she began working with Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud. In 1976, working with a New York-based affiliate, Parasol Press, she brought in Minimalists Sol LeWitt and Brice Marden. The following year, CCP amped up its own publishing program to include conceptual artists Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Tom Marioni, Hans Haacke and John Cage.
Today, the beautiful, airy facility opposite SFMOMA covers 40,000 square feet, and with a staff of ten, including its Director and co-partner Valerie Wade, offers state-of-the art equipment to an ever-widening roster of internationally acclaimed artists. In addition, CCP offers summer printmaking workshops on a first-come, first-served basis, opening up the world of intaglio etching to the public. It also, every summer, organizes a group show. This one, curated by Wade and broken into two consecutive exhibitions (see below for details), features abstraction, landscape and figurative work, hung to reveal, she says, “a relationship between generations and approaches to a thematic idea.”
William T. Wiley's Charmin Billy (2006) is one of the show’s clear highlights. The infamous punster portrays himself as a child, his pudgy face divided into thirds, the center of which contains one of his oft-used symbols, the hourglass (aka Buster Time). It’s ringed by text snippets and the artist’s ever-present dunce cap. Adjacent is Chris Burden's Arch Bridges (2000). In this, the world's foremost collector of Erector set parts flanks a pair of smiling boys with photos of actual bridges and bridges built from toys. Both pieces celebrate the transformative power of play.
Shahzia Sikander, a New York-based Pakistani artist known for meticulous Indo-Persian miniatures, encircles a figure with calligraphic marks and floral patterns, reflecting themes of unity and of religious tolerance that have been mainstays of the artist’s oeuvre. She calls the 2012 piece Mirror Plane.
Sol LeWitt, represented by Horizontal Bands (More or Less) Red/Green (2002), leads the minimalist side of the show. As implied by the parenthetical disclaimer, the piece is really a series of curved arcs, done in a teasing hot pink-on-khaki palette. Al Held's Fly Away (1992), with its intersecting cylinders, rectangles and triangular prisms, suggests contradictory and perhaps unresolvable impulses. Mandevilla 3 (1998) by Richard Tuttle, with its stacked slanted bars, creates an asymmetrical, slipping sensation.
Tom Marioni, with Drawing a Line (2012), reminds us of earlier works in which his mark making reflected the length or span of his arm and brushstroke. This particular line assumes an almost figurative presence, while rings, reminiscent of bottle stains, point to the conceptualist’s best-known project, The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends is the Highest Form of Art.
The landscape side of the show pushes toward abstraction. Chris Ofili’s Last Night. New Day. (2008), for example, depicts clouds, mountains and waterfalls, but the skewed, off-kilter relationships between those elements lend the picture more of an aura of surrealist dreamscape than that of a conventional landscape. The same holds true for Pat Steir who hacks out craggy, greenish black forms in Mountain in Rain (2012), topping them with an effervescent scattering of pale blue dots.
Christopher Brown and Markus Raetz both use conjoined circles to depict scenes observed through binoculars. Brown’s 1995 piece, Between the Eyes, shows WWII pontoon boats; Raetz’s Binocular View (2001) shows a seascape outlined by a binoculars-shaped black vignette.
A pair of works from Wayne Thiebaud and one from Richard Diebenkorn take CCP back to its beginnings. Thiebaud’s Heart Ridge (2011) uses crosshatch marks to define a sheer cliff, calling to mind the vertiginous perspective seen in earlier cityscapes; Diebenkorn's Flotsam (1992) is a thicket of small objects, primarily tools. A solo show of Diebenkorn's works hangs in the foyer.
Revealing the gallery’s consummate taste, works like these also point to the history and significance of the print making process: to the value and meaning of human mark making, to the highly physical—and often toxic—nature of the task, and to the fact that the materials and techniques employed are roughly the same as those used in Rembrandt’s day. In our fast-paced digital world, these qualities are enduring and irreplaceable.
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“Summer Choices: A Group Show” @ Crown Point Press through July 15, 2017. The exhibition also includes works by Tomma Abts, Mamma Andersson, Anne Appleby, Robert Bechtle, Susan Middleton, Jockum Nordström, Nathan Oliveira, Laura Owens, Laurie Reid, Ed Ruscha, Wilson Shieh and Fred Wilson.
Summer Choices: Part II runs from July 16 to September 2, 2017.
About the author:
Barbara Morris is a Bay Area-based writer and artist. She has been a regular contributor to Artillery and art ltd. magazines for the past seven years, and previously wrote for Artweek magazine for ten years, seven of them as a contributing editor. Her writing has appeared in WEAD magazine, stretcher.org, and Artist's Dialogue, as well as numerous other publications. Morris holds an MFA from UC Berkeley.