by Mark Van Proyen
It was just over 40 years ago that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th President, marking the point when American political culture pivoted toward the sad state of affairs that we now behold. For most people reading this, the 1980s now seem like ancient history, but from an art-historical point of view, it remains a difficult decade to pin down, fraught as it was with pitched critical contentions and more than a little bit of artistic bombast. In retrospect, it is now looking more and more like a transitional decade, one that was hotly contested throughout, closing out the anti-commercial conceptualism of the 1970s and opening onto the market-friendly art of the 1990s, all played out as an ambivalent celebration of the end of the Cold War. Yes, four decades is a long time, but the collection of 39 works by 38 artists from the Crown Point Press archive under review here (curated by Valerie Wade), reminds us of just how lively and contemporary the art of that decade still looks.
Crown Point Press itself is a major Bay Area success story. Founded in 1962 by Kathan Brown, it has grown to a position of international preeminence in the ever-expanding world of editioned art objects, succeeding in large part by providing a vast well of technical expertise to highly regarded artists, facilitating both experimentation and an expansion of those artists’ visions. On the occasion of a 1997 exhibition at the Legion of Honor Museum celebrating Crown Point’s 35th Anniversary, I saw a documentary film about CPP, which quoted one of the master printers working there as saying that she saw her role as being something akin to a waitress, in that she provided a menu of possibilities and then returned from the print studio with the desired results. This provoked some disagreement from one of
the other master printers, who saw her own role as something more akin to a mid-wife who facilitated the birth of an image born of artist and technique. These kinds of analogies can go on and on. Still, there is no denying that the collaborative chemistries facilitated by CCP have engendered a long legacy of impressive and innovative artistic results that are now looking better and better to our digitally inflected eyes.
The earliest works in the exhibition under consideration here are by Vito Acconci and Sol Le Witt, both reflecting the concerns of 1970s Conceptual Art, and both working with photography-based processes. Acconci’s piece is a color photoetching titled Three Flags for 1 Space and Six Regions (1979-81), showing three brightly colored flags jostling for graphic territory with the old USSR flag seeming to be conceding space to the ascendant Chinese flag. Sol Le Witt presents Crownpoint, a book made in 1980 that is densely packed with greyscale photo etchings that rather dimly focus on objects and interiors of CPP when it was still operating in Oakland. Of the same ilk is Hans Haacke’s Upstairs at Mobil: Musings of a Shareholder (1982), the largest work in the exhibition, printed on ten sheets of decorated paper. A color photoetching of what appears to be the notes taken by an attendee at an annual shareholders meeting of the Mobil Oil Corporation, it features the refrain “Grow Your Money” punctuating other references to obscure financial data. John Cage also gives us a singular work from 1983 made of several sheets printed in a delicate drypoint. Titled R2:1 (Where R=Ryoanji), it seems to be a graphic representation of a musical score or some other complex, time-based process.
In 1982, Crown Point initiated a long-standing collaboration with Kyoto-based master woodblock printer Tadashi Toda, which entailed bringing artists to Japan to execute works with the same time-honored methods used centuries ago by masters such as Hiroshige and Hokusai. The works stemming from this collaboration are clustered together and include a haunting Untitled face by Francesco Clemente from 1984, printed in a succession of bright colors that were embossed into wet paper to accentuate chromatic bleeds. A 1987 work by David Salle, Portrait/Scissors, shows the face of a sneering woman holding a pair of large cutting sheers, making explicit the theme of castration anxiety that lurks below the surface of many of the other works by this artist. In Peking, a 1987 print by Tom Marioni, we see what
appears to be an up-thrusting calligraphic brushstroke printed on silk and mounted on paper that turns out to be the embossment of a finely-carved woodblock image, evoking the respect that calligraphy receives in Asia. Other works by April Gornik and Eric Fischl round out the selections from the Cal Arts mafia, and of these the single most stunning work is a 1982 work by William T. Wiley titled Eerie Grotto-Okina, showing a cartographic landscape dissolving into a pictorial one, articulated in an array of bright kaleidoscopic colors, each applied by a separate woodblock.
Richard Diebenkorn is the only artist included in this exhibition represented by two differently specified works, the largest and most impressive of which is a 1986 aquatint appropriately titled Green, featuring a lush expanse of the same color. It is actually a multi-process work, indicated as a color spit bite aquatint with soap ground aquatint and drypoint image, which sounds far more complicated than it actually looks. What seems apparent here is how Diebenkorn was able to flawlessly adapt his natural painting methods to the printmaking process to get a stunning result. The same holds for Robert Hudson’s Out of Orbit (1987); only here drypoint and hard ground etching are paired with aquatint to add density to the image of a zany sphere traveling in fantastical space. The show also includes a very different looking aquatint by Joan Jonas, Double Wheel (1982). At first glance, it seems a bit like a silkscreen because of its relatively flat, highly saturated color. Part of this effect is created by the way that the two eponymous wheels
depicted are generated in flashes of bright primary and secondary, intensified by their containment in a field of dark blue-grey.
This exhibition allows us to revisit and reconsider the ways that artists in the 1980s addressed the challenges and opportunities inherent in printmaking. To get the proper perspective, we should remember that the first significant renaissance in American printmaking took place during the 1960s, and was headquartered in Southern California at Gemini GEL, and, a bit earlier, at June Wayne’s Tamarind Workshop. Artists Such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol were able to do stellar work at those facilities, taking advantage of a rapidly expanding market in editioned art objects that mirrored an expanded idea of the role of the artist in an increasingly complex society. On the other side of this exercise in historical perspective, we have the 1990s emergence of digital printmaking and photography, which, among other things, created opportunities for photographers to print their images at a scale that could rival that of painting. Walter Benjamin’s famous distinction (described in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) between cult objects and exhibition objects applies in both of these cases, in that it pertains to the diminishment of esthetic singularity in favor of ever-expanding technological possibilities for the reproduction and distribution of images, with all of the potentials for mass dissemination pertaining.
Given these techno-historical brackets, we can gain a better appreciation of the work featured in this exhibition, and indeed, the long legacy of Crown Point Press. Common to all of the work presented here is a squaring of the Benjamite circle insofar as attention to the fine craft of traditional printmaking is concerned. Even as it celebrates limited multiplicity, it also gives us exquisite, high-craft images evincing mastery of traditional techniques and the esthetic richness of elegant materials, while at the same time stressing the generative possibilities of experimentation and artistic vision. The results of this approach return the viewer’s experience back to the auratic cult objects that Benjamin described, and not just by way of their comparison to the vast tsunami of digitally produced exhibition objects that saturate our everyday lives. We may now live in an age where more and more visual information comes to us in ghostly form by way of screens large and small, but the sheer tangibility of actual objects in real space has the power to wake us up to the immediate sweetness of perceptual particularity.
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“Crown Point Press in the ’80s” @ Crown Point Press through March 7, 2020. The exhibition also includes works by Robert Bechtle, Tony Cragg, Elaine de Kooning, Joel Fisher, Helen Frankenthaler, Hamish Fulton, Al Held, Bryan Hunt, Shoichi Ida, Anish Kapoor, Alex Katz, Joyce Kozloff, Robert Kushner, Sherrie Levine, Robert Moskowitz, Judy Pfaff, Janis Provisor, Rammellzee, Ed Ruscha, Italo Scanga, José Maria Sicilia, Richard Smith, Pat Steir, Wayne Thiebaud and David True.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.