by David M. Roth
When Kathan Brown launched Crown Point Press (CPP) out of her Richmond home in 1962, she probably didn’t envision working elbow-to-elbow with a who’s-who list of American and international artists. Nor, perhaps, did she foresee the day when her fledgling enterprise would be regarded as one of the world’s premier printmaking facilities, revered equally for the museum-quality exhibitions it mounts several times each year.
The latest pair, undertaken to commemorate CPP’s 60th anniversary, tops any I’ve seen to date; they occupy every nook and cranny of the place: the bookstore, offices, hallways and a basement gallery whose footprint approximates that of the main exhibition space. The two shows, curated by Valerie Wade, CPP’s longtime director operate as one, and feature many familiar prints and others seldom seen, including a handful that stand as milestones for having achieved previously unattainable artistic goals, often realized at great expense and only after much back-and-forth interaction between artists and master printers. Such innovations are, of course, what helped propel printmaking to its present status as an art form worthy of serious attention.
Lean and sharp-minded at 87, Brown can often be seen working on the premises, which is where I encountered her, surrounded in her office by a display of etchings from the 1960s made by Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Bechtle – the first of 116 artists CPP worked with over the years. Their works, always notable for exquisite draftsmanship and economy of means, form the backbone of almost any CPP show – never mind that they might be viewed today as conservative for traits that privilege traditional artmaking skills (i.e., drawing and painting) in a market awash in art that openly rejects such values.
Brown, never one to remain static, quickly expanded, adding artists of seemingly every persuasion to CPP’s roster. But her most radical move came when she decided to focus on conceptual artists, a group best known for ideas that resist objectification. That shift in orientation, along with many that followed, is amply documented in 1962-2022: A Celebration: 60 Prints for 60 Years and a companion exhibition, A Celebration: Large-Scale Prints.
Of the conceptualists operating inside CPP’s orbit, none achieved more remarkable results than avant-garde composer John Cage. If his prints sometimes give off the look of spun smoke, there’s a reason: he lit fires on printing plates, a fact I learned from reading Brown’s 2012 memoir Know That You Are Lucky, a tale packed with amazing anecdotes rendered in lucid, self-effacing prose. Two of Cage’s fire-tinged prints are on view in the main gallery, along with a third in the basement titled 75 Stones (1989), based on a Zen rock garden at Ryoanji, Japan. Its uniqueness rests with the fact that it represented a shift in Cage’s printmaking method. Where he previously relied on chance, he based the palette for this piece on the color of the stones whose outlines he traced with brushes, another departure. The print that emerged reads like a playable score, its sunny disposition a contrast to those seen upstairs. Sun’s Reception (1977), Tom Marioni’s first print at CPP, appears nearby, looking like a foggy rectangle. Stand close, and you’ll see the faint outline of an enso, the Zen symbol of oneness, beckoning you to look deeper, both at the print and at your own perceptual apparatus. Upstairs, Marioni’s series of seven mezzotints, Landing (1977), throws down a different sort of challenge by purporting to show, in various guises, a UFO alighting on city streets.
Helen Frankenthaler’s Cedar Hill (1983) invites scrutiny for its sheer complexity: a hail of vertical rivulets whose origins, from accumulated woodblock impressions, strain the imagination. The process, According to Brown, tested the patience and skills of all involved, requiring three weeks of revisions that hadn’t been completed when Frankenthaler left the studio. The result is an interleaving of color and texture that bears almost no resemblance to the stain paintings we usually associate with the artist. Another thing I learned from Brown’s memoir is that Chuck Close’s method of creating portraits out of paint squiggles originated in the same place as Frankenthaler’s breakthrough: in Kyoto, under the oversight of master printer Tadashi Toda. At the time, 1986, Close was working with an airbrush, but Toda deemed the effects too refined to render with woodblocks. So Close, according to Brown, “translated the image square by square into colored squiggles, splotches or spots.” Leslie (1986), the end product, shows the subject’s face as a collection of cell-like stains bounded by square grid marks, the prototype for what would later become the artist’s signature.
Richard Diebenkorn’s Touched Red (1991) represents another milestone, notable for the degree to which it translates the atmospherics of his famed Ocean Park series to paper in a pinkish-brown wash that seems, at the center, to open out onto infinity. CPP’s work with Robert Bechtle also yielded uncanny resemblances to his paintings, evidenced in a color print from 2004 called Texas and 20th Intersection. It does for San Francisco light what Diebenkorn’s paintings (and prints) did for Santa Monica’s. Photographer John Chiara, best known for self-made cameras the size of a pickup truck bed, also deals with light, but in a substantially different way than any other artist in this group. His photo, titled 24th at Carolina (Center), from 2006, looks like it was either sun-scorched or recorded underwater: a blur of houses on a hill foregrounded by a single tree.
Light (or lack thereof) is the secondary subject of Elaine de Kooning’s two 1985 prints depicting cave paintings, blackened by time and perhaps the soot of too many torch-wielding visitors. They set forth precisely the sort of scene you could have glimpsed at Lascaux before France closed the caves to the public in 1963. de Kooning, as it happened, visited in 1983 when only replicas were viewable. Her experience, nevertheless, was life-changing. Looking at the animals portrayed on the walls, “I felt a tremendous identification with those Paleolithic artists, she told Art in America in 1988. “I found myself deep in the caves imagining I was one of them, looking for surfaces smooth enough to paint on, noticing chunks of yellow clay on the ground that would be perfect to draw with.” Two prints on view from the series made at CPP show her doing something very close to that.
Other notable prints? If I were to compile a list, it would stretch halfway around a block as big as the one CPP occupies at Howard and Hawthorne Streets opposite SFMOMA. With that in mind, it’s worth noting how Brown settled on the name Crown Point. It came, she writes, from seeing a photo of Crown Point Mine, an operation in the Comstock Lode. She admired the pluck and strength of a group of people pictured who had constructed a “rickety railroad trestle” capable of supporting two engines. Gold? “I wasn’t naïve enough to think printmaking could be that,” she writes. But the truth is: after 60 years, we can conclude, based on the evidence, that Brown was — happily — premature in her assessment about what a printmaker could achieve.
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“1962-2022: A Celebration: 60 Prints for 60 Years” and “A Celebration: Large-Scale Prints” @ Crown Point Press through November 17, 2022.
Cover Image: Al Held, Pablo Seven, 1986.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.