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Making Its Mark

"Untitled," by Roy DeForest, lithograph.

The Center for the Visual Arts in LoDo is currently hosting a large and important show. Tamarind: Forty Years documents some of the many accomplishments achieved over the decades by the legendary New Mexico-based printmaker. The title is somewhat misleading, since Tamarind was founded in 1960, making 2003 the 43rd anniversary of the place. But there's a simple explanation for the factual discrepancy: The exhibit debuted at the University of New Mexico Art Museum in 2000, which was actually Tamarind's fortieth.

To printmaking fans, the Tamarind name is not just familiar, but it also carries a considerable cachet, since it is among only a handful of nationally known facilities of its type in the country. Interestingly, several fine printers are also located in the western states, including Gemini G.E.L in California and Shark's Inc., right here in Colorado. (As it happens, both of these ateliers were founded by Tamarind-trained printers: Kenneth Tyler and Bud Shark, respectively.)

Tamarind was the brainchild of California artist June Wayne, who felt that lithography, an early-nineteenth-century invention, was in danger of disappearing. And she was no Chicken Little, because by the mid-20th century, the sky was falling on lithography. Though an important medium from the 1850s to the 1940s, it had gotten into trouble in the '50s, for several reasons.

A key cause of lithography's decline was that it was associated with the social realists of the '30s and thus had left-wing connections during the era of the right-wing Red Scare. (The closing of the enormously respected lithography studio at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in the early 1950s was directly related to this political shift.) The medium also had a credibility problem with many artists because of the wide use of offset, photo-based lithography in advertising and label-making -- decidedly non-art categories. The rise of pop art in the late '50s also represented a strike against lithography, because its rival, photo-friendly silkscreen printing, was the preferred method of that movement.

Wayne, an art activist, wanted to do something about the difficult situation, so in 1959 she applied to the Ford Foundation for a grant to establish a lithography workshop "To Restore the Art of Lithography in the United States," as the title of her application stated. Of course Wayne got her grant (or we wouldn't be talking about Tamarind now), and she opened the workshop the following year. She received more grants from Ford, helping put Tamarind on the art map and at the same time sparing the institution the need to turn a profit, ensuring that non-commercial work would become the printer's stock in trade.

The name "Tamarind" was chosen casually; the word refers to a tropical tree and to the location of Wayne's original workshop, on Tamarind Avenue in Los Angeles. That Wayne became Tamarind's first director was, at the time, very unusual, although, as proved by Tatyana Grosman at East Coast rival Universal Limited Art Editions, it was not unique to have a woman running an art facility. Also on board at the start were Clinton Adams, who served as associate director, and Garo Antreasian, who was the technical director. Adams and Antreasian both departed in 1961 and later wound up at the University of New Mexico, which was pivotal in Tamarind's future. (Wayne, Adams and Antreasian were experts at printmaking, but all three were chiefly painters, which is perhaps why Tamarind tended to primarily attract painters.)

Tamarind's directors encouraged the development of improved techniques, but in a break with tradition, they published the results of their successful experiments instead of protecting them as trade secrets. During its first decade, Tamarind invited many important abstract artists to do their prints at the workshop and earned a reputation for the clarity of its images. Abstraction creates special problems for printers, because the expressively handled grounds are difficult to reproduce accurately, but technological advances had allowed Tamarind to achieve remarkable results.

In 1970, the Tamarind Workshop was reorganized as the Tamarind Institute and moved from L.A. to Albuquerque, becoming a part of the College of Fine Arts at UNM. Wayne resigned and remained in Southern California, and Adams became the new director, with Antreasian resuming his post as technical director. In 1985, after Adams retired, Marjorie Devon became director, a post she still holds today. Devon edited the excellent catalogue that accompanies the 40 Years exhibit, and she helped organize it, though the show was principally put together by Kathleen Howe, curator of prints and photographs at the UNM Art Museum. All of the prints in the show are from the Tamarind Archive owned by the university.

Center for the Visual Arts director Kathy Andrews oversaw the hanging, and for some reason, she installed the show aesthetically instead of chronologically within stylistic groups. This seems like a particularly inappropriate idea for a historical show like this one. But it's an approach seen more and more, even though it robs exhibits of intellectual content by hiding the stylistic shifts that occur over time. Despite its popularity with exhibit arrangers, there seems to be no real reason for getting rid of chronology, as these stylistic shifts are ordinarily so radical that they provide all the visual variety that comes with an aesthetic approach. Also, an aesthetic installation seems to never start or end, but simply to run on a continuous loop.

 

As I looked at the show, I thought how wonderful it would have been to have all the work from the 1960s at the front of the show and the work of the '90s at the end. As I've already pointed out, that's not what Andrews did. That is, however, how I'm going to discuss it.

Some of the earliest pieces in the exhibit are examples of figural abstraction, such as Aubrey Schwartz's "Dwarf Clown," executed by Antreasian in 1960. In this black-and-white print in a characteristically small edition, Schwartz reduced the angry-looking man into simple shapes. The ground is done in black ink, while the figure's features are revealed in areas of white, something that was accomplished by simply leaving the paper blank.

Some of these older figural works have a whiff of surrealism to them, such as Rico LeBrun's "Grunewald Study," from 1961. In this work, which appears to be a crucifixion scene, the variations in the grays demonstrate the level of technical skill Tamarind printers were achieving almost right after it opened, with the handling of the background especially nice. This large print looks older than it is, as does Schwartz's piece, and both recall the great lithographs of the 1930s and '40s, as is the case with Rufino Tamayo's "Variation on a Man, #2," from 1964. CVA director Andrews did think to hang these three prints together, but she put them in the middle of the show instead of at the beginning, where they belong.

Right at the start is also where the '60s abstract-expressionist prints should be, but instead, they're scattered throughout -- essentially at random. Some of these pieces are showstoppers, most notably "Untitled," by Sam Francis, from 1996. A West Coast abstractionist, Francis worked directly on the litho stone in order to capture frozen splats of ink. Another abstract-expressionist print is Louise Nevelson's extremely elegant "Untitled," from 1967, in which large freely drawn shapes, roughly geometric and essentially vertical, are arranged in a horizontal lineup across the picture. Best remembered as a sculptor, Nevelson is not well known for her prints, but given the quality of this one, she really should be.

Minimalism and geometric abstraction are more compatible with lithography than is pop art or abstract expressionism, which is probably why the Jack Tworkov and the Josef Albers are among the best prints in the show. Conceptualism, as unlikely as it might seem, is another style addressed at Tamarind. Bruce Conner's "Cancellation," from 1965, superficially looks like an abstract-expressionist piece, but as the title tips us off, it's actually the illustration of a thought. The print depicts a canceled stone that has a slashing 'X' across it, the traditional way to make it unusable -- though, of course, in this case, it has been used.

Considering that pop art went big-time in the '60s, it's odd that there are so few pieces of that type in the show. But because Tamarind eschewed the use of mediums other than lithography in the early years - and considering pop's reliance on photo imagery -- maybe it isn't so surprising that the style is missing in action. Things loosened up at Tamarind in the '70s after it relocated to New Mexico, and photographic images were combined with lithographic techniques, as in Betty Hahn's "White Chrysanthemum #1," from 1978.

There's a lot of neo-expressionism in the show, such as Roy DeForest's "Untitled," from 1978. The "dumb art" style of this piece -- and of too many others in the show, most of which date from the 1980s -- is looking so bad right now that I'm absolutely sure there's going to be a major revival of interest in it any minute. And, gosh, I hated it the first time.

The return of abstraction in the 1990s, which I really liked, is well documented in the show, and among the many standouts of this type are the related all-over compositions by Emmi Whitehorse and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith. Both the Whitehorse and the Smith are hanging in the front gallery just beyond the information desk. Because of this, and because the work of first-generation abstract expressionists comes later, Tamarind disguises the fact that Whitehorse and Smith are part of a reappraisal of the work of the pioneers. If the show were arranged chronologically, the stylistic family tree in which Whitehorse and Smith are descendants of Francis and Nevelson would have been easy to see. As it is, viewers are left to figure things out for themselves.

 

The more I thought about Tamarind: Forty Years, the more the free association of the hanging bugged me, because it makes it hard to make sense of the show. And this complaint is not a minor one. But there is undeniably something very appealing about perfectly executed lithographs, regardless of how they've been hung, and that is what ultimately makes this a compelling diversion.


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