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Prints and Solids

"The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light," by James Rosenquist, lithograph.

Periodically in fancy women's clothing stores, like those in the Cherry Creek area, there are special events called "trunk shows." They are advertised in the papers, and attendees often appear later in the society pages. In these shows, a representative of some haute designer or maker brings in trunks full of new, high-end garments that will be available at the shop and nowhere else, and only for a limited time.

Right now, Rule Gallery is presenting the art-world equivalent of a trunk show, an exhibit with the bare-bones title Universal Limited Art Editions, which is also the name of the fine-print maker that provided all the pieces on display. Gallery director Robin Rule invited ULAE's master printer, Bill Goldston, to show off a group of selections from the famous presses.

Goldston was in town a few weeks ago to oversee the installation and lecture on the history of ULAE. And what a history it is, spanning, as it does, the entire development of the New York school since the late 1950s.

Tatyana Grosman, an essentially self-taught printer, founded ULAE. The Russian-born Jewish emigré had fled the Holocaust in Europe in 1943 with her husband, noted painter Maurice Grosman, and they settled in the village of Islip, New York, on Long Island. In 1955, Maurice had a major heart attack, and it was left to Tatyana to earn a living for the couple. At the time, she was not a printer, but because of either a fortuitous coincidence or an act of fate, the Grosmans had earlier found a pair of valuable Bavarian lithography stones in the yard of their cottage. Not only that, but a neighbor was selling a press that fit the stones, and a local commercial printer offered to show Grosman how to use it.

At first Grosman made money by publishing reproductions of paintings by Mark Chagall, Grandma Moses and other artists popular at the time. But in 1957, Museum of Modern Art curator William Lieberman visited Grosman's cottage press, which indirectly led to the establishment of ULAE: While Lieberman was impressed with the quality of her prints -- she was a natural master printer -- he did not like the idea of her doing reproductions.

Grosman was already connected to the New York art world. In particular, she knew Larry Rivers, the pioneering pop-art painter, having met him years before on a transatlantic cruise. After Liberman's visit to Islip, she went to Rivers's studio with the concept of doing an artists' book, combining his illustrations with the poems of Frank O'Hara. When she got to Rivers's place -- surprise, surprise -- O'Hara was there. (This is not as big of a coincidence as it sounds, since Rivers and O'Hara, both now deceased, were lovers.) The two went for Grosman's idea, and the result was the evocatively titled Stones. It was published in 1957, the first fine-print edition ever undertaken by ULAE.

Grosman's timing was another lucky break -- like finding the lithography stones in the first place -- because print-friendly pop art was a rising star, and ULAE's wagon was hitched to it. Many pop pioneers found their way to Islip -- most notably Jasper Johns, whom Grosman had called and invited. Johns then told Robert Rauschenberg about the press (just like Rivers and O'Hara, the two artists were lovers at the time), and each did their first lithographs at ULAE. Johns and Rauschenberg still produce work with the printmaker, and examples by both are featured in the Rule show.

As the '60s dawned, printmaking, which had been out of vogue since the 1940s, enjoyed a major revival, in no small part because of interest in the medium by cutting-edge artists such as Rivers, Johns and Rauschenberg. This print-mania helped ULAE succeed and attracted many of the most important artists of the day to have their work done at the newly prestigious facility.

In 1964, almost one hundred prints pulled by ULAE were used for the first exhibit in MoMA's graphic galleries, starting a still-observed tradition by which MoMA acquires a print from every ULAE edition.

Goldston, who brought the show to Rule, joined ULAE in 1969 as a printmaker specializing in the photosensitive stones preferred by artists like Rauschenberg. A technical wizard and master of a wide array of printing methods, Goldston became an important player, and in 1976, when Maurice Grosman died, Tatyana urged Goldston to run the studio and business for her. After her death, in 1982, he took over as owner.

Goldston expanded ULAE and added larger and more modern equipment, supplementing the intaglio and lithograph presses with the latest things, including computer-driven inkjet printers. He also went out to recruit new talents beyond the core group of pop artists who were the printmaker's principal clients, including abstractionists, expressionists and even a magic realist or two.

 

There are a score of pieces in the Rule show, which doesn't sound like all that much, but because some of the prints are very large and others have multiple leaves (one has thirteen), gallery director Rule needed to shoehorn things into her smallish space. The entryway and the viewing room in the back are filled to capacity and seem way too crowded. But I know why Rule did that: By consigning a lot of things to the entry and back room, she had the optimal number of works to perfectly fill the main space in the center of the gallery -- and as a result, this room really looks great. Then again, how could anyone go wrong having prints by Johns and Rauschenberg, two of the most respected living artists on earth, hanging on the walls?

The four Johns prints are hung close together at the east end of the main space, just beyond the entry. Over the years, Johns's style has changed a lot, and his work of the last twenty years has gotten increasingly abstract and less thoroughly pop, though pop devices like photo transfers, words and arrows still abound in his work.

In fact, words and arrows appear in the tremendous untitled three-panel intaglio from 1998 hanging to the left, which is the finest Johns in the show. In this predominantly blue-and-green print, Johns incorporates conventionalized and attenuated arms along with the stenciled words "red," "yellow" and "blue." Those colors are, of course, the three primaries and a long-standing interest for Johns, as they are for many artists.

Nearby, there are two closely related Rauschenberg prints, both of which concern his memories of his early days as an artist. "Ileana (Ruminations)," a 1999 intaglio, concerns Ileana Sonnebend and reflects back to Rauschenberg's emergence as a major artist in the late 1950s. Sonnebend, later a dealer herself, was, at the time, the wife of Leo Castelli, owner of the Castelli Gallery, Rauschenberg's first New York dealer. The other print is "John (Ruminations)," which references vanguard composer John Cage, with whom Rauschenberg spent time at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. As preposterous as it seems, Black Mountain was a center for contemporary art because abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann taught there. "John" includes the legendary Model-T Ford that Rauschenberg used to make an enormous print, driving it over thousands of yards of paper on the roads around Black Mountain.

More than any other artist -- even more than Warhol -- Rauschenberg is responsible for promoting the use of photography as a method to do things other than photographs, such as paintings and prints. The approach he developed in the '60s, in which the photo image is bent and fractured, as seen in the "Ruminations" pieces, is today a ubiquitous feature of contemporary art.

James Rosenquist is another pop artist who's worked with ULAE, and Rule includes two amazing prints by him that are clearly among the most beautiful pieces in the exhibit. Rosenquist's claim to fame was bringing billboard and sign-painting approaches into painting, gaining enormous worldwide fame with photo-realist images cut into abstract compositions that often have political or sociological content. In the '80s and '90s, Rosenquist got into outer space and physics, which is what the prints in this show -- "Navigator, Speed of Light," from 1999, and "The Stowaway Peers Out at the Speed of Light," from 2001 -- are about. But though the forms in these pseudo-scientific pieces are abstract and are not based on actual objects, Rosenquist renders them as though they were recognizable things in three-dimensional space.

Also in the main room at Rule are artists other than the pop stars who worked with ULAE, including late modernist painters such as Terry Winters. The Winters print "Pattern," from 2001, is elegant with its dark and dense set of scribbled lines over a multi-colored ground. The print has been done by ULAE in an outlandish way, combining old-fashioned lithography with newfangled inkjet technology. Winters took a computer-generated image of a piece of paper that had been used to catch the ink under the press; the ink had formed blobs of colors with darker oil halos around them. The lithograph was then transferred to the paper on top of the computer print. Though many question the use of high-tech devices in fine printing, the method -- at least in the case of this Winters -- is undeniably effective.

Another late-modernist abstraction worth checking out is "Step by Step," a 2002 woodcut by Richard Tuttle, which is hanging down and to the right of the Winters. The Tuttle is a geometric abstraction that's predominantly black on white except for the bars of cool sherbet colors stacked in a stair-step pattern on the bottom half. Tuttle did not fill in the grain of the wood in these colored bars, and the imprint of the graining becomes an important aesthetic feature.

 

Rule scored a coup with the Universal Limited Art Editions exhibit, a truly great print show that really shouldn't be missed. So if you haven't made it there yet, here's something to remember: Like the fashions in one of those trunk shows, it's all going to get packed up in crates and shipped back East in just a few weeks.


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