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The artists

The artists

In 1963 Ken Tyler received a Ford Foundation fellowship to attend the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. The workshop had been established after the Ford Foundation invited June Wayne to apply for an individual artist’s grant in 1958.

In discussion with the Foundation’s Director for the Program in the Humanities and the Arts, W McNeil Lowry, Wayne argued that rather than allocating funds to individual artists the Foundation would be better served investing in the revitalisation of printmaking. Lithography in particular was in a parlous state in post-war USA and was in danger of extinction as an art form. Wayne observed:

In my mind, lithography has been linked to the great white whooping crane, which like lithography, was on the verge of extinction when the Tamarind workshop came into being. In all the world there were only thirty-six whooping cranes left; and in the United States there were no master printers able to work with the creative spectrum of our artists.

The artist/lithographers, like the cranes, needed a protected environment and a concerned public so that, once rescued from extinction, they could make a go of it on their own. If lithography could be revived, all the print media would benefit — as indeed they did. And the Tamarind ‘preserve’ could become a mode for other art forms — as indeed it has.1

The Ford Foundation agreed to this proposal and the Tamarind Workshop in Los Angeles was established in 1960 by Wayne and Clinton Adams, specifically to update the art of lithography.

Many talented artists and printers — including Tyler — have honed their skills at Tamarind, The workshop was a place where quality and technical skill took pride of place. Tyler was awarded a fellowship in 1963 and his first task was to work on ink and plate research and exclusively collaborate with the Bauhaus artist Josef Albers on his lithographs.

A creative and brilliant technician, Tyler became the Technical Director of Tamarind in 1964–65. Along with Albers, Tyler worked with a further 32 artists during his time at the workshop.

The Tamarind experience served as a stepping stone for Tyler and the artists he worked with. As Tyler has recalled:

Besides my research into grained metal plates, inks and paper, I developed a technique for blotting back inked colours on the print for Albers and an acid tint technique for the Robert Hansen book project. My training under the visiting Master Printer from Paris, Marcel Durassier, was one of the high points for me at Tamarind. He taught me his rub-up technique, some metal plate etching tricks and gave me his personal leather roller and offered me a job at his shop in Paris. Of course, I couldn't afford to take my family to Paris.

Walasse Ting exposed me to 1 Cent Life, a suite of 28 artists that he and Sam Francis published in Paris. He also showed me his poetry publications and gave me a verbal window to Paris printmaking. This was my first exposure to contemporary artists from NYC and Europe. I gleamed a great deal from all of them when we met outside of work.

I also met Elie D'Humiers, Larry Hardy and Vera Freeman, all of whom were to become active players in my continued quest for paper. I met Irving Blum, the Los Angeles art dealer that was showing Leo Castelli artists as well as the local L.A. artists. Blum mounted a show of the Albers portfolios at his gallery and showcased my working with Josef. This was very helpful in introducing me to the art scene in L.A. In short, Tamarind was a good place for me to network besides honing my craft.2

In 1965 Tyler took a gamble and set out on his own, setting up his print workshop, Gemini Ltd, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, in the back room of Jerry Solomon’s frame shop. In this venture he was supported by many of the artists he had met during his Tamarind days:

The six artists that encouraged me to open my own workshop were: Josef Albers, Walasse Ting, Sam Francis, Paul Brach, John Altoon and William Crutchfield.3

At this time, according to Tyler, the business involved working on a range of projects: ‘It was a mix of working with artists that galleries or museums commissioned and artists that I published.’4 Artists included Sam Amato, James Gill, Eloul Kosso, Jules Engel, David Hockney and Nicholas Krushenick.

In January 1966 Tyler formed the fine print publishing house Gemini GEL with partners Stanley Grinstein and Sidney B Felsen and ‘once Gemini GEL was established I invited all of the artists to work with us as printers and publishers’.5

At Gemini GEL, Tyler wanted to go ‘to the very top’, aiming to collaborate with some of the postwar greats on the American art scene. Tyler sought out émigré Josef Albers — an artist obsessed with form and colour since his Bauhaus days. In 1966 they produced together the colour lithographic series — made in perfect registration — White line squares.

As part of the process Tyler visited Albers at his New Haven, Connecticut home to discuss the idea. Thereafter they communicated by post, with Albers sending to the workshop detailed instructions and colour samples. Proofing followed until the artist was completely satisfied. The samples and proofs carrying notations made by Albers and Tyler are testament to the meticulous care taken by both artist and printer, and are now held by the National Gallery of Australia.

White line squares became Tyler’s calling cards, and he took the set when he visited artists on his wish list. They were the ‘first notes on the piano’ and ‘whatever symphony was to follow was because of them’.6 The Gallery’s collection from the Tyler workshops forms a symphony of extraordinary innovation and technical virtuosity.

Gemini GEL achieved its reputation because of Tyler’s approach:

Here is a workshop, there are no rules, no restrictions, do what you want to do.7

An inspiration was Picasso’s method of printmaking, where the rule book was thrown out. As Tyler has remarked, ‘If you have all these ‘can’ts’ in there, you change the nature of creativity.’8 Many important artists working in America at this time were seduced by the environment of exceptional possibilities Tyler was able to offer them in his well equipped workshop.

The consummate draughtsman David Hockney, for example, was given a ‘complete palette of colour’, as well as a ‘complete palette of drawing techniques’9 to achieve in lithography his beautifully rendered and intimate portraits of Celia Birtwell — a friend whom he had drawn hundreds of times. The range and subtlety of washes offered to him was something Hockney had not experienced so comprehensively before, and drawing directly on the stone or plate was ideally suited for his purpose.

On occasions Tyler ‘invaded David’s very private world’,10 delving into his printer’s store of techniques to facilitate the artist’s work. When Hockney was unhappy with a part of his beautiful composition for Celia smoking 1973, Tyler intervened, proposing that the offending small section of the composition could be washed off, then patched and the lithographic tusche outline redrawn. Hockney felt secure, knowing that the quality of his drawing would not be lost: ‘Tyler makes sure everything you put there stays there, which is not that easy, especially if you’ve used delicate washes, thin crayon and the like.’11

In the early days of Gemini GEL, Tyler travelled to New York, where he visited a number of artists including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. They were part of the stable of emerging artists attached to the New York gallery of Leo Castelli — others included Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Claes Oldenburg, who were also to work at Gemini GEL.

This last artist collaborated with Tyler to produce Chrysler airflow 1969, one of several Oldenburg multiples editioned at the workshop. Plagued with technical problems — where the green colour of the work was turning yellow — Tyler ‘recalled’ the Chryslers and replaced them, just as a car manufacturer would.

Tyler used his calling cards to good effect when visiting artists: ‘During our meetings I showed them the Albers’ White line squares and John Altoon prints that I was working on for the last six months. They were impressed with the work…’12 But for Rauschenberg the lure was Tyler’s promise that scale was not a problem.‘He kind of got turned on by the idea that somebody was saying he could do whatever he wanted to do and he could get to any size he wanted to.’13

Rauschenberg decided to make a ‘life-size’ self portrait and promptly took himself off to the Kaiser Medical Group where he had himself x-rayed in the nude, except for a pair of large boots. This x-ray became the key element for the print Booster 1967, of the series Booster and 7 studies. Photographic elements, the artist’s drawing and some offset rubbings helped to complete the image.

New ground was broken with Booster which, because of its size, required the use of two lithographic stones placed in the press one after the other, with the paper run through twice to create the combined image. This was such an astonishing process that many in the art world took notice and Tyler’s reputation as a talented master printer advanced.

Booster remains one of the groundbreaking prints made in the 20th century, helping to move the medium into a new era where prints would rival painting in invention and scale. Also notable in the making of Booster was the mixing of techniques — combining lithography and screenprint on handmade paper. This was a radical departure from the established practice where workshops specialised in a particular process — such as Tamarind did for lithography and Crown Point did for etching.

Tyler went on to offer artists an almost limitless range of techniques. This facility, combined with quality mould-made papers of shapes and sizes never before seen, was to be a significant factor in the success of the Tyler workshops and a major contribution to advances in printmaking in America.

The success of the Booster and seven studies series, with an enthusiastic promoter in the form of Tyler (drawing on his previous life as a travelling research salesman for the Thompson Wire Co.) convinced Johns that he too should work with Gemini GEL.

Johns arrived in Los Angeles with a clear idea in mind and a desire to work on Tyler’s ‘gorgeous’ stones — which had been ferreted out from an old building site and carted to the workshop in an elderly VW with broken springs.14

Johns selected ten of the largest stones and started drawing on every one of them, making a series of numerals. He created two versions of his Numeral series 0–9 1968–69, one in black, and one in colour lithography in beautiful rainbow rolls. Tyler recognised Johns had 'an innate relationship with the stone' and used the medium to his advantage. ‘Although he approached lithography as a painter … he wanted a better understanding of the medium he was working with.'15

Printing the two Numeral series from the same stones, without degradation, was an issue until Tyler turned to a technique he had been taught in 1963 by Marcel Durassier, at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. The process, which he later described as a ‘rub up technique’, was a:

very elaborate way of capturing all the nuances of a wash that an artist applies to a stone. But also puts it into slight relief, it is a planographic medium of lithography, there really isn’t any raised surface. It’s chemical, it’s flat, it is difficult to maintain, difficult to stabilise. But with Marcel’s technique, with a little innovation here and there, I was able to create this very low relief that would sustain very long printings.16

The result included lusciously coloured numbers such as Figure 7 with its smiling Mona Lisa face and handprint of the artist.

Leaving Gemini and Los Angeles in 1974, Tyler pursued his dream of establishing a workshop on the east coast. Thus began a new chapter in the history of postwar printmaking. The Tyler Workshop Ltd, printers and publishers of limited editions of graphics in lithograph, screen, intaglio and woodcut, was established in Bedford Village in upstate New York in 1974. The following year the workshop became Tyler Graphics Ltd at the same premises. In close proximity were artists such as Anni and Josef Albers, Robert Motherwell and Ellsworth Kelly.

Tyler had worked with Motherwell at Gemini GEL, and a close personal and working relationship developed at Bedford. He fully appreciated that Motherwell’s great knowledge of the history of art directed his approach to printmaking:

He has in his mind images from all mankind, not just one school of painting, or one school of printmaking or one school of drawing. The technique and all that ‘cooking’ that one does in the print studio doesn’t matter to him … It’s really more about what Bob’s been working on, what’s on his mind … That’s exciting because it’s printmaking without any kind of program.17

Inspired by the ideas of Jung and influenced by the automatism of the Surrealists, Motherwell repeatedly pursued certain iconic forms in his sequence of Elegies13 — his ‘automatic arm’, as Tyler called it, working with apparent effortlessness in lithography.18 Motherwell has said:

You can make a lithograph as complicated as a French 19th-century academic painting. But its fundamental nature is limestone, a unique quality which Daumier perhaps understood best. Great lithography has to do with the stoneness of stone.19

Helen Frankenthaler had been on Tyler’s wish list since the Gemini days and he finally lured her to Bedford. Frankenthaler’s intuitive, almost transparent washes of colour, which are so evident in her painting, were captured in a group of marvellous prints and screens. She frequently chose special papers and selected pieces of wood to print from which had just the right grainy quality. This thoroughly demanding artist achieved extraordinary qualities in her work through her collaboration with Tyler, such as the luminous colour of the first woodcut she made at Tyler Graphics, Essence mulberry 1977 — its title taken from the Bedford workshop’s mulberry tree, which inspired the mellow dark reds of the print.

Tyler’s great love of handmade paper came to the fore at Bedford, where he established a papermaking workshop in his garage. On a visit to the workshop in 1978, David Hockney (travelling to Los Angeles from the UK via New York) saw some paper works by Kenneth Noland and Ellsworth Kelly, made with coloured dyes. Intending only a brief stopover, Hockey stayed for 49 days, working 16-hour days with just one day off. And so began his exploration with Tyler of the use of pulp, developing multi-sheet compositions such as the Paper Pools project of 1978–80, which includes A diver paper pool 17 1978, duly purchased by the Gallery. This work was reproduced as the Gallery’s opening poster, and again as the Gallery’s tenth birthday poster.

In 1970, at Gemini GEL, Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein produced his print and multiple-sculpture series Peace through chemistry. With its deadpan, meaningless title, this was a spoof on modern art of the1930s. A later series, Reflections, begun by Lichtenstein and Tyler in 1989, was remarkable for its technical complexity. This group of seven works was a tour de force of printmaking, combining lithography, screenprinting and relief printing with a metallised PVC collage and embossing, printed on large scale mould-made paper.

The exercise was carried out in Tyler’s new premises at Mount Kisco in upstate New York, established in January 1987. In this purpose-built state of the art workshop designed by the architect Michael Forstl,20 all the technical requirements could be satisfied in house. Tyler remarked that it was like offering the artists ‘candy at the candy store’. ‘Whatever they wanted, whatever technique they needed, ‘we could pull it off. We had all the machinery to do it.’21

The scale and complexity of Reflections pushed the various processes to the very limit in order to maintain the all important perfect registration while keeping the paper with its collage and embossing intact. The series shows the artist contemplating what he once considered the ‘anti-contemplative’ nature of his early work. One such ‘Reflection’, Brushstroke 1990, draws from Lichtenstein’s long fascination with the subject, first explored in his paintings from the mid 1960s:

I was very interested in characterizing or caricaturing a brushstroke … The very nature of a brushstroke is anathema to outlining and filling in as used in cartoons. So I developed a form for it, which is what I am trying to do in the explosions, airplanes, and people — that is, to get a standardized thing — a stamp or image. I got the idea early because of the Mondrian and Picasso paintings, which inevitably led to the idea of a de Kooning. The brushstrokes obviously refer to Abstract Expressionism.22

The Reflections series reinterprets and refines earlier paintings and prints drawn from cartoons, romance and war comics, or from other artists’ work. In Lichtenstein’s re-examination of the art of the past, Reflections on scream, we find the cartoon character of baby Swee'-Pea — the offspring of Popeye and Olive Oyl — whose howling face recalls Edvard Munch’s expressionist painting The scream.

The collaboration between Tyler and the foremost American abstract artist Frank Stella — lasting three and a half decades — has been described as ‘part brinkmanship, engineering, and sometimes theater’.23

Tyler’s pursuit of Stella began in 1967, but his overtures were rejected at first with Stella responding that he only drew with felt tipped pens. Taking this as a challenge Tyler disguised lithographic tusche as a marker for the artist to draw with. Stella soon found himself ‘chained’ in the studio, surrounded by aluminium plates, left to draw on them with lithographic crayon.24 Thus began the relationship of two dynamic figures which has been described by art critic Robert Hughes as ‘one of the great partnerships in modern American art’.25

Over the years Stella and Tyler have refined their process of working from a completed collage, adopting a wide range of printing techniques for a single work, and editioning on specially-made paper. ‘Frank the scavenger’, as Tyler calls him, creates compositions from debris d’atelier (studio debris), where elements of past imagery from Tyler’s ‘supply center’ are recycled and transformed. The workshop is ‘a living inventory, a library of shapes and images’ for Stella’s art, providing source material for his painting and sculptures, in turn translated into printmaking — resulting in the extraordinary and ambitious works for which he has become renowned.

Once Stella has mapped out his collage, Tyler goes to work in the studio. Behind closed doors, and with his team of assistants, the ’magic’ is conjured up to produce the image in a consistent printable form — a magic built on Tyler’s phenomenal technical prowess and an unstoppable desire to extend the medium further.

Jane Kinsman
Senior Curator of International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books

1 June Wayne quoted in Lucinda H Gedeon (Ed) June Wayne: a retrospective ( New York: Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York) p.42.
2 Ken Tyler, in correspondence with Jane Kinsman 21 September 2004.
3 ibid.
4 Ken Tyler, in correspondence with Jane Kinsman 13 September 2004.
5 Ken Tyler, in correspondence with Jane Kinsman 12 September 2004.
6 Ken Tyler, in the documentary film Reaching out – Ken Tyler, master printer (Avery Tirce productions 1976).
7 ibid.
8 Ken Tyler, quoted in Pat Gilmour, ‘Ken Tyler and the Limitless Possibilities of Collaborative Printmaking’ in Innovation in collaborative printmaking: Kenneth Tyler 1963–92 (Yokohama, Japan: Yokohama Museum of Art 1992) p.17.
9 Ken Tyler, in the documentary film Reaching out – Ken Tyler, master printer (Avery Tirce productions 1976).
10 ibid.
11 David Hockney, quoted in Ruth E Fine Gemini GEL: Art and collaboration (Washington: National Gallery of Art / New York: Abbeville Press 1984) p.146.
12 Ken Tyler, in correspondence with Jane Kinsman 21 June 2002.
13 ibid.
14 Ken Tyler, in the documentary film Reaching out – Ken Tyler, master printer (Avery Tirce productions 1976).
15 Ben Berns, commenting on Tyler’s understanding of Jasper Johns, quoted in Stephanie Terenzio The prints of Robert Motherwell, catalogue raisonné by Dorothy C Belknapp (New York: Hudson Hills Press 1991) p.48.
16 Ken Tyler, Qantas Birthday Lecture series, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 14 October 1999.
17 Ken Tyler, quoted in The prints of Robert Motherwell, catalogue raisonné by Dorothy C Belknapp (New York: Hudson Hills Press 1991) pp.81–84.
18 In 1948 Robert Motherwell first developed the archetypal image which was to form the basis of his ‘Elegies’ in painting and in prints which he pursued in almost limitless variations until his death in 1991.
19 Ken Tyler, quoted in The prints of Robert Motherwell, catalogue raisonné by Dorothy C Belknapp (New York: Hudson Hills Press 1991) p.84.
20 Robert Motherwell, op.cit. p.89.
21 See National Gallery of Australia file 81/0679–02.
22 ibid.
23 Roy Lichtenstein, quoted in John Coplans’ ‘Talking with Roy Lichtenstein’ in Coplans (ed.) Roy Lichtenstein (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press 1973) p.89.
24 Siri Engberg, ‘Introduction’ Frank Stella at Tyler Graphics: imaginary places and the art of the everyday (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center 1997) p.9.
25 Frank Stella, ‘Melrose Avenue’ Frank Stella at Tyler Graphics (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center 1997) p.33.
26 Robert Hughes, Frank Stella: the Swan Engravings (Fort Worth: Fort Worth Art Museum 1984) p.5.

Further information will be added to this site as the National Gallery proceeds with its research and documentation.

Last updated April 2014