John Wagner worked behind the scenes at Tyler Graphics for thirty years as the Associate Director and Chief Financial Officer, ensuring that the wild, wonderful (and often expensive) print projects carried out there were paid for.

What was your role at the workshop, and can you tell us a little bit about what that role entailed?

I was the Associate Director and Chief Financial Officer of TGL from 1975 until it closed. I was also in charge of sales, including a period of several years after the workshop closed to sell off the remaining inventory: all in all a relationship of thirty years.

Tyler Workshop, and later Tyler Graphics, was a printing and publishing atelier with the focus entirely on the artist. Probably the most complete workshop in the world in terms of equipment and the range of printing and paper-making mediums available, it existed to provide artists unlimited creative possibilities. As this often came with unlimited budgets (in thirty years I never heard Ken tell an artist that something wasn't possible or was too expensive), part of my job was to make that work. Fortunately, museum calibre artists turning out their best work enabled sales to recoup the initial project costs.

My job was to stay out of the way – for the most part – and to try not to remind Ken of how much things cost.

Can you tell us about the atmosphere in the studio? What did you enjoy most about working there?

The atmosphere of the workshop was akin to theatre in many ways. When a new artist arrived to start a project, there was a new stage set which was tailored to their personality, working style and medium (or mixed media) in which they chose to work. Every artist was different, and was given everyone's full attention. Some artists knew exactly what they wanted before they arrived, while others were open to experimentation and collaboration with the Director, Kenneth Tyler, and the printers and paper makers. Some created with music in the background, others in silence, and a few could work while carrying on a conversation at the same time. The stage was adjusted to make them the most comfortable and foster their creative juices.

What I enjoyed most about working there was that it was a place where I could utilize what I knew, while being around the art that I loved. Some might consider sales a job, but for me it was an opportunity to handle and show some wonderful art and share what went into it with others. Number crunching might seem tedious, but there was always the opportunity to walk back into the studio or workshop and see something new coming to life.

Do you still work in the arts? How did your time with TGL affect your career path?

I no longer "work" in the arts and haven't since the last of the inventory was sold. However, I now "play" in the arts. My wife, Gabriella (a graduate of Cooper Union), and I built a studio in our home about ten years ago when I took up painting. It is no longer work, but it is good for the soul. TGL completely changed my career path thirty seven years ago (I was in public accounting) and gave me a career I have enjoyed.

Can you share your favourite memory of the workshop with us?

It is hard to come up with just one favourite memory of the workshop because there were many. I could mention watching David Hockey create Paper Pools in the driveway or watching the endless creativity of Frank Stella. Meeting Josef Albers, Robert Motherwell, Roy Lichtenstein or many others was special as well. The best has to be the day I met my future wife, Gabriella, there.   Another memory also sticks in my mind. When my son Max was just beginning to crawl, I brought him to work the day Joan Mitchell was coming to work with us for the first time. I had heard rumors that she might not be considered "warm and fuzzy", so I tried to keep Max far away from disturbing her in the studio. When she heard there was a baby in the house, I was asked to bring him in to the studio. At first, I was afraid that Max was making too much noise and that Joan was going to eat him (after tearing my head off). Fortunately, the rumor was false, and Joan was as sweet as can be. She told me to put him on the floor of the studio and let him crawl wherever he wanted, which he did everywhere. Joan said, "We should all try to remember what it felt like when we were that free". Little did I realize that Joan would pass away a short time later.

So, I guess, the best memories are of people. Artists, printers and of course Ken, who will remain a close friend always.

John Wagner helping Kenneth Tyler to lift a Robert Motherwell proof just printed on the hydraulic lithography press, Tyler Graphics workshop, Bedford Village, New York, 1987. Photograph: Marabeth Cohen-Tyler

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

Last updated August 2014