worked at Tyler Graphics Ltd. for 12.5 years from March 1988
Anthony Kirk was head of the etching department at Tyler Graphics from 1988 until 2000. During this time he worked on major projects by artists such as Frank Stella and Helen Frankenthaler. After the closure of TGL, Kirk’s talent for printmaking led him to the Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Norwalk, Connecticut, where he was the Artistic Director and Master Printer for 13 years. Here, Anthony reflects on his experiences at TGL and his career since.
My five years as an art student in England where I focused on etching and relief printing culminated in a post graduate degree from Chelsea School of Art in London in 1973. The following year I immigrated to the United States with my future wife, Helen, who was an American student studying in London. Not long after arriving in New York, I discovered Robert Blackburn's printmaking workshop and for the next three years as workshop manager there, I began to edition intaglio prints for an increasing clientele. I eventually set up my own studio and bought my first press.
My reputation as a printer grew over the next decade, and in 1987 I shared a booth at the New York Fine Print Fair. By coincidence my small booth was directly opposite the booth of Tyler Graphics Ltd. and I met Kenneth Tyler for the very first time, who observed the quality of my printing. Another person who visited my booth was Aldo Crommelynk who was world renowned as an intaglio master printer of unsurpassed quality. He was very complimentary about the high standard of printing that he observed in the drypoints and aquatints that were displayed. I felt very honoured to be participating in the same arena as these two famous master printers. A few months later I received a call from John Hutcheson, Ken's workshop manager, who had been asked by Ken to find out if I would be interested in joining his staff as head of the etching department. After two interviews I decided to close down my business and I joined the staff of Tyler Graphics in the spring of 1988 and stayed there until the summer of 2000.
I joined a team of three intaglio printers who had already begun editioning Frank Stella's La penna di hu which was the largest print that I had ever worked on. This print consisted of several large copper aquatinted plates that were inserted in to a large magnesium plate and printed simultaneously onto a large sheet of handmade paper. The printing was done on a large hydraulic press. Therefore in the first days of working at TGL I was learning several new concepts. First of all team work was essential and this became the hallmark of every project thereafter that included paper making, lithography, screen printing and intaglio. Each printer was assigned to ink and wipe the same plates to ensure consistency and to finish the task at the same time as the other printers to keep to the schedule of printing two impressions per day. In order for the large aquatint areas to print black, an excessive amount of ink had to be left on the plate to achieve this. Any extra plate tone on areas that were to print white had to be removed with Q-tips. This was the most laborious task of the project, and I knew that if the aquatint on these plates had been etched so as to print a black without fussing, then the printing could have been quicker and less laborious. I discovered that the large aquatint chamber contained lithographer's rosin which is almost like a fine talcum powder, and can't be used to etch for a sufficient enough time in acid in order to print a solid black. I set about to clean out the aquatint chamber and replace it with lump rosin which I ground down to a powder.
The other very significant process that I learned was the use of the hydraulic press. I was impressed that it could print the finest aquatints as well as the traditional etching press and ink did not splurge out of deeply etched marks. It also was an excellent press for printing monotypes (again no lateral splurges of ink) as well as relief prints. So I began to make a few changes, such as the aquatint powder, so that I could etch plates the way that I was accustomed to and be sure of the results.
All of Frank Stella's print projects necessitated accurate record keeping particularly when the print involved many colours. Many times the editioning of a project would take place weeks or months after Stella had approved the standard print for the edition. Therefore colour samples and the ingredients of different pigments that went in to the approved colour were accurately kept for future reference. Since lithography inks are available in a wider range of colours than etching inks, I learned how to modify the litho inks and make them suitable for intaglio. Stella's visits to TGL to work in the artist's studio usually ended with heaps of cut up printed sheets on the floor everywhere but with brand new collaged maquettes hanging on the studio walls. Armed with only a staple gun and a pair of sharp scissors, Frank would create new images that would keep us busy for months.
Stella's prints that involved all the printing processes would have all the lithographic elements printed first and then all the proofs would be transferred to the screen printing room for additional printing of the silk screen elements. However first of all the paper mill would make sheets of paper specific to each project, especially when it came to making shaped sheets of paper. A traced line that outlined all the collage elements had been previously printed lithographically in a pale blue ink. When this ‘key line’ print was dampened and the paper allowed to stretch, the intaglio team would make a tracing on acetate from this print and then find the positive film that generated the collage elements that were to be printed intaglio and relief. I would prepare all the copper plates with a photo resist emulsion and process and etch the plates for proofing. These plates would then be steel-faced to ensure that the coloured inks would print cleanly. It was always an exciting moment to pull the first proof complete with all the printed elements.
One of my favourite projects was my collaboration with John Walker on his portfolio Passing Bells. He could draw. His draftsmanship was among the finest of any artist that I had ever worked with. There was never any need for revision, scraping or burnishing. There were no mistakes with either under-etching or over-etching any of the aquatints. His brush marks of stop-out varnish combined with white ground are so well integrated with the original etched line drawing. One day I went in to the artist's studio to pick up the next plate for etching and witnessed John's seven year old son Harry with a fine sable brush in hand loaded with varnish, carefully stopping out an area of a copper plate. I heard John caution his son to make sure and keep to the line.
There were no mistakes here either. When this portfolio was exhibited at the International Fine Print Dealers Fair in New York several of my peers complemented me on the etching and printing of these plates which involved several printers to complete the editioning. It was also a very untypical black and white figurative project for TGL to publish. However I am sure that it is worthy of being included in the continuum of graphic work dealing with the banality of war, and will take its place rightly alongside the etchings of Goya and Otto Dix.
Perhaps the most stressful project was the printing of Helen Frankenthaler’s This is not a book which is actually a book of bound prints. In order to avoid a series of blank pages opposite the prints, it was necessary to print the etchings on the front and back as well as the opposite ends of the long sheets of paper. Most of the images needed at least three runs through the press. Therefore if one run was misregistered or printed below standard, then the whole sheet would be lost. Fortunately this happened rarely because great care was taken by the whole intaglio staff that was involved.
I also have very good memories of working with Joan Mitchell on a series of sugar lift aquatints. Ken suggested that I introduce the carborundum aquatint technique to her. In presenting it to her in the way of samples with test plates and proofs, I mentioned that Juan Miró had done some great work with it. She acerbically replied, “Oh did he now?” She did use it in her diptych print Trees V-A, combining this technique with traditional sugar lift.
My favourite memories of the workshop are the conviviality of the staff when it came to individual birthdays. This was a rare moment when the staff could put production schedules and deadlines aside for about twenty minutes. Everyone, except the person who was celebrating their birthday, would contribute to buying a birthday cake and ice-cream. Then at 3 o'clock we would all congregate in the kitchen and sing happy birthday and enjoy cake, ice-cream and coffee. On one of my birthdays, Frank Stella was working in the studio and someone invited him back for ice-cream and cake. He appeared with a small card of collaged print elements on which he had written, “Happy Birthday, Tony, Frank Stella.” It was very thoughtful of him.
In the fall of 2000, with the dissolution of Tyler Graphics Ltd. and its rebirth as the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, I joined the staff of the Center for Contemporary Printmaking (CCP) as its Artistic Director and Master Printer. These may have been the two titles on my business card but when you join a not-for-profit art institution many tasks can fall on your lap. I established an exhibition program and mounted six exhibitions a year. The first exhibition, Prints and proofs, was a selection of prints by Helen Frankenthaler and demonstrated the collaborative journey that an artist and master printer take from initial proofs to the editioned print. Pegram Harrison, the author of Frankenthaler's catalogue raisonné, came and gave a lecture and I demonstrated the printing of one of Helen's aquatints while Ken and Marabeth Tyler sat with Helen in the audience. Tyler Graphics had generously loaned works for the exhibition, while other prints came from Helen's archives. Several years later CCP established an artist-in-residence annexe in a restored structure adjacent to the main building. For this new AIR program, Helen Frankenthaler donated funds that enabled CCP to purchase a large electric etching press that was being deaccessioned from Universal Limited Artist Editions. She came to the Centre to work with me on some etchings but was not too excited by the results, and promised to return for another visit. When a capital campaign was established to create an endowment to ensure the financial security of CCP, Helen donated the single largest contribution, and in gratitude, CCP named the AIR annexe the Helen Frankenthaler Printmaking Cottage in her honour.
For the exhibition Bouquet, a survey of flowers in print, Frankenthaler, Donald Sultan and John Walker were among forty artists who contributed prints. I had worked with Donald on a series of aquatints during my tenure at TGL, and he accepted my invitation to create an edition which would inaugurate our subscription print program. We refer to this scheme as our annual “mystery print” because none of the one hundred subscribers know beforehand the identity of the artist nor what the print looks like. The artist and the print are revealed at an unveiling reception where attending subscribers get to take their signed and numbered print home.
Other significant exhibitions that I curated were Night vision: printing darkness, Ink from wood: two traditions, Not printed on paper and Printed by master printers. Many of these exhibitions were reviewed in the press, but one review in particular gave me particular satisfaction. In reviewing the exhibition Five Scottish print studios for The New York Times, Ben Genocchio wrote:
Of all the small and alternative art spaces across Connecticut, one of my favourites is the Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Norwalk. It is a modest little place, really a working print studio with some gallery rooms off to one side. But it is here that Anthony Kirk, the centre’s artistic director and master printmaker, assembles periodic exhibitions of such intelligence and quality that they rival the offerings at museums with far more substantial budgets and staff.
My thirteen year stewardship of CCP, which elevated it to a printmaking institution of national and international renown, has recently ended and I have now begun to focus my career solely as a master printer. I continue to give lectures and demonstrations and still enjoy invitations to teach. When I speak publicly about my life as a master printer I usually start a lecture by removing from my pocket a small copper plate covered with a hard ground wax coating and telling the audience that if Rembrandt, Goya, Piranesi or Durer were to come alive before me now they would each recognise what I am holding, and then they would ask me for etching needles and acid. This ancient technology still holds currency for the contemporary artist and I have never lost my enthusiasm for sharing my passion for the medium.
(left to right) Christopher Creyts, Anthony Kirk, Kenneth Tyler and Brian Maxwell moving inked assembled plate for Frank Stella's 'Swoonarie' from the 'Imaginary places' series onto the press bed in preparation for printing, Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York, February 1994. Photographer: Marabeth Cohen-Tyler
Anthony Kirk in workshop wiping colour ink onto copper intaglio plate for page 13 of Helen Frankenthaler's 'This is not a book' book, Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York, 1997. Photographer: Marabeth Cohen-Tyler
John Walker and his son Harry at work during Walker's 'The Studio' project, Tyler Graphics Ltd. artist's studio, Mount Kisco, New York, 1996. Photographer: Marabeth Cohen-Tyler
Collaged birthday card from Frank Stella to Anthony Kirk, 1994
John Walker Passing bells: page 22 1998, etching, aquatint, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Gift of Orde Poynton Esq. CMG 1999
Yasuyuki Shibata and Anthony Kirk working on Frank Stella's woodblock for 'Juam' in the carpark at Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York, 1993. Photographer: Marabeth Cohen-Tyler
Frank Stella La penna di hu (black and white) 1987, relief, etching, aquatint, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund, 2002 © Frank Stella/ARS. Licensed by Viscopy
Last updated October 2016