Kenneth Tyler: In Conversation
Set against the backdrop of the exhibition California Cool, National Gallery of Australia Director Nick Mitzevich was joined by Kenneth Tyler AO for an in-depth conversation about printmaking, California in the 60s and 70s and his remarkable career working with the luminaries of the American art world.
Nick Mitzevich: Good morning everybody, welcome to the NGA this morning, my name is Nick Mitzevich and it’s my great pleasure to welcome here to this extraordinary group of works known as California Cool. But that’s not the only extraordinary thing that we have happening today. But before I get to our very extraordinary guest, I’d like to acknowledge that we meet on the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and pay our respects to their elders past and present, and make very clear that we are such a proud custodian of the largest collection of Aboriginal art in the world. It’s our privilege and responsibility to look after this collection, on behalf of the people of Australia.
Today is another privilege, to welcome Ken Tyler to Canberra. Ken Tyler is an extraordinary figure in international art in the 20th century. He has worked with some of the greatest artists who have defined our time and we are so fortunate, as well as all of that, that he is such an incredible benefactor, philanthropist and a man who makes things happen. Please welcome Ken Tyler.
Ken, it’s so great to have you here in Canberra again.
Kenneth Tyler: Thank you.
NM: We started our relationship with Ken in 1973, when James Mollison bought a group of works from Ken’s studio, and that started an extraordinary series of events and if we fast forward to today, Ken has assembled an unrivalled collection that spans from the 1960s to the present day that captures some of the most forward-thinking artists of our generation. It’s so wonderful to sit around the exhibition California Cool and reflect on the works in the Tyler Collection. Also, to reflect back on that time. Before I start asking Ken some questions, I just want to stop and remind our audience that over the last ten years, as well as building a collection with us, you’ve really advanced scholarship with named curatorial positions to allow primary research to happen, and to allow the NGA to become the epicentre of knowledge and a reference point for your collection. I wanted to just take this opportunity to again publicly thank you for that great sense of confidence in the NGA and understanding that a collection can only come to life if people can gain access to it and together, we can make it work.
KT: My pleasure
NM: Ken, you were around in Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s. Why do you think that moment in time was such a flourishing and creative period?
KT: A lot of things were happening. Two of the most important things that were happening that seldom get mentioned was that the beginning of the 1960s was when a lot of corporations and executives began to collect art for their buildings. Which meant that as a printmaker, making multiples, that I had a place to put these things. All sorts of things that were getting bigger and bigger in size. Add to this, that California was an epicentre for a lot of freedom that attracted people from all around the world. David Hockney, Richard Hamilton, a lot of these English painters came over. They were ecstatic. A lot of the New York School came over and of course they stayed and worked and had shows. It was a time when I think a lot of people had the feeling that anything was possible. There were a group of people, a large group of people who worked in the arts and there was a lot of industry that was involved in the arts, there was Disney, there was Krofft enterprise, you had all those people who were busy making art in another way. It was a wonderful time to be there. I came over as a fellow from the Ford Foundation to be at Tamarind Lithography workshop which had started in the early 60s and then later I became the technical director there, so had a wonderful platform to jump off from to start my own workshop. It was a time where anything was possible, nobody really cared if you looked the part or didn’t. That you were there was what was important and that you were participating in what was going on. From the Vietnam War protests to the street protests to the, as they say, people from San Francisco coming down to invade Los Angeles. There was a great interchange taking place in California. It was not just LA. I think it was a golden moment for me. I can’t imagine doing that on the East Coast. The East Coast was too stuffy.
NM: You ran with it, and you opened your first print studio. Why did you give it the name Gemini?
KT: I was interested in the aerospace program. I was also interested in two: Gemini is two. It made a very nice chop mark. It was no more than that.
NM: I think that’s a great historic moment and reference point. It’s certainly big ideas. One of things your studio became known for was the style of prints that you developed. How would you categorize the style of prints that were coming out of your print studio?
KT: Where I was coming from was Tamarind, which was a teaching institution and Tamarind had lots of size limitations and lots of rules. I was against the size limitation because I like bigger, coming from the Mid-West which has big expansive landscapes I always had that in my head, that big was okay. I certainly didn’t like rules, so when I opened my own workshop it was really a question of ‘how do I sell it’? I had already worked with some of the Californian artists, [Edward] Ruscha and Ken Price and John Altoon and Sam Francis. So I knew that I had potential here in Los Angeles, but I also knew that the famous artists were on the East Coast, I also knew because I have a part-business mind that if you want to make money in this print business you have to get big names. What really truly influenced me was that I always had the good fortune to latch onto very intelligent people as mentors and advisors. One case was Bill [William] Lieberman from the Museum of Modern Art: he came over and was a supporter of Tamarind. He did a lecture at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] and he said that “great artists make great prints”. Period. He said that and you could’ve inscribed that on my forehead. I never forgot it. So, I said, okay if that’s the case, I can’t waste any time here, I’ve got to reach out and I reached out to Albers. Josef [Albers] wasn’t available right away to work with me. We’d become fast friends at Tamarind, I’d done two portfolios with him. He was enamoured with my work and had said that he’d always work with me in the future if I ever opened my own workshop. I had a lot of people telling me that. When I opened my own workshop, I had people in the back room so to speak. So, Albers came across with ‘White Line Squares’ which was a very technical problem for me to solve and for Josef to realise, if he had the patience, which he did. We did this remarkable project. I was fortunate to start out that small, because it didn’t stay small for very long. The first artist I got in from Castelli [Gallery] was Robert Rauschenberg. The first thing he said was ‘I want to do a print as big as me’. 6-feet in lithography, in those days, was unheard of, but we pulled it off and did ‘Booster’ in a very short period of time. At that time one of my mentors was Marcel Durassier, the Master Printer of Mourlot Printing workshop in Paris, and he was brought over to Tamarind to advise while I was technical director. He took a shine to me and I took a shine to him and we became fast-friends. He gave me his roller and I thought to myself, ‘well I’m really going to sail through life now, I’ve got Marcel Durassier’s roller – that’s fantastic’. When I finished ‘Booster’ I couldn’t wait to send him a picture. I got back the most stinging rebuke: ‘Lithography is not meant to be over 40 inches’.
We kind of parted as friends for a while. Years later I went to Paris on the invitation of Arjomari Prioux [Paper Company] which was doing a lot of paper research for me – they were responsible for the big roll of paper that made 52-inch available to the art world for the first time. Which made it possible to do very large works for the first time. When I get to Paris, I go to see Marcel Durassier at Mourlot, and by this time he’s kind of mellowed and he said, ‘maybe you’ll come back to the small print’. He was not convinced that I was going to do that, but I assured them that I would. I said I would do a percentage as small prints as I do big ones. That was the beginning of the big explosion. As each and every one of the Castelli Gallery artists came over, we were seeing [Ellsworth] Kelly, [Jasper] Johns etc. The scale kept getting larger and larger.
NM: How did you approach the scale? You did things in your studio that no one else could do. There a was the drive and the ambition and creativity that you saw in California, but from a technical perspective, how did you approach the ambition of breaking that barrier and that the artist and your studio could come together and the work could come to fruition?
KT: A lot things go into it: part of the equation is that you have to have the large presses and that I was willing to do and I love designing stuff and making all the apparatus to go up from the 30 x 40 inch paper. I think when you say to your prospective audience in the print workshop that there are no rules and that we’ll do whatever we have to do to make your work possible. Dream up something. Give us a problem and we will solve it. We would do trials and tests before we would invite anybody over to do a project. I would do my homework and see what I could do to push buttons. I think it was always about having a free work experience where the artist was the important ingredient in all of this. It wasn’t the press. It wasn’t the stones. It was not the collaborative act. It was the artist. [William] Lieberman was right, if you brought in a great artist, they start churning out great art and you had no choice but to do a good job and you had to run scared. It was 24/7. I enjoyed it, I loved it and it payed off. I think If I had gone the other way, which is what many workshops did, to do custom printing for a fee, then I would’ve been spinning my wheels and going nowhere. It was good that I started early as a publisher and stayed that way and spent a lot of time to, I think, both in Bedford and Mount Kisco, break ground not only because we increased the scale of printmaking but we increased the techniques, we increased the processes that were used, the presses that we made were extra-large. We also incorporated a papermill, so we made it a one-stop shopping centre, a candy store that no good artist could refuse. We fed them as much candy as they could take. We also reinvented ourselves. I say ‘ourselves’ because the business of making prints or paper work is a collaborative act. It takes a lot of people; it takes a lot of time; it takes a lot of energy. They’re as responsible as the artist in terms of getting that art out and onto something that you can see, touch or feel. By incorporating a facility that not only made objects, multiples, in bronze or wood or whatever technique would be used. Or to make a mixed media print or a variant print, which is something that we pioneered – that is, something where there is a stable print and you allow the artist to vary it so that each and every one comes out unique. They’re given numbers, like editions but they were called variant editions.
NM: It’s quite clear to me that you were very focused on documenting the things that you were doing. Were you aware that you were writing and making art history at the time?
KT: Ummmm… I don’t know.
NM: That’s a very gracious answer.
KT: Some days perhaps I thought so. I was busy working. Frank Stella and I have a phrase that we use when we don’t want to tell anybody anything more, which is that ‘it’s all about work’ and it is. It really is truly all about work. I tell stories constantly about that work and I think these stories are the history. I’m hoping in fact – Jane [Kinsman] and I were just talking about that – the importance of these stories, in the sense of the history. It’s a complicated road to follow and its part of the renaissance of printmaking, has been that it has been spotty. There have been moments when it’s been great in papermaking and there have been moments when it’s been great in lithography, but when you put it all together, and look at it over a span of several decades, it starts to have a rhythm. It got bigger and better because technology got bigger and better. I just don’t mean digital technology, because I stayed away from the digital thing, much to the consternation of David Hockney at times, who would accuse me of being a… well, whatever…
I thought that keeping the hand involved was essential to whatever I was doing, and I avoided the computer and all the photography elements that went into it, unless the artist was going to use photography along with the hand. To me that was okay – such as the examples on the wall of Ken Price and the photographic image.
NM: you mentioned Frank Stella and Robert Motherwell, they’ve been long-time collaborators, how does that creative collaboration work between the master printmaker and the artist – certainly you and Frank have developed over 4 decades a working relationship – how do those two things come together in your mind?
KT: One of the reasons why I left the West Coast and went east was because I wanted to develop a one-to-one relationship with artists, for longer and longer periods of time. I went from having a visiting artist for two or three weeks to having an artist for 3-5 years on a project. Most of those projects were with Frank Stella. That was the longest period that any contemporary artist and printmaker were together. We were like an old married couple after a while, we didn’t speak we just worked and grunted. The proof in the pudding really lies in the fact that if you spend a lot of time working with a particular artist and the goal is to come closer and closer to their studio image-making in the workshop doing prints or doing multiples. I was able to hold together a group of some 20-odd people that were really dedicated and that stayed for a long time. That helped us. Frank and I called them ‘the team’. We referred to them often as the team and took photos of the team when we did projects to documented that those were the people who made this possible. To this day I still insist upon whenever you show a print, please mention the printers, please put their name underneath it. They are as important as the artist. I keep saying this hoping that everyone will get this through their heads, that what you’re looking at is a culmination of talents, put together to equal that.
NM: You did two really innovative things; one was that you extended your studio to do three-dimensional objects. Then you took the radical step to move from the West Coast to the East Coast, can you tell us a little bit more about taking the leap into three dimensional objects and multiples?
KT: We were doing this on the West Coast, we then took it one step further and this was with [Roy] Lichtenstein and Frank Stella. I think the biggest hurdle that we had to cross to the East Coast was that I had to stop dreaming that I could have this small little thing in the country making prints. That’s one thing that I thought I needed after running this big operation on the West Coast. But it didn’t happen. The fortunate part of that is that being close to people like Motherwell and Stella, I was getting a new art education and spending more and more time in the studio was priceless. By the time I got into the first year on the East Coast into my little carriage house I found that it was having additions built onto it. Suddenly my presses were getting bigger and suddenly I was adding more technology into this little country shop. It just broke loose and by the time the mid-80s happened, I had a huge 28 000 square foot plant in Mt Kisco, the neighbouring village, and that was the beginning of putting all these hard years beforehand to the test. Could we do these things that we envisioned doing. I say we, because if it’s not my wife Marabeth, it was the printers helping me resolve some of the problems that we had in making the equipment and making the techniques possible to accomplish what it is that we were trying to do. You have the confluence of equipment, space, mixed media, bringing all sorts of crafts together and then working with people on the outside such as Swan Engraving in Bridgeport, Connecticut, who would be responsible for the magnesium plate work that did since the early 80s. They have a monopoly on magnesium plates and their big business was making etched magnesium plates for making tablecloths for the Third World. When I first took Frank [Stella] there he was delighted with that. He said ‘tablecloths for the Third World? Oh wonderful! Where are the plates?’, So they took him to the etching department, and they had huge plate. Some were 8 or 9 feet tall for making these table clothes. Frank just went nuts. They did the wise thing and gave him some scraps and of course he ran back to the studio to ink them up and he loved the relief, the stamped-out look. That was the beginning of that. Without that segue from that corporation that was willing to help us, to our workshop with parts and pieces going back and forth, a lot of the work that Frank and I developed over the next decade wouldn’t have happened. There is a role for the outside helping in a way that’s terribly unique. You make friends and these friends aren’t necessarily printers. The owner of Swann engraving, Bob Swann, became a collector and started buying the things that we were working on. Part of the product was product that he made. He gave us permission to set up a very elaborate workshop in one of his buildings that Frank was using for making his 1980s reliefs. All the honeycomb reliefs were all manufactured there. Some of the skeins, the magnesium skeins, that were drawn by Frank and etched and then laminated onto the honeycomb. Others were aluminium plates that were cut out by laser. All of those machines and materials that were there, were at our disposal. That actually gave my shop a bigger array of things to work with. If you were to say ‘how big was the workshop?’, it was as big as all the people I worked with. The most important part of this was that the group of people I worked with on the East Coast, they were kind of the ‘senior artists’ by this time. There was [Robert] Motherwell and the older ones, there was Roy [Lichtenstein] and [Ellsworth] Kelly and Frank [Stella] and Jasper [Johns] and Bob [Robert Rauschenberg]. They were all now the senior artists of America and whatever was going on with their studios, and whatever was going on with the print studio was significant. They were churning out work that I think was just a remarkable part of their life. There’s this saying that the older an artist gets the better they get – some of that’s true. We were able to capture some of that before they passed away. It was a steady loss of people through the years, which was a loss for printmaking. The loss of some of these artists was unbearable because they were so gifted. When they left there was a hole. There was a vacuum. We had to fill that so we started to work again with younger artists, trying to bring them up to a level that would be very beneficial to the workshop. Some of them didn’t make it very far either. The fuel that the engine is hungry for all the time… you’ve got to have the ability to replenish the artistic talent. This is the dilemma that all workshops and publishers face.
NM: One of the things that I find fascinating about your working relationships is that you did new things in the printmaking medium, but that interaction you had with the artist actually spurred them on in their wider practice. Do you want to comment on how pushing the printmaking medium and the relationship that you had, then had a ripple effect on their wider practice?
KT: The one that comes to mind immediately was that when David Hockney was having a roadblock in painting, and he was looking for new ways to express himself in paint, he wound up having dinner at my house in Bedford Village. He had been looking at some of the work Ellsworth Kelly had been doing with me, which were paper pulp pieces, and he was excited by that. That excitement led to David staying 49 days with me and the Paper Pool project. The Paper Pool project freed him as a painter. It gave him the ability to be larger and more simple in image-making and less fastidious. He was known for his very accurate drawings and all of a sudden, he was known for these large colour-fields of texture and paper pulp. It was significant. It influenced the whole paper movement throughout the world.
NM: That moment was a turning point and a breakthrough moment for his whole practice as well.
KT: Exactly. I think that in Stella’s case it was happening every ten years or so, that he would reinvent a style and go off in another direction. Younger artists such as Nancy Graves got a lot of wonderful stuff out of doing monotypes and that affected her drawing. There’s always been a cause and effect going on.
NM: I think that’s one of the extraordinary elements that makes your working relationships remarkable. That you pushed the medium of printmaking in collaboration with the artist. In doing so, that influenced and had such an amazing ripple-effect on the artists’ wider practice. Hockney as the case in point, and Stella multiple times, where you see the inventiveness and how the print medium was pushed in your collaboration and it spurred him on to be more inventive the older he got in his practice. I think that’s one of the most distinctive elements. The collaboration that Ken has had with many of the artists that have defined the 20th century. The relationship itself spurred innovation, but the ripple-effect was that it had a profound impact on the practice of the artist as well and I think that’s what defines Ken’s relationship and the potency of the Ken Tyler Studio in the history of art. It’s been so amazing to have you here Ken. It’s our great privilege to work with Ken and be the custodian of the archive. I thank Ken and Marabeth for their extraordinary patronage and support of the National Gallery [of Australia].