When printmaking was embraced as a contemporary art form

At the Norton Simon Museum, an exhibition examining the L.A. area's postwar printmaking boom begins with a different sort of graphic.

It's not a Richard Diebenkorn lithograph, an Ed Ruscha screenprint or any of the 150 or so other works in "Proof: The Rise of Printmaking in Southern California."

Gracing the title wall is a six-foot-wide bubble diagram — what "Proof" curator Leah Lehmbeck calls "a map of all the complexities, crossovers, key institutions and people covered in the show," which runs at the Pasadena museum through April 2.

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The exhibition delves into an important chapter in American art history: the L.A.-based renaissance in the '60s and '70s, during which printmaking was embraced as a contemporary art form. The surge in interest was sparked by artist June Wayne and the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, her pioneering training studio, and fueled by two other innovative shops, Gemini G.E.L. and Cirrus Editions, both started by Tamarind alums.

"Proof" also looks at the results of this renaissance, its three rooms filled with works by many of the high-powered artists from both coasts who made prints here. Among them are Josef Albers, Sam Francis, Ed Moses, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg, Diebenkorn, Ruscha and Wayne.

Lehmbeck says she chose to open with the bubble-filled chart because it provides a quick visual summary of what's to come and illustrates one of the show's major themes: There is more to L.A.'s printmaking past than is commonly thought.

"The story is usually told as if Tamarind came out of nowhere. Poof! And then, it's a linear narrative from Tamarind to Gemini to Cirrus," says Lehmbeck, an associate curator at the Norton Simon. Often overlooked is the small but active print community that has existed in Southern California since the '30s, as well as what she describes as "the network of printers, artists, curators, collectors, dealers and institutions that came together with Tamarind, supporting printmaking as a cause."

The exhibition, which opened last fall as part of the Pacific Standard Time initiative, and its companion publication celebrate the contributions of Wayne and the workshops. They also explore the world outside the shops, says Lehmbeck, "including the many college programs and artists like Sister Corita Kent, who were experimenting on their own."

And they take note of key figures in the print community such as fine-art lithographer Lynton Kistler, collector Fred Grunwald, dealer and antiquarian bookseller Jake Zeitlin and curator Ebria Feinblatt, who built a significant collection of prints at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

(The Norton Simon's predecessor, the Pasadena Art Museum, also developed extensive holdings. Most of the pieces in "Proof" come from the Norton Simon's collection.)

"People always ask, 'Why L.A.?'" says Lehmbeck. "Why did the revival occur here? One reason is this support network for printmaking. Then, certain things came together. And of course, June Wayne happened to live here."

Passionate about art and advocacy, Wayne began making lithographs at Kistler's studio in the late '40s; a decade later, she went to Paris to work on an illustrated book inspired by John Donne's poetry with master printer Marcel Durassier. When she returned, she was ready to take on a new mission — reviving the art of lithography, then at a low ebb in America because it and other forms of printmaking were seen as being technically daunting and lacking the vitality of paint on canvas.

Armed with a Ford Foundation grant, Wayne opened Tamarind in 1960. Her strategy: train artisan-printers. Establish a collaborative environment in which artists and printers pursued creative visions. Spread the word about lithography.

Many Tamarind printers went on to start their own shops, including Ken Tyler, who — along with partners Sidney B. Felsen and Stanley Grinstein — formed Gemini G.E.L. in 1966, and Jean Milant, who began Cirrus Editions in 1970. Gemini initially was known for working with East Coast artists and Cirrus with Californians. All three workshops broke ground. "But, Tamarind was like a school, so it had its rules," says Lehmbeck. "At the other places, people could try anything they wanted."

To bring all this history to life, Lehmbeck uses the prints themselves. She has displayed the art chronologically, she says, "so you can see how spectacular this renaissance was, see where you were going in terms of scale and technique."

The show moves from intimate pre-Tamarind black-and-whites to pieces bigger and bolder or subtler and more sophisticated to experiments with different methods and materials such as polyurethane or Pepto-Bismol.

The first room includes Tamarind works through the mid-'60s — "Minimalist, Abstract Expressionist, Conceptual, Pop art and figurative prints" that, says Lehmbeck, demonstrate how adaptable lithography can be.

The second room highlights technical advances occurring at places such as Gemini between 1965 and 1970. One life-size example is Rauschenberg's 1967 self-portrait "Booster," a then-record-setting six-foot-tall lithograph and screenprint. Also featured are prints by Kent and others working outside the workshops.

Chris Burden, John Cage and Ed Kienholz are among the artists represented in the final gallery, which focuses on the '70s — when, says Lehmbeck, the influences of Cirrus and Conceptual art were strongly felt. "I ended with a Baldessari dated 1988 because I wanted to leave us going forward with somebody who continues to print."

L.A.'s current printmaking scene remains lively, Lehmbeck says, noting that "even though Tamarind moved to New Mexico in 1970, Gemini, Cirrus and so many Tamarind-trained printers are still around."

Ed Hamilton worked at all three major shops and was Wayne's private printer before he and Ruscha started Hamilton Press in Venice in 1990.The Norton Simon exhibition "encapsulates the entire history beautifully," says Hamilton, 70, who printed a number of pieces in the show. He adds that the attention paid to how prints were made gives a sense of "the joy of working on something and proofing it and seeing something more than what you envisioned at the beginning. The whole experience — the physical work, the collaboration — shouldn't be lost. This is the art."

Lehmbeck says Wayne, whom she interviewed several times before the artist's death at age 93 last year, also appreciated having the broader story told. "One of the first things June said was how important it was to recognize that Tamarind didn't happen on its own. She was thrilled we were talking about what came before, what came after, who helped her."

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