Intaglio Techniques at Crown Point Press

Innovation in printmaking, from woodblock and lithography to silkscreen and solvent transfers, proliferated in the postwar United States—and nowhere did more remarkable advancements in intaglio technique take place than at Crown Point Press in the 1970s. (Intaglio is an Italian loanword describing a wide variety of techniques used to transform the surface of a metal plate.) Kathan Brown founded Crown Point in California in 1962 with the intention of reviving intaglio among contemporary artists. Brown’s desire to preserve intaglio as a medium coincided with her generation’s growing fear that certain printmaking techniques would disappear for lack of skilled practitioners.

John Cage (American, 1912–1992), Score without Parts(40 Drawings by Thoreau): Twelve Haiku, 1978. Hard-ground etching, soft-ground etching, photo-etching, drypoint, sugarlift aquatint, and engraving on heavyweight Rives BFK buff wove paper, sheet: 56.8 x 75.8 cm. Printed and published by Crown Point Press. Gift of James Kraft, Class of 1957 (x1993-223). © 2014 John Cage TrustOn a more elemental level, preservation of printmaking processes occurred in the postwar era because of serendipitous encounters between discarded materials—including nearly obsolete machinery—and visionary individuals. In the late 1950s, Brown traveled to Edinburgh and, in the backyard of her boardinghouse, discovered a rusted etching press. Rescued from its junkyard doom by Brown, the press was soon on a freighter to California, becoming the means to establish Crown Point Press.

In an era of burgeoning art-world professionalism that heightened focus on the individual artist, Brown established an alternative: a collaborative workshop model that merged the talents of artists, printers, and publishers. The publisher Parasol Press in New York City forged a partnership with Crown Point to work on commissions by painters known for their Minimalist sensibility. Robert Feldman, director of Parasol Press, identified artists like Robert Mangold, who he felt would benefit from the opportunity to explore, under the guidance of master printers, techniques that underscored the Minimalist commitment to spatial dimensionality and serialization.Joan Jonas (American, born 1936), Reflection, 1979. Aquatint on white wove paper, sheet: 59.5 x 89.9 cm. Printed and published by Crown Point Press. Gift of James Kraft, Class of 1957 (2006-270 b). © 2014 Joan Jonas

The 1970s also marked the emergence of Conceptual Art, in which the idea behind the artwork took center stage. The eight artists exhibited here—John Cage, Joan Jonas, Jannis Kounellis, Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Edda Renouf, and Pat Steir—were associated with Conceptual Art to varying degrees. Too often this movement is misunderstood as necessitating the disappearance of the art object. This constellation of prints reminds us that even idea-based art requires a whole battery of materials: burin, stylus, copperplate, ink, paper, acid bath, solvent, rosin, turpentine, and so forth. Brown introduced many artists to the craft of printmaking and proved the medium’s ability to respond to the modern world by coinventing experimental techniques. Jonas’s print Reflection, for example, is made using soap ground, a printmaking technique that Crown Point is largely responsible for developing. It involves painting the metal plate’s surface with a combination of soap flakes and linseed oil to create tonal gradations without hard edges. Gestures once defined within specific media like drawing, painting, dance, and sculpture overtly crossfertilize in the printmaking processes on view here. Cage’s Score Without Parts embraces the musical score common to dance choreography, highlighting the intrinsic performativity in printmaking processes as well as the history of dance notation. This selection of prints demonstrates that even if artists challenged the bounds of traditional media in late-twentieth-century art, they still leveraged meaning in their work through exploring specific material supports; in these cases, intaglio reigned.

Erica Cooke
Ph.D. Student, Department of Art & Archaeology
Andrew W. Mellon Research Assistant