We take for granted today as indispensable means the rectangular form of the sheet of paper and its clearly defined smooth surface on which one draws and writes. But such a field corresponds to nothing in nature or mental imagery where the phantoms of visual memory come up in a vague unbounded void. —Meyer Schapiro1
When I visited his London house to prepare for the retrospective exhibition “A Layered Practice—Graphic Works 1993–2012,” the eminent British artist Paul Coldwell showed me an old-fashioned etching press in a ground-floor room looking onto the garden.2 He then led me upstairs, past framed prints by Giacometti and Paula Rego, to the studio on the top floor where a laptop lay open on the worktable. Knowing Coldwell’s work, I found this a suggestive spatial arrangement: it is tempting to draw lines between these objects and spaces that are domestic and creative, emulating the way Coldwell’s prints link together common-place objects in allusive sequences. One of these lines (which might be reassuring to those who are suspicious of computer-generated art) would root the artist’s top-floor digital practice in the ground-floor foundation of traditional print technique. Other lines, criss-crossing on the stairs, would trace the constellation of influences that inform his oeuvre and situate it within a history of modern art.
For Coldwell, who was a pioneer of digital image manipulation within serious printmaking, the computer is not an end in itself but a means of working through fundamental artistic concerns derived from the artists who have most influenced him, notably Jasper Johns and Giorgio Morandi. Coldwell shares Johns’ fascination with the logic of print—with doublings, reversals, series and transfers—not for its technical cleverness but for the quality Richard S. Field identified in Johns’ work as “the transference of memory imprints from one object to another.”3
Drawing with a mouse rather than a brush or needle, Coldwell is able to obtain a neutral line that betrays no trace of artistic performance. “I didn’t want to be expressive in a gestural way,” Coldwell has written. “For me, the gesture would just lead into self-indulgence.”4 For him as for Georges Braque, restraint and a limitation of means constitute style.5 Like Johns, Coldwell is also concerned with the function of the “index”—the mark that is also a physical trace, leading the mind from the image to the thing that caused it.6
Coldwell emphasizes the surface most obviously by spreading a screen of halftone dots across it. The halftone dot, he writes:
…not only references the way in which a photographic image must be treated in order to work within printmaking, but also [refers] to press photography and the reproducible image. Whereas before the computer, the nature of the dot could only be set across the whole image, the computer allows for each individual dot to be modified if required. For me this makes the photograph, which was previously a set of fixed relationships, a totally fluid form, infinitely malleable.7
The screen of dots, so characteristic of Coldwell’s prints, accentuates the surface, frustrates our perceptions and acts as a semi-permeable membrane through which we access the image. The halftone dot is here symbolic rather than functional, as digital technology has superseded it as a means of reproducing photographs. As a convention, it carries connotations of 1960s Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, and of Pop prints that used photolithography and screenprint to challenge the concept of the ‘original print.’ Coldwell particularly admires Lichtenstein’s series of prints of cathedrals and haystacks after Monet, “where he takes on Monet’s emotional, direct use of the mark as an equivalent of experience in the open air, and reconstitutes it in the studio as a proposition.”8
Working digitally, Coldwell is able to transform the regular halftone screen, enlarging a dot here, removing one there and turning another from black to white. Instead of delivering the instantaneous “sock to the jaw” of Lichtenstein prints, Coldwell’s manipulated halftone denies a direct approach to the image, setting up temporal and spatial complexities.
In his lithograph and line block print Plane, from the series Means of Escape (2001), Coldwell plays with scale in a way that once again confuses the indexical property of the photograph: the plane in the photograph is a model and the landscape is the studio floor. He further interferes with the authority of the photograph by removing the shadow cast by the plane and then painstakingly redrawing it halftone dot by halftone dot. This labor-intensive process allows him to dwell in the image “so that you begin to actually understand what you want.”
For the print Envelope/Crystal from the artist’s book Kafka’s Doll (2007) (a collaboration with the poet Anthony Rudolf), Coldwell manipulated a photograph of glasses and decanters, reducing the visual information so viewers had “just enough visual clues” to recognize the presence of glass, without any level of detail. The halftone screen laid on top provided the structure for a simple line drawing of an open envelope, constructed by linking selected halftone dots, rendered in white like stars in a constellation. The joined dots anchor the drawing to the surface, but the diagonal orientation of the envelope complicates the tension between surface and depth of field.9
The most persistent sign of Coldwell’s preoccupation with the index, and an appropriate motif in a printmaker’s work, is the fingerprint: at once a sign made by an impression, the signature mark of identity, and a pattern on the surface. It is there in the first set of prints Coldwell designed with the computer, the poignant etching series My Father’s Coat (1995), where it suggests a palpable presence, in counterpoint to the empty coat that it partially obscures. The prints feature a litany of familiar objects—book, chair, necktie—but the personal associations they suggest remain sadly out of reach.
At the time Coldwell made this series of prints, ink-jet technology was not yet archival, so Coldwell photo-etched the images onto copper plates and printed them on an etching press. Intaglio printing has, Coldwell observes, “an assertiveness about it that is different from the way inkjet remains on the surface. The idea of the fingerprint in these prints seemed to demand that sense of pressure.”10
Photoshop allows Coldwell to weave superimposed planes together, but this tendency to think in layers is also intrinsic to etching, and has long been part of Coldwell’s approach—as in the etching set Chairs (1993), where objects and patterns based on fingerprints float and overlap in a dream-like space. The practice of layering images is both ancient and utterly contemporary: think of works like Jasper Johns’ 0 Through 9 (1960) in which, Leo Steinberg argued, the numbers are not exactly superimposed because “the point about these numbers is that they exist in simultaneity in the same single stratum.”11 In a classic essay on non-mimetic constituents of the image-sign, Meyer Schapiro pointed out that while we may take for granted such conventions as a picture field bounded by a frame within which figures are distinguishable from a consistent ground, the Stone Age artist working on the rough surface of the cave wall drew on “a field with no set boundaries and thought so little of the surface as a distinct ground that he often painted his animal figure over a previously painted image without erasing the latter, as if it were invisible to the viewer.”12 Similarly ancient is the impulse to trace patterns that give form and meaning to the immensity of the heavens—and tracing constellations, whether astral or the networks of domestic intimacies, is intrinsic to the dot-to-dot drawings Coldwell makes across his halftone screens.
Coldwell has noted that one of the paradoxes of working with the computer is that, while it facilitates a multilayered approach to the image, “no matter how many layers are used, each individual pixel still only represents a single piece of coded information.” The final print, of course, does not consist of a Photoshop file, but of ink on paper—a physical entity meant, in most cases, to be hung on a wall. This has implications for the scale of the design and its address to the beholder.
I have found it more appropriate, when working with the computer, to think in terms of textiles or carpets where all the information is woven into and across the surface, rather than of painting or printmaking where there can be a wide range of physical surfaces on a single canvas or print and an actual build up of layers.13
This is why screenprints such as Sites of Memory (2006) appear a pointillist blur up close but resolve into separate layers when the beholder takes a more distant viewing position. As Sartre commented of Giacometti’s sculpture, the print itself “determines the distance from which it must be viewed, just as courtly manners determine the distance from which the king must be addressed.”14 This is also why Coldwell often varies and combines printing techniques, reintroducing layers where digital technology had flattened them out. Take, for example, his latest series, Still Lives (2012), which combines digital printing with the humble linocut.
The use of digital and traditional techniques complements Coldwell’s exploration of the semiotic variables of figure, ground and frame. As a result his prints achieve, at times, a representational complexity and subtlety that can make it difficult to apprehend the image at all. This quality culminates in the print series Canopy (2011), printed from laser-cut woodblocks, in which a photograph of London plane trees is barely discernible behind a drawn pattern that Coldwell derived from tracing the drapery of hanging cloth.15 It is in the Canopy series that Coldwell comes closest to abstraction, or at least the near-abstraction of analytical cubism. Where cubism’s attempt to reconcile three with two dimensions resulted in the faceting of space and objects, Coldwell’s rigorous analysis of the means of representation, alongside the means of reproduction, takes the form of an intricate, digitally woven surface. Like cubist painting, the Canopy prints remain rooted in things seen in the world: the folds of cloth take their cue from Francisco de Zurbarán’s Veil of Veronica in Stockholm, one of Coldwell’s favorite paintings. (He first used it in the 1993 etching Chair—Veil.) The sudarium—the legendary cloth miraculously imprinted with the face of Christ when Veronica wiped his face with it—has fascinated printmakers from Albrecht Dürer to Claude Mellan, and can be seen as the ultimate indexical print, with Christ’s face as both subject and template.
Perhaps the deepest influence on Coldwell, however, has been Giorgio Morandi. Coldwell was introduced to Morandi’s art while a student at Canterbury, and it led him to consider art as an experimental process in which subtle changes arise through varying the strictly limited elements of an equation with “dedication, application and sacrifice.”16 Morandi’s art, like Coldwell’s, manipulates space and scale relationships to conflate still life and landscape; it complicates the distinction between figure and ground through the use of shadow and negative space; and it strikes subdued but potent emotional chords through a tonally restrained palette. Morandi’s library of forms—his collection of bottles, vases, jars and bowls (some of which he covered in paint to reduce their visual interest)—are both familiar and disconcertingly odd. Coldwell has similarly sought out and deployed a personal archive of ambiguous objects that recur as motifs throughout his oeuvre: coat, case, chair, envelope, open book, picture frame, bouquet of flowers, coat hanger, shaving kit.
Finally, for Morandi printmaking was at least as significant as painting. From his deceptively modest etchings Coldwell recognized how a shimmering network of crosshatches could be both a renunciation of dramatic gesture and a powerful means of destabilizing things. He has described the surface of Morandi’s Still Life in Broad Strokes (1931) as “a mass of lines, trapping the forms in its web. The image asserts the language of its making; this is not naturalism but the most appropriate form of reconstruction.”17 Coldwell’s Pestle & Mortar (1999) pays tribute to Morandi through a simple image of tools for grinding pigments, suggesting the painter’s honest toil in the domestic laboratory of his Bologna studio, but it also stakes a claim for Coldwell through the superimposed fingerprint.
In 2006 Coldwell curated the exhibition “Morandi’s Legacy,” which created a conversation between Morandi and a diverse group of British artists ranging from Ben Nicholson to Tony Cragg. Coldwell likes to trace points of contact, among artists as well as objects. (Revealingly, his preferred mode of writing is dialogue: the Morandi catalogue featured transcribed conversations with fellow artists Michael Craig-Martin and Patrick Caulfield; his 2005 lecture “Finding Spaces Between Shadows, Layering Memory” was delivered as a conversation with himself.)
A similar dialogue exists within Coldwell’s own oeuvre between prints and sculpture: the sculptures, whose skeletal forms describe negative spaces and the shadows cast by absent objects, enter the prints as photographs, modified and subjected to halftone interference, and the quality of that interference has in turn inspired surface treatments of bronzes.
Coldwell has long been an advocate for the importance and ambition of the contemporary print—an art form Susan Tallman has described as “simultaneously one of the most successful and one of the most disparaged art forms of our time.”18
He dislikes discussions of printmaking that confine themselves to details of technique and relegate printmaking to a craft. If I have dwelt at some length on the technical details of Coldwell’s practice, my purpose has been to articulate the relationship between his process and the resulting prints’ semiotic depth. Take for example the inkjet prints Border (2001). The title refers to the framing device, also used in Landscapes (2002) and Family Tree (2009), which subtly colors the viewer’s response to an essentially monochrome image in a way that recalls Braque’s color lithographs of the 1940s. The title also suggests that the mountains shown may constitute a border—a threshold of exile or liberation. Coldwell has superimposed a hand-drawn bouquet of flowers over the mountains, and through their petals, stems and leaves, the viewer sees the original colors of the mountain photograph beneath. The emotional tone is accessed through the flowers, but what they signify is left ambiguous—do they mark celebration or commemoration?
The flowers, like Coldwell’s other motifs, are oneiric objects that give rise to potentially conflicting associations in the mind of the beholder. They appear to be symbolic, suggesting that while it is through form we arrive at meaning, the means of apprehension restricts our knowledge. Circulating throughout Coldwell’s oeuvre, such objects carry multiple meanings: a coat hanger can be read as an allusion to Johns, but twisted and placed above the skies of burning Baghdad it also acts as a reminder of human suffering (Smoke ).
Layered images with overlapping objects have been a constant in Coldwell’s work since Chairs (1993) and have come to represent the intermingling of memory and imagination, the melancholy oscillation between absence and presence that Gaston Bachelard—one of Coldwell’s favorite authors—found in the nature of the print:
A hermit’s hut. What a subject for an engraving! Indeed real images are engravings, for it is the imagination that engraves them on our memories. They deepen the recollections we have experienced, which they replace, thus becoming imagined recollections.19
- Meyer Schapiro, “On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle in Image Signs,” in Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society, Selected Papers (New York: George Braziller, 1994), 1.
- Paul Coldwell, “A Layered Practice—Graphic Works 1993–2012,” Studio 3 Gallery, University of Kent, Canterbury, 14 January–5 April 2013, and The Stephen Lawrence Gallery, University of Greenwich, London, 14 June–11 July 2013.
- Richard S. Field, Jasper Johns: Prints 1960– 1970, Philadelphia Museum of Art, (New York, Washington and London: Praeger, 1970), unpaginated, but 31 after start of essay.
- Paul Coldwell, Finding Spaces Between Shadows, Layering Memory, inaugural professorial lecture presented at Chelsea College of Art and Design, 7 March 2005 (London: The Camberwell Press, 2005), 40.
- George Braque, “Thoughts and Reflections on Art” (1917), Herschel B. Chipp (ed.), Theories of Modern Art (1968) (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1996), 260: “Limitation of means determines style, engenders new form, and gives impulse to creation.”
- For a classic treatment of this subject that resonates with aspects of Coldwell’s art, see: Rosalind Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Part 1” and “Part 2” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: MIT Press, 1985), 196–19. Coldwell uses the computer to blunt the indexical force of the photographic sources he overlays in his prints, reducing detail and adding interference to make the task of reading the image more problematic and draw attention to the graphic, printed surface rather than the photographic illusion beyond. ((The reappraisal of the print’s surface occasioned by digital technology has been a preoccupation of Coldwell’s academic research: “beyond the digital surface,” “the surface as meaning,” “digital and physical surfaces” and “the personalized surface” are some of the descriptive titles of research projects he has been involved with.
- Paul Coldwell, “The Surface as Meaning,” in Beyond the Digital Surface (London: University of the Arts London and Seoul: Ewha Womans University, 2004), 48.
- Where quotations from the artist are not attributed to his published writings they derive, as here, from interviews and correspondence with the author carried out in August 2012.
- Paul Coldwell, “Envelope/Crystal from Kafka’s Doll” in FADE, Digital and Physical Surfaces (London: University of the Arts London, 2007), 22.
- Coldwell, Finding Spaces between Shadows, 31.
- Leo Steinberg, “Jasper Johns: the First Seven Years of His Art” (1962) in Other Criteria (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 52.
- Meyer Schapiro, “On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art” 1-3.
- Coldwell, “The Surface as Meaning” 48.
- Quoted by Coldwell in Finding Spaces Between Shadows 44.
- Plane trees also appear in the two Family Tree prints (2009), where their seed balls merge almost imperceptibly into the surface of halftone dots.
- Paul Coldwell, Morandi’s Legacy: Influences on British Art, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal and Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London (London: Philip Wilson, 2006), 13.
- Ibid., 30.
- Paul Coldwell, Printmaking. A Contemporary Perspective (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2010) and also numerous contributions to Print Quarterly and Art in Print. Susan Tallman, The Contemporary Print from Pre-Pop to Postmodern, London: Thames & Hudson, 1996, p. 7.
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (first published 1958), trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 31-2.