Screenprint 2014

Daniel MacAdam, Hot Water Music (2013), seven-color screenprint poster, 17 1/2 x 23 inches. Edition of 170. Printed and published by Crosshair Silkscreen Printing, Chicago.

Daniel MacAdam, Hot Water Music (2013), seven-color screenprint poster, 17 1/2 x 23 inches. Edition of 170. Printed and published by Crosshair Silkscreen Printing, Chicago.

Everything depends on perspective. Guido Lengwiler’s new book on the history of screenprinting (reviewed in this issue) carries the subtitle, “How an Art Evolved into an Industry.” Richard S. Field’s 1971–72 exhibition on the history of screenprints might well have been subtitled, “How an Industry Evolved into Art.” Since its inception, screenprint has been both a pragmatic instrument of commercial design and a folksy, artisanal craft. But as contemporary art continues to borrow and manipulate the artifacts of commerce (like screenprint), and commerce continues to find profit in positioning its products as arty (like screenprint), the tango of art and industry, medium and message, becomes ever more convoluted.

Field’s exhibition, “Silkscreen: History of a Medium” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was a watershed, establishing a scrappy commercial technology as an important vehicle of contemporary art. The medium had been around for less than a century, used mainly as a way to repeat bright simple designs on felt flags, packing crates and posters. (The attempt to rebrand it as an expressive, gestural medium under the moniker “serigraphy” had enjoyed only moderate success.) Screenprint seemed a world away from the fluid gestures and diaphanous tones on which etching and lithography based their status as fine art. In 1971, that was the point.

The show illuminated the alignment between the stylistic concerns of the 1960s and the inherent aptitudes of screenprint—its photomechanical convenience and gift for sharp edges, strong colors and impenitent flat surfaces. Field pulled its origins into the light, giving serious scholarly attention to signage, posters and advertising and finding meaning there: “the processes, attitudes, images, and structural (formal) conventions of commercial printing forge common links between the art of the 1960s and the strictly use-oriented, industrial product.”1 In other words, screenprint was relevant to contemporary art not despite its commercial utility but because of it. It was cheap and fast, and it made it easy to delegate physical production, thus increasing the distance between the art object and the artist’s hand and helping to shift the weight of authorship from execution to concept. Patrick Caulfield, who produced some of the most beautiful and poignant prints of the period, acknowledged, “I couldn’t do a silkscreen of my own if I was given the chance. I don’t see why it’s necessary really.”2

Moreover, screenprint’s photomechanical capabilities aided and abetted the appropriation and recapitulation of borrowed images, fundamentally changing what contemporary art thought it was about. “Style,” Field wrote, “became a matter of media paraphrase rather than the result of the artist’s hand.”3 It was a paradigm shift.

Left: Patrick Caulfield, Crying to the walls: My God! My God! Will she relent? Center: Thus she would come, escaped, half-dead to my door. Right: She fled along the avenue. All from Some Poems of Jules Laforgue, Edition C (1973), book of twenty-two screenprinted illustrations for twelve poems in three varying editions, image 40.5 x 35.5 cm, sheet 61 x 56 cm. Edition of 100. Courtesy of the artist and Alan Cristea Gallery.

Left: Patrick Caulfield, Crying to the walls: My God! My God! Will she relent? Center: Thus she would come, escaped, half-dead to my door. Right: She fled along the avenue. All from Some Poems of Jules Laforgue, Edition C (1973), book of twenty-two screenprinted illustrations for twelve poems in three varying editions, image 40.5 x 35.5 cm, sheet 61 x 56 cm. Edition of 100. Courtesy of the artist and Alan Cristea Gallery.

The exhibition checklist reads like a directory of the critical artists of a critical decade: Thomas Bayrle, Caulfield, Christo, Richard Hamilton, Jasper Johns, Sol Lewitt, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, Robert Rauschenberg, Bridget Riley, Dieter Roth,4 Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol—the list goes on and on.  Aided by a handful of talented printers (Kelpra Studios in London, Edition Domberger in Stuttgart, Ives-Stillman in New Haven and others), they changed the landscape of print and of painting.

Today screenprint is accepted as one of the essential printmedia phyla, alongside relief, intaglio, lithography and now digital. Virtually every academic printmaking department offers it, as do the majority of fine art printers. But the medium gets short shrift in art historical surveys,5 perhaps because its history is that much shorter or because it is still perceived as a bit dumb. (Jasper Johns, who made some of the most virtuosic screenprints of the 20th century, observed, “silkscreen, basically, is very simple minded. It’s simply an opening through which ink can go and be deposited on paper. And the fact that the silk is there allows you to have very complex openings.”6 If intaglio, lithography and relief glow with the patina of age and pedigree, while digital gleams with the seductive promise of a new iPhone, screenprint is just kind of there.

Newspaper photograph taken at 1969 premiere of HPSCHD showing screenprinting of smocks and other garments with the Beethoven/Cage design being distributed to the audience. Reproduced by permission of The News-Gazette, Inc. Permission does not imply endorsement.

Newspaper photograph taken at 1969 premiere of HPSCHD showing screenprinting of smocks and other garments with the Beethoven/Cage design being distributed to the audience. Reproduced by permission of The News-Gazette, Inc. Permission does not imply endorsement.

But “there” is everywhere. On paper and walls and metal and stone; on gig posters and monumental canvases. On skateboards and circuit boards and dashboards, not to mention all those T-shirts. Both Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street depend on it. Etching and lithography—even video and performance art—seem to have clear parameters and identifiable centers in comparison to screenprint. This fluidity may be the closest thing screenprint has to a distinctive identity, which makes it either the most boring or the most interesting medium on the planet.

Andy MacDougall is a Vancouver Island–based printer, author and proselytizer for screenprint. He is fascinated by the idea that “the same process that lets an artist make multiples of their work with a squeegee, a stencil and mesh on a frame also makes the control interfaces and electronic guts of most of our digital consumer products.”7 His website, Squeegeeville, offers resources for artists, designers and manufacturers. When asked to name his most rewarding adventures with screenprint, MacDougall mentions the American Poster Institute (which organizes the Flatstock rock poster shows); the Lengwiler book, which he helped bring to fruition; and One Tribe Design and Screenprinting, an organization of local First Nations (aboriginal) youth with whom he works. The range of activities is telling—even among people who care passionately about technique, screenprint can be as much a social device as a visual one.

The medium’s “simple-mindedness” makes it a convenient entry point for students and amateurs. (Experts acknowledge that it is very easy to do but extremely difficult to do well.) The mechanism is essentially self-explanatory. Since you print through the template there is no left-right reversal between the template and the print, and the act of printing occupies a few seconds. “Cost effective, easy, and rewarding,” is how artist and professor Jeffrey Dell describes it.8 For those eager to begin photo-screenprinting, a kit with everything you need can be purchased in a strip mall for under $150. The more DIY-minded forego kits in favor of homemade exposure units and bathtub washout booths.

In Minnesota, Screen Printing on the Cheap (SPOTC) has built a bicycle-trailer mobile press that can be pedaled around arts festivals, where anyone can be invited to pull prints, The imagery is often simple—SPOTC’s logo or a relevant message. For nighttime events they break out glow-in-the-dark ink. The goal of these activities, and of SPOTC’s eponymous book, is to make printing accessible to everyone.

Views from Rikrit Tiravanija’s “FEAR EATS THE SOUL” at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York (5 March–23 April 2011).

Views from Rikrit Tiravanija’s “FEAR EATS THE SOUL” at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York (5 March–23 April 2011).

This easy adaptability has also made screenprinting a common tool for nonprofits and community groups advocating self-expression and cultural awareness; some work out of basements and garages while others, like Taller Arte del Nuevo Amanecer (TANA), operate state-of-the-art facilities. Connected to the department of Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Davis, TANA offers workshops for preteens through adults, as well as a gallery.

Other organizations employ screenprinting as a tool of social and economic mobility as well as religion. John 3:16 Screen Printing Ministry describes itself as a “Spiritual Boot Camp for Men with Addictions” that teaches a marketable skill to people who are often dismissed by potential employers. Houston-based Generation One mixes Christian ministry with screenprinting in the city’s impoverished Third Ward, providing at-risk young men with a potential career path. Screenprinting is seen as not just adaptable but marketable.

For many of these groups, the art content of the image is secondary or even irrelevant. The process itself is what carries value. But it is worth noting that screenprint blossomed as a medium of serious art at the exact moment artists were asserting the importance of process as content. Art, they argued, was an ephemeral experience—an event rather than an object. “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art,” Joseph Beuys said in 1969. “The rest is the waste product, a demonstration.”9

The portability of the equipment and its speed of printing made screenprint adaptable as a performance instrument. The premier of John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s immersive multimedia extravaganza HPSCHD in 196910 included livescreenprinted posters (the designs were dictated by Cage’s chance operations, as were the prices), screenprinted paper tunics and, eventually, screenprinting on audience-member clothing. A 2013 recreation of HPSCHD featured live screenprinted T-shirts, though in a contemporary update the T-shirts were tied to the project’s Kickstarter Campaign.11 Live printing is now such a popular phenomenon the screenprinting firm Kayrock, which did the HPSCHD redux shirts, maintains eight mobile stations for live printing at parties and other events. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 2011 exhibition “FEAR EATS THE SOUL” featured both a soup kitchen and a semi-custom T-shirt printing shop.

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Top: Emek, Holographic Skull for the Flaming Lips at McMenamin’s Edgefield Manor in Troutdale, Oregon (2013), screenprint on foil paper, 18 x 24 inches. Edition of 300. Printed and published by EMEK Studios, Inc., Portland, OR. Bottom: Mirjam Dijkema, Radical Face and Benjamin Francis Leftwich at Vera Groningen (2012), screenprint, 50 x 70 cm. Edition of 60. Printed and published by the artist, Groningen, Netherlands. Top: Emek, Holographic Skull for the Flaming Lips at McMenamin’s Edgefield Manor in Troutdale, Oregon (2013), screenprint on foil paper, 18 x 24 inches. Edition of 300. Printed and published
by EMEK Studios, Inc., Portland, OR. Bottom: Mirjam Dijkema, Radical Face and Benjamin Francis Leftwich at Vera Groningen (2012), screenprint, 50 x 70 cm. Edition of 60. Printed and published by the artist, Groningen, Netherlands.

These products are self-consciously unpretentious and intended to be of low monetary value. They are props in a theater of labor, metonyms for social exchange (see Jason Urban’s article in this issue for deeper discussion of this theme). Not surprisingly, numerous street artists—Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Faile, D*Face—have made the move to marketable commodities through screenprint (see Gill Saunders’ article in the Sept–Oct 2011 issue of Art in Print). Technically, of course, screenprint is just a slight elaboration of stencil-and-spray-paint methods. Paul Coldwell, who has worked with every form of printmaking there is (see Art in Print July–Aug 2013), finds that the speed of screenprinting encourages experimentalism and makes it difficult for doubt to take root. And though a signed and numbered Banksy print can change hands for thousands of dollars, it may still maintain a synaptic connection to what Urban describes as the “the anti-establishment, DIY youth culture that screenprinting has come to represent.”12

The world of scruffy skateboarders (and their screenprinted decks) and indy rock bands (with their screenprinted posters) may seem the antithesis of the sleek commerciality courted by pop artists, but it is a feistily entrepreneurial place. Artist/designers (the terms are used pretty interchangeably) segue seamlessly from music posters to graphic design, illustration and advertising. The American Poster Institute defines its constituency as “the community of artists creating entertainment-related posters,” though many within this community also produce limited editions untethered to promotional tasks or commissions. The broader trend is toward images that are quirkily illustrative, transgressive in the manner of tattoo art and/or playfully decorative. Sixties psychedelia remains a powerful design precedent, as does, by extension, Art Nouveau, Surrealist juxtaposition and Victorian horror vacui. The well-known poster artist Emik acknowledges, “I can’t tolerate empty space. I have to fill it up with little details.”13 The focused, critical inquiries of contemporary art are largely beside the point for many of these designers, but there are myriad exceptions: Mirjam Dijkema in the Netherlands plays with replication and obfuscation in Hamiltonian ways; Daniel MacAdam makes bleakly beautiful records of our physical environment with words embedded in the self-effacing manner of 1970s conceptual art—Bernd and Hilla Becher go clubbing.

In this context, screenprint represents a handcrafted alternative to digital and photo-offset printing—an image-bearing object with greater tactile and material distinction, bearing solid swathes of ink. This is not a Luddite movement: designs are worked up with the help of Apple and Adobe, and the printing is often intricate, ambitious and adventurous. Technical skills are high, and collectors are keen and obsessive. ExpressoBeans.com, a volunteer-run site that collates data on collectibles from screenprinted posters to skateboard decks, even offers scattergrams of price histories (edition sizes and resale prices both tend to settle in the low three figures). Gigposters.com lists 11,409 designers, 134,170 bands and 153,680 posters. Among this audience, screenprint-qua-screenprint is recognized and broadly discussed. In the “serious” art world of white wall galleries, however, screenprint passes by largely unremarked, even as it has infiltrated nearly every aspect of contemporary art production.

Kelley Walker’s recent exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery included paintings, sculptures and a 196-panel wall work, all of them screenprinted. Walker has used screenprint for years as an essential implement for mucking up mediated reproduction. The recent works derived from Volkswagen ads that were edited, digitally manipulated and screenprinted onto MDF,14 metal and screenprinting screens themselves. The result is a tautological and topological exploration of replication in which everything is printed but nothing is “a print.”

Kelley Walker, Bug_156S (2013-2014), four-color process screenprint on aluminum, 5.1 x 19.1 x 69.9 cm. ©Kelley Walker. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.

Kelley Walker, Bug_156S (2013-2014), four-color process screenprint on aluminum, 5.1 x 19.1 x 69.9 cm. ©Kelley Walker. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert.

Screenprinter Luther Davis, who worked on the Walker project, points to screenprint’s singularly compliant nature: you can pretty much print on anything. And because of screenprint’s relevance to industry, serious capital is directed to the development of new inks, surfaces and applications, making new options available to artists all the time. Beuys made multiples from screenprinted blocks of wood, slabs of felt, shopping bags and cardboard; John Baldessari’s new project for The Thing Quarterly consists of a pair of screenprinted cotton pillowcases “made to be used,” bearing the image of a woman hugging a pillow. In his Bullies wallpaper (1992–97) Virgil Marti arranged the yearbook faces of his middle-school classmates amid a psychotic floral pattern, screenprinted in fluorescent inks on Tyvek housewrap. Hank Willis Thomas’s And I Can’t Run and Blow the Man Down (2013) (reviewed in this issue) exploit the reflective surfaces used for road signs to make a visceral point about the inconsistent visibility of the past.

Not only does screenprint let you print on most things, it lets you print with most things. Printer Knut Willich notes that by heating up the screen, one “can print substances (such as chocolate) that become fluid when they come into contact with the warm mesh, and then harden when cool. One can print ceramic glazes to be fired in a kiln, as well as electrically conductive ink.”15 In the 1970s, Ed Ruscha and Dieter Roth screenprinted foodstuffs. In a series of works from 2009, Matthew Sheridan Smith took blocks of “lorem ipsum” text (the meaningless typographic stand-in used by graphic designers for layouts) and covered them with the scratch-off coating used on lottery tickets. Scraping became an act of negative drawing, revealing the pointless words below. The color-shifting inks of Mel Bochner’s recent screenprints (reviewed in the Jan–Feb 2014 issue) cause his wall of words to shimmer and shine such that, weaving your head from side to side to catch the light, you may at first miss the fact that you’re gazing at the phrase “shut the fuck up.”

Beyond the bells and whistles of opalescence, reflectivity and edibility, screenprint is revered by artists and printers for the thing it has excelled at from the start: “for sheer force of color,” Davis says, “there is nothing better.” Opaque colors can be mixed to any hue and applied in solid blocks without the dilution of CMYK approximations.16 By layering transparent inks, a world of unexpectedly subtle color can be unfurled: 12 transparent colors overlaid can yield more than 4,000 combinations; with 20, the potential outcomes number over a million.

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Top: Janet Fish, Cerises (1992), 12-color screenprint, image 28 x 24 inches, sheet 34 x 28 1/2 inches. Edition of 60. Printed and published by Stewart & Stewart, Bloomfield Hills, MI. Photo ©StewartStewart.com 1992. Bottom: Beatriz Milhazes, Figo (Fig) (2007), woodblock and screenprint, 70 x 47 inches. Edition of 30. Printed and published by Durham Press, Durham, PA. Courtesy of the artist and Durham Press. Top: Janet Fish, Cerises (1992), 12-color screenprint, image 28 x 24 inches, sheet 34 x 28 1/2 inches. Edition of 60. Printed and published by Stewart & Stewart, Bloomfield Hills, MI. Photo ©StewartStewart.com 1992. Bottom: Beatriz Milhazes, Figo (Fig) (2007), woodblock and screenprint, 70 x 47 inches. Edition of 30. Printed and published by Durham Press, Durham, PA. Courtesy of the artist and Durham Press.

Jasper Johns’ works with Simca Print Artists in the late 1970s and early ’80s were a revelation.17 They didn’t look like advertising, they looked like slightly stiffened gouache paintings, an effect achieved by the artist redrawing his own marks to produce multiple layers that “confuse the flatness.” Doubling and layering are recurrent Johnsian strategies for exploring sameness and difference, distinction and identity; they can also build a complex visual and cognitive device from a simple-minded stencil.

Janet Fish’s screenprints of the 1990s were also constructed layer by layer. She would paint an initial image in black on transparent Mylar, which (via a photographic positive) generated the first screen. A color proof would be pulled, over which the artist would lay another sheet of Mylar, adding the strokes to be printed in the second color, and so on. The process is similar to how she might work on a watercolor, but segmented, and the result is to sharpen further the lapidary edge on which her chromatically dense tablescapes and crockery depend.

This force of color is also why screenprint is so often used in combination with other print technologies, as in Jennifer Bartlett’s At Sea Japan (1980; woodcut and screenprint) or Beatriz Milharez’s Figo (Fig) (2007; woodblock, screenprint).

As screenprinter and publisher Norm Stewart observes,

It’s impossible to go through a day without coming in contact with screenprinting. The type on golf balls is screenprinted (pad printing); the instrumentation on the dashboard of automobiles is screenprinted; electrical circuit boards are screenprinted with conductive inks; puff inks are screenprinted on T-shirts to give a raised texture; ceramic glazes are screenprinted on glasses and mugs; etc. The general public is surrounded with examples of screenprinting. They just don’t realize it.18

At Thomas Dane gallery in London this past winter, Glenn Ligon showed three monumental paintings reprising Steve Reich’s 1966 tape-music composition Come Out. Reich’s work used the words of a youth falsely accused of murder in conjunction with the Harlem riots of 1964, overlaying multiple identical loops of the recorded statement and allowing them to slip out of phase with one another until the words become unintelligible. Ligon worked the same trick visually, compiling blocks of the phrase “come out to show them” in stammering repetition until clarity and meaning is overcome by noise, contradiction and the sepulchral beauty of black ink screenprinted again and again over each painting’s 20-foot span.

The “PowerPoint” paintings Michael Riedel showed at David Zwirner last year were screenprints on stretched linen that reproduced his own earlier works— photographed, inserted as slides in a PowerPoint presentation, then captured midway through a crossfade between one slide and another.

Michael Riedel, Untitled (Comb Vertical) (2013), screenprint on linen, 229.9 x 170.2 cm. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Michael Riedel, Untitled (Comb Vertical) (2013), screenprint on linen, 229.9 x 170.2 cm. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

When Rauschenberg and Warhol first began screenprinting paintings in 1962 the use of screens (and the mass-produced images on them) was a radical gesture. Both artists wielded those screens as personally as they had brushes, and when Warhol moved to his Factory model, that move was itself a specific carrier of content.

For artists a half-century later, the decision to have work executed by professional screenprinters is simply a pragmatic way to produce desired objects, images and surfaces. Walker, Ligon and Riedel are interested in the cultural and psychological effects of replication, reiteration and recapitulation—merging the seamless surfaces of industrial production with the cultural authority of painting is a means of getting inside those workings. Coldwell observes that from a printmaking perspective, screenprint’s industrial associations help preclude the “kind of fetishisation that canoccur with etching and woodcut.”19 In the context of paintings that derive from, and comment on, the lovely and perfidious manipulation of visual information, screenprint may be part and parcel of fetishism itself.

Four decades after the Field exhibition, the borders between commercial production, critical art content, funky artisanship and the social production of meaning are more indeterminate than ever, and screenprint—more than etching or video or paint—has become the medium of indeterminacy.

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  1. Richard S. Field, Silkscreen: History of a Medium. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1971), brochure, unpaginated. The planned catalogue was never published and the exhibition’s sole artifact is this eight-page black-and-white brochure, with essay and checklist. []
  2. Patrick Caulfield, quoted in Pat Gilmour and Silvie Turner, Kelpra Studio, An Exhibition to Commemorate the Rose and Chris Prater Gift (London: Tate Gallery, 1980), 37. []
  3. Field. []
  4. Listed as “Diter Rot“ in keeping with the orthography the artist was using at the time. []
  5. In Richard Benson’s book The Printed Picture screenprint gets just a mention in the “Color Printing” chapter; Antony Griffiths reproduces screenprints in Prints and Printmaking, while the British Museum’s recent Master Prints Close-Up includes none. []
  6. Jasper Johns in Katy Martin’s film, Hanafuda: Jasper Johns, 1981. http://vimeo.com/40522186. []
  7. Email correspondence with the author, 22 March 2014. []
  8. Email correspondence with the author, 3 March 2014. []
  9. Beuys in Willoughby Sharp, “An Interview with Joseph Beuys,” Artforum 8, no. 4 (December 1969), 40–47. []
  10. HPSCHD is a composition for harpsichord and audiotape. The premiere performance used seven amplified harpsichords, 52 amplified tape recorders playing 208 tapes. This was accompanied by the projection of 6400 slides and 40 movies. The performance lasted five hours. []
  11. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/78806356/hpschd-dragonslayer-tee-by-kayrock-screenprinting. http://issueprojectroom.org/event/john-cage-lejaren-hiller-hpschd. []
  12. Email correspondence with the author, 3 March 2014. []
  13. Interview with Oregon Art Beat, 21 March 2013. http://watch.opb.org/video/2350720718/. []
  14. Medium-density fiberboard—the stuff IKEA bookshelves are made of. []
  15. Email with the author, 16 March 2014. []
  16. In most commercial printing, as well as most home and office printers, all colors are approximated by balancing dots of the four “process colors”: cyan, magenta, yellow and black (“key”). []
  17. Johns/Martin, Hanefuda. []
  18. Email correspondence with the author, 6 June 2014. []
  19. Email correspondence with the author, 1 March 2014. []