Springing into the Void: Jacob Samuel and the Peripatetic Printshop

Fig. 1. Jacob Samuel’s portable aquatint box.

Fig. 1. Jacob Samuel’s portable aquatint box.

At the center of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Print/Out” exhibition, in the midst of the bright screenprints and the rough woodcuts, the loud wallpaper and the quiet wallbound etchings, sits a curious construction on a low plinth: two wooden folding chairs face each other as if in conversation, suspending between them an apparatus composed of two black accordion bellows, one sticking up and one dropping down, some pretty brass hinges, and a nifty sliding wooden drawer (Fig. 1). It looks like a Surrealist sculpture—an onanistic camera, perhaps. In fact, it is the “portable aquatint box” of the printer and publisher Jacob Samuel, the nucleus of a mobile printshop that he has lugged to artists’ studios around the world. A handful of the etching portfolios produced with this device hang on the walls of “Print/Out”—Marina Abramović’s Spirit Cooking (1996), Chris Burden’s Coyote Series (2005) and Gert and Uwe Tobias’ Untitled (2011), the last of which was commissioned specifically for this show. “Edition Jacob Samuel” is, in fact, one of several nodes around which the exhibition is organized.

Even so, the presence of the aquatint box is a peculiar touch, at once theatrical and didactic, like a butter churn in a museum of Colonial American life. Given the show’s largely conceptual bent, its emphasis on printed matter as a tool of social networking and its titulary embrace of digital up-to-dateness, this little diorama is a monument to certain important truths: art is made by people working in specific spaces, at specific times and with specific materials; physics, chemistry and logistics are at least as important to the outcome as initial ideas; and prints are in fact things, not the free-floating images we imagine in our promiscuous, pixelated fever of reproduction.

Below, Sarah Andress looks at the transcendent pragmatism of Edition Jacob Samuel.


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The aquatint box functions like this: the etching plate sits on a shelf between the lower chamber and upper chamber (each chamber is made from the bellows of an 8 x 10 inch view camera). The whole contraption sits on two level surfaces—the floor and two folding chairs facing one another. Powdered rosin is placed in the lower chamber and air is used to create a dust storm which settles evenly on the plate. While standard aquatint boxes use air compressors, Samuel uses his own breath through a surgical tube to create the dust storm. A hot plate is used to heat the plate and adhere the resin. After the artist has then painted or etched on the plate, it goes into a ferachloride bath, is cleaned with solvent and finally polished.

Video stills of Jacob Samuel working with the Tobias Brothers, from a MoMA interview.

Video stills of Jacob Samuel working with the Tobias Brothers, from a MoMA interview.


Jacob Samuel works with artists whose work “obsesses” him.1 When he became a master printer in the 1980s, Samuel adopted a loose rule of working only with artists whose work he had studied for an extensive period of time—something on the order of ten years. Consequently, the work published under the imprint Edition Jacob Samuel is characterized by a deep respect for the artists’ practices as well as by the printer’s innovative solutions to the myriad technical and conceptual issues they present.

Edition Jacob Samuel was founded in 1988 in Santa Monica, California, and has from the beginning specialized in serial formats—series, portfolios, bound and unbound books. This preference reflects his attachment to the conceptual art of the 70s.2 It is also a natural outgrowth of Samuel’s tenure as master printer at Lapis Press, which was established by painter Sam Francis to publish books of poetry, prose (both fiction and non-fiction) and artists’ books.

An L.A. native, Samuel saw an H. C. Westermann exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a teenager, and was inspired by the artist’s quirky merger of wild creativity and precise craft. Both are qualities brought to bear in his career as a printer and publisher. After studying black-and-white photography at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, he apprenticed himself to an etching printer. He met Sam Francis in 1976 when the painter was looking for someone to print some old etching plates he had done. It would prove to be a transformative relationship. After a brief stint at Gemini G.E.L., Samuel went to work for Francis and stayed for 14 years.

Fig. 2. Marina Abramović and Jacob Samuel preparing plates in her Amsterdam studio in 1996.

Fig. 2. Marina Abramović and Jacob Samuel preparing plates in her Amsterdam studio in 1996.

Etching was something of an oddity in Southern California, whose vital printmaking culture, embodied by Tamarind, Gemini G.E.L. and Cirrus Editions, centered on lithography. Samuel’s printerly heroes were Picasso’s etcher Aldo Crommelynck in Paris and Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press in the Bay Area. Both of them practiced etching in the cleanest, most delicate and calculated ways. Samuel twice visited Crommelynck in Paris, where he was allowed to “hang around the shop while he was working and printing.” Later, when Crommelynck came to Los Angeles, Samuel was able to show him an Ed Moses book he was working on, and recalls, “he gave me a big hug and called me his brother, and he called his wife over and spoke to her in French and said, ‘Look at this, très joli.’ That Crommelynck could have that kind of response was one of the defining moments in my career.”3

Figs. 3, 4. Marina Abramović, two etchings from Spirit Cooking (1996), aquatint with chine collé, portfolio of eight etchings (four with aquatint and one with gold leaf) and four aquatints with chine collé, and 25 letterpress prints, each 31.5 x 27.8 cm. Edition of 21. Printed and published by Edition Jacob Samuel, Santa Monica.

Figs. 3, 4. Marina Abramović, two etchings from Spirit Cooking (1996), aquatint with chine collé, portfolio of eight etchings (four with aquatint and one with gold leaf) and four aquatints with chine collé, and 25 letterpress prints, each 31.5 x 27.8 cm. Edition of 21. Printed and published by Edition Jacob Samuel, Santa Monica.

One of the things Samuel learned from Francis was that most artists are more com-fortable in their own studios than in the alien, communal workspace of the professional printshop. Even before Francis’ death in 1994, Samuel had begun to imagine a portable studio that would allow him to take the workshop to the artist, while still adhering to his high technical standards.4 Being an itinerate woodcut printmaker might have been easy, but etching requires things like acid baths and large boxes in which to create the clouds of resin that, once precipitated onto a plate, create the delicate tonal washes of aquatint for which Samuel was becoming known. His solution was the portable aquatint box now on the sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art.

The portfolio Spirit Cooking, made with Marina Abramović in 1996, was a turning point in Samuel’s career. Samuel met with Abramović in Paris to discuss the project, then corresponded by fax for several months before beginning work in the artist’s Amsterdam studio in 1996. She had an idea for a cookbook of sorts, but beyond that there was no fixed plan. Samuel had worked with painters and sculptors from Ellsworth Kelly and Ed Ruscha to Richard Serra and Richard Long, but finding print forms for the ideas of an artist known primarily for performance was uncharted territory. Both Abramović and Samuel found the prospect exciting; Abramović has said that the best part of the project was not knowing what was going to happen.

Samuel unpacked his studio, which “fit in two carry-ons. I had all the plates, acid, and copper cleaner.”5 Then for three days, from noon until midnight, the two sat at a simple wooden table next to a wall of windows in Abramović’s studio and worked (Fig. 2). Abramović would write a short text (“essence drink” reads one, “in time of doubt / keep a small meteorite / in your mouth,” says another) and would explain how she wanted the image to look. Together they strategized ways to make the project correspond to her body-centered practice: if they used soft ground, she would be able to draw with her fingernails and fingertips; if they used spit bite, her own saliva (combined with nitric acid) would become a mark-making tool (Figs. 3, 4). Such elements were a revelation to the artist, who delighted in the fact that “spit is allowed, dirty fingernails allowed, I could use my hands. It was wonderful, all this freedom.”6 Freedom was exactly what Samuel had hoped to achieve, the precious atmosphere he describes as “the natural flow of an artist in her studio.”7

Fig. 6. Rebecca Horn in her Paris studio, 1998.

Fig. 6. Rebecca Horn in her Paris studio, 1998.

Following his project with Abramović, Samuel was approached by Rebecca Horn to make prints in her studio in Paris, despite the fact that, as she said, “I hate prints.” What bothered Horn particularly was the reversal that naturally occurs in printing—an artist draws the plate one way only to see its mirror image printed on paper: “I don’t want my images to be reversed,”she insisted.8 Samuel’s solution was transparent gampi paper, which he printed chine collé. Once it was dried, he peeled it off the backing paper and laid it back down verso on the plate so that it would print as she had drawn it. She wanted the paper to be the color of her skin, the ink the color of her blood. The finished work, which is obliquely about open heart surgery, interweaves short poetic texts (“The magic wand becomes a rod of light / miraculously connecting above and below / with oscillating energy”) and richly textured abstractions that suggest sanguine stains and scratches, traces of some visceral event (Figs. 5, 6). (As with many of Samuel’s publications, it exists as both a bound book and as loose sheets in a boxed portfolio.)

Fig. 5. Rebecca Horn, Tailleur Du Coeur (1998), boxed portfolio or book with 12 etchings, softground, whiteground aquatint, spitbite aquatint and book with 16 pages of text written by the artist, plus title page and colophon page, 48.2 x 40.2 cm. Printed and published by Edition Jacob Samuel, Santa Monica.

Fig. 5. Rebecca Horn, Tailleur Du Coeur (1998), boxed portfolio or book with 12 etchings, softground, whiteground aquatint, spitbite aquatint and book with 16 pages of text written by the artist, plus title page and colophon page, 48.2 x 40.2 cm. Printed and published by Edition Jacob Samuel, Santa Monica.

Horn gathered materials from around her studio and began drawing, with logs, twigs, lychee nuts, even a dried rose that she dipped in nitric acid so that it disintegrated as she painted, a performative gesture that would have been “hard to duplicate outside the artist’s own environment.”9 Elements of performance, using one’s body, and fugitive materials are, in fact, repeated again and again in projects using the portable box: in Rome, Jannis Kounellis used broken glass and molten lead, and also trimmed his beard onto a plate; in Berlin, Mona Hatoum traced piles of her own hair; in New York, Meredith Monk played the piano and sang as they worked and in the same city, Gabriel Orozco gathered dryer lint to use on the plate.

Setting up shop in the artists’ own studios, Samuel found, can ease the stress imposed when formal arrangements must be made for the artist to travel to a print studio with a concept mapped out and prepared in advance. Artists can be spontaneous, while the printer must be imaginative and responsive. “On the road,” Samuel observes, “I’m etching plates on bathroom floors and using whatever is around.”10 For artists, it provides the flexibility that comes from working amidst their own materials; for Samuel it is working “without a net.” The downside of the portable studio is that addendum requires a plane ticket: when Horn wanted to add a few dots to one image, and later two faintly crisscrossed lines to the top corner of another, Samuel had to fly to Paris (though there are undoubtedly worse fates).

It is surely this peripatetic aspect, along with Samuel’s devotion to the portfolio form, that led curator Christophe Cherix to feature these publications so prominently in “Print/Out,” given the exhibition’s focus on the global, portable and far-reaching realms of contemporary printmaking.

In the late 1990s, Samuel was working mainly in Europe—“everyone in Europe understood what I was doing,” he says11—but in 2002 he opened his own workshop in Ocean Park, the Santa Monica neighborhood immortalized by Richard Diebenkorn’s eponymous paintings. The studio is blocks from the beach: “I wanted to set up a shop that’s the most mellow, casual place possible while at the same time encouraging a totally focused work environment.”12 Wherever he works, Samuel draws on a deep understanding of materials, a thorough knowledge of etching history, and what he describes as tens of thousands of hours making and printing etching plates.

Fig. 8. Uwe Tobias painting with white ground in the Cologne studio.

Fig. 8. Uwe Tobias painting with white ground in the Cologne studio.

When Miroslaw Balka arrived at Samuel’s studio in 2003, he unexpectedly decided not to do anything like the small drawings for which he was known. He took in his idyllic surroundings and the stark contrast they offered to the lives of the homeless men living there. The project he made in Samuel’s studio, Entering Paradise, was conceptually rooted in Christ washing the feet of his disciples, and was made using the feet of homeless men. Samuel prepared plates for soft ground, then he and Balka went out into the surrounding streets and paid men to stand barefoot on the plates. The footprints were captured on the lower half of the plate with blank space above, as though the feet were “springing into a void”13) (Fig. 7).

Working with Juan Uslé in 2001, Samuel introduced the artist to an indigo gampi paper and, as was noted in a review in Art on Paper, the paper itself became the inspiration for the series. Printer and artist executed the plates in such a way that it often looks like the blue of the paper is actually the ink, dripping into the black areas, rather than the other way around.14

For the “Print/Out” exhibition, Christophe Cherix wished to commission from Samuel a new series of prints whose development would be documented and included in the exhibition (hence the presence of the portable aquatint box and two folding chairs). Samuel had happened on the work of Gert and Uwe Tobias through an ad in Artforum in 2007, and it struck him deeply enough to inspire him to break with his old rule of knowing an artist’s work for a decade before embarking on a project. The Tobias brothers’ art—in drawing, painting, ceramics and woodcuts—draws on a large span of visual and material, much of it steeped in the culture and history of Eastern Europe. Samuel was intrigued by its peculiar array of surrealism, circus posters, and fairytales, brought together in a way that he describes as “schizophrenic.”15

Fig. 9. Gert and Uwe Tobias, two prints from Untitled (2001), white ground aquatint with chine collé, portfolio of 11 aquatints (seven with etching) and one etching, 16 x 14 inches. Edition of 17. Printed and Published by Edition Jacob Samuel, Santa Monica.

Fig. 9. Gert and Uwe Tobias, two prints from Untitled (2001), white ground aquatint with chine collé, portfolio of 11 aquatints (seven with etching) and one etching, 16 x 14 inches. Edition of 17. Printed and Published by Edition Jacob Samuel, Santa Monica.

The brothers, who were born in Transylvania and now work in Germany, do not travel, but “that’s why I have the box,” notes Samuel. The portable studio was called back from retirement, Samuel set up shop in the Tobias studio in Cologne and began work within the hour. The brothers are identical twins and their practice is entirely collaborative. They sat apart, but would frequently consult one another about the plates each was working on. Samuel describes their way of working as “fluid.”

The 12 Tobias prints read as portraits of imaginary sitters whose visages and comportment drift between whimsical and nightmarish (Figs. 8, 9). Some heads are seen in silhouette, others look straight at us with hysterical laughter or menacing regard; some are charming, even endearing, others abjectly terrifying. One profile seems to depict a Madame Pompadour type, with perfectly coiffed hair, slender neck, sloping shoulders and coyly downcast eyes, but for the absurd nose and ghoulish grin. Mawkishness is masterfully foiled by the macabre. In another, the clearly delineated features of a seemingly kind face liquefy towards the top of the head and flow into one another, the vaguely smiling face below at odds with the gathering storm above. The series is animated by obsessive mark-making, by the cobbled-together aspect of some faces, and also by an aqueous quality: many seem to dissolve or melt, enhancing the hallucinatory quality that unites them. The brothers had, in fact, been looking at a book of 19th-century drawings by schizophrenics, and Art Brut has been a consistent inspiration for their work.

Fig. 10. Anish Kapoor waiting for the white ground solution to dry, London studio, 2001.

Fig. 10. Anish Kapoor waiting for the white ground solution to dry, London studio, 2001.

The primary technique used on the plates—white-ground (or soap-ground) aquatint—came to Samuel when he noticed several paintings in their studio made with white paint and ink on black canvas. In this process, the artist paints on the plate with a mixture of titanium white pigment, Ivory Snow powder, and linseed oil; because the mixture is porous, great tonal variation is possible as layers are built up. Samuel had used the technique with Sam Francis, and in later projects such as the Uslé portfolio and Anish Kapoor’s Blackness from Her Womb, made in the artist’s studio in London in November 2000 (Figs. 10, 11).

Samuel relishes being with artists as the ideas come to them, as they create, and grabbing that moment. “I do not have creative thoughts. I have technical thoughts,”he says,16 placing himself clearly in the ranks of those master printers who draw a strong distinction in the roles frequently described with the wooly term “collaboration.”

Fig. 11. Anish Kapoor, one etching from Blackness from Her Womb (2000), white ground aquatint, portfolio of 13 etchings, 17 x 15 inches. Edition of 30. Printed and Published by Edition Jacob Samuel, Santa Monica.

Fig. 11. Anish Kapoor, one etching from Blackness from Her Womb (2000), white ground aquatint, portfolio of 13 etchings, 17 x 15 inches. Edition of 30. Printed and Published by Edition Jacob Samuel, Santa Monica.

In 2010 all 43 of Samuel’s projects to date were presented in “Outside the Box: Edition Jacob Samuel, 1988-2010” at the Hammer Museum at UCLA. It marked the joint acquisition of Samuel’s archive by UCLA’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts and Hammer Museum, and by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (where he had seen the inspirational Westermann show all those years back.)

Samuel’s approach has produced work that ranges from Meredith Monk’s etched Vocal Gestures scores to Josiah McElheny’s near invisible White Modernism (2008), but his publications remain distinctly and identifiably unified. The prints are all small, muted in color, delicate in tonality, and members of a series. They all have poetic skins and conceptual spines. They are, furthermore, characterized by the unique mix of technical rigor and spontaneous innovation that Samuel has made his specialty: “if [the artist has] never made prints, all the better, if I have no idea how to approach it, all the better, because then it becomes a process of discovery.”17

Fig. 7. Miroslaw Balka, three prints from Entering Paradise (2003), soft-ground etching, portfolio of 12 prints, 39.4 x 38 cm. Edition of 25. Printed and published by Edition Jacob Samuel, Santa Monica.

Fig. 7. Miroslaw Balka, three prints from Entering Paradise (2003), soft-ground etching, portfolio of 12 prints, 39.4 x 38 cm. Edition of 25. Printed and published by Edition Jacob Samuel, Santa Monica.

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  1. “Jacob Samuel and the portable aquatint box” (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2012). []
  2. Jacob Samuel, quoted in Melanie Reynard, “Printmaker Jacob Samuel Works ‘Outside the Box’ to Capture Artists’ Visions” (Jewishjournal.com, July 6 2010). []
  3. Jacob Samuel, interview with Cynthia Burlingham, Leslie Jones, and Britt Salvesen, February 26, 2010, for “Outside the Box: Edition Jacob Samuel, 1988-2010” (Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2010). []
  4. Projects done before 1994 include: Greg Colson portfolio (1995); Joe Goode book (1988); Marvin Hardin book (1991), Jene Highstein book (1988); Ed Moses (1993) and (1989), Peter Shelton (1994), Nahum Tevet (1992), Robert Therrien (1995). []
  5. Jacob Samuel, Hammer Museum Interview. []
  6. Marina Abramović, February 28, 2012, “Artist and Publisher: Printmaking and the Collaborative Process, with Marina Abramović and Jacob Samuel of Edition Jacob Samuel”. []
  7. Jacob Samuel, ibid. []
  8. Jacob Samuel, quoted in Melanie Reynard, “Printmaker Jacob Samuel Works ‘Outside the Box’ to Capture Artists’ Visions” (Jewishjournal.com, July 6 2010). []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Jacob Samuel, Hammer Museum Interview. []
  12. Ibid. []
  13. Jacob Samuel, in “Miroslaw Balka: Outside the Box,” video in conjunction with “Outside the Box: Edition Jacob Samuel, 1988-2010” (Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2010 []
  14. “Working Proof,” Art on Paper, May/June 2001, p. 68-69. []
  15. “Jacob Samuel and the portable aquatint box.” []
  16. Jacob Samuel, quoted in Reynard. []
  17. “Jacob Samuel and the portable aquatint box.” []