Long may he live!” is the spirited close to director Catherine de Braekeleer’s preface, printed in the catalogue and posted on the walls, for the Atelier Michael Woolworth retrospective at the Centre de la Gravure et de l’image imprimée in La Louvière. The creation of an American-born master printer, publisher and adoptive Parisian, Woolworth’s is the fourth atelier to be honored with a retrospective in La Louvière, and the exhibition included nearly 200 prints and artists’ books by 45 different artists, made over the course of 30 years, and displayed in a generous, catholic manner.1
Born in Augusta, Maine, in 1960, Woolworth arrived in Paris in 1979, barely 18 years old and looking for summer work. He met a 19-year-old lithographer, Franck Bordas, and learned at his side; renouncing his planned studies in the United States to remain in France and becoming a partner in the Bordas atelier. Bordas, with whom Woolworth worked until 1985, was the son of the esteemed publisher Pierre Bordas, and the grandson of the publisher and master lithographer Fernand Mourlot.2 Woolworth tapped directly into a rigorous manual world to which he felt a strong affiliation, when Mourlot (at the time aged 87) came out of retirement to work in the Bordas shop, bringing along his friend Jean Dubuffet (at the time aged 81). Works including Dubuffet’s Exercices lithographiques (1982–1984) came out of the conversation. This was the rich knit of the visual and the literary in which Woolworth came of age, nurturing in him a passion for artists’ books.3
In 1985 Woolworth opened a solo workshop on the Île Saint-Louis, pledging to work exclusively with hand presses and traditional processes such as lithography and woodcut. This emphasis did not grow out of craft romanticism: “I don’t really like prints per se,” he says. “I am not made for the printing industry.”4 He is seduced neither by print’s affinity for the multiple, nor by the refined possibilities of the intaglio plate. He takes the word “print” as an umbrella term for art created using pressure. The conceptual and physical restraints of transferring an image with pressure give rise to the kind of aporetic problems he enjoys; in attempting to recalibrate ideas of printmaking, Woolworth challenges his artists, many of whom respond in kind.
The opening showstopper in the La Louvière exhibition, Somos un pozo que mira el cielo [We are a well that looks up to the sky] (2004), by Spanish artist and longtime Woolworth collaborator, José Maria Sicilia, embodied this quality: 27 square meters of lithographed plaster blocks, replicating the format of an 18th-century Caucasian carpet from Quba in the Louvre, the largest in the museum’s collection, which it would temporarily replace as part of the Louvre’s “Contrepoint” program in which contemporary artists were invited to intervene in the permanent collection.
Woolworth and Sicilia—who have worked together since 1986—photographed the Quba carpet in fragments and created 20 lithographic matrices of 1.5 x 1 meters in size. Using a technique for applying pattern to ceramics that Woolworth recalled from a visit to a porcelain factory in Limoges, stencils were printed onto wetted sheets of thin Chinese paper in gray-ochre ink. The papers were laid on the plaster rectangles and a suspension of turpentine and varnish was painted through the back, the pressure of the brush causing the image to transfer like a decal. To achieve the desired density, this process was repeated four times with pinpoint registration for each plaster block. Sicilia then splashed buckets of lithography ink cut with solvent onto the blocks, creating bleeds and absences with rose and blue washes that disrupt the paradisiacal pattern and complicate the comforting sense of a soft, solid carpet with phantasmagoric printed tracery. This visual conundrum throbs with honeyed color, the sway of its printed edges undulate in an illusion of weave. It required 1,200 hours of work.
Other works shown on the ground floor at La Louvière demonstrated the power of the atelier’s giant press beds. Woolworth’s current workshop, tucked behind Paris’s revolutionary hub, the Place de la Bastille, hosts five hand presses: a 63 x 90 cm French lithographic Brisset that once belonged to the artist and practitioner of Tachisme, Jean Fautrier; a 120 x 250 cm etching press that was custom-made in the 1970s for Swedish artist Bengt Lindstrom; and three other lithographic and etching presses able to print as large as 3 x 1.5 meters.
The indefatigable Jim Dine is one of the artists who revels in the scale on offer, moving into Woolworth’s atelier for good chunks of the year; since 2003 he has produced over 200 prints there. In his catalogue essay “Life Under Pressure,” critic Pierre Wat pinpoints the richness of the Dine/Woolworth relationship as Woolworth’s ideal “never-ending collaboration, side by side.”5 Three enormous works show Dine at his most innovative and free, attacking the woodblock with electric Dremels, grinders and chainsaws. For the diptych Double Iron Man (2013) Dine drew a fragmented portrait of Disney’s Pinocchio, the little liar boy the artist holds darkly to his own childhood self. In the 2015 Cheval Blanc Poem (named for the address of Woolworth’s current studio) Pinocchio is obliterated, leaving behind only a red-and-black-striped schoolboy tie. When Dine leaps into abstraction, printed collage, skeins of ink and shredded surfaces take on a splendid new force. Requiring 30 passes through the press, as well as handwork and collage, the print is as complex and controlled as a fugue.
Other artists exploiting the possibilities of grand scale include the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta, who was represented by a selection of his Don Qui lithographs (1984–1994). One hundred sheets, addressing some 90 scenes from Cervantes’ masterpiece, the work was launched in the Bordas studio in 1981, then carried over to Woolworth’s Île Saint-Louis studio to constitute his first major solo project. The work occupied seven square meters of wall. Matta took pages covered in tessellated patterns from his daughter’s school exercise books over which he drew multiple silhouettes of Cervantes’ hero using bright, felt-tip colors to draw in and around the figures, rendering them glyph-like and cartoony.6 These drawings were transferred into lithography using a photocopying machine as a filter that distorted the drawings slightly in a manner that appealed to Matta. Frédérique Loutz, a draftswoman who employs the lithographic mark to conjure ink pen, was represented by immense, densely worked drawings on stone; masterful monotypes by Christian Schwarzwald displayed an ease of mark making (using the wall rollers, ink pads and fat-nibbed ink markers of the graffiti artist’s toolbox) that belied the demanding physical performance required to work the surface of a 180 x 133 cm sheet of Plexiglas at speed. French painter Djamel Tatah (see Art in Print July–Aug 2014) was solicited by Woolworth to attempt his tacit, isolated figures in woodcut, having never made a work on paper before. Woolworth often prefers to work with nonprint people, tabulae rasae that give rise to unexpected results.
The wall labels at La Louvière were rich with anecdotal, instructive information. Beside the immense double-paneled woodcut Narcisse I (2012) by French painter Stéphane Pencréac’h, we find Woolworth’s observation: “The fluidity with which he makes his supports is disconcerting. ‘To repaint’ doesn’t exist in his vocabulary.” Woolworth is clearly fond of the artists and of collaboration; he is candidly droll about failures and their usefulness in the workshop, and the precarious staginess of dropping an artist in a studio and expecting him or her to perform. David Shrigley spent hours bored, yawning and shyly circling the seven lithography stones laid out for him, then whipped out seven drawings at once. “Sometimes the way to accompany an artist is to leave them alone,” Woolworth notes.
One of France’s best-known figurative painters, Marc Desgrandchamps, was enticed into the shop to try working on stone in 2002. La Bacchante (2005)—a monumental female running on a beach, her head obscured by flying fabric—was drawn on one the largest lithographic stones known to exist, 152 x 110 cm. For ten years Desgrandchamps made monochrome prints; he finally ventured into color lithography in Confrontation (2014), with a group of 1.6-meter-tall women, who step out like clothed female kouroi, architectural columns that span the vertical of the picture plane, forming an arch through which we see a bodiless pair of legs. The move to color shifted Desgrandchamps’ imagery away from the drips frequently employed in his paintings to figures that are flattened convocations of mass.
A last suite of prints displayed on the ground floor was Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo’s Le journal érotique d’un bûcheron (The Erotic Diary of a Lumberjack, 2009), 12 electric blue linocuts that follow a young capricieuse, Lola, through each month of the year in the style of Pirelli’s famous calendar. The first works by Toguo to be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the linocuts are refreshingly bold and direct.
Upstairs at La Louvière, Woolworth’s love of artists’ books was strongly in evidence. In the spirit of the surrealist-leaning writer and publisher François Di Dio, Woolworth sees the book-object as an unrestricted playground for agitation and experimentation.7
Stéphane Bordarier’s Dix Paires (Two Pairs, 2009) was one of the studio’s most difficult challenges, combining thickly inked woodblocks with a delicate, fragile paper, nuanced hues and a fresco-like matte surface required after drying. It was an attempt to echo Bordarier’s painting technique where shapes are “embedded” into a wet rabbit-skin size, rather than painted on top of a dry surface, through print.8 Pancréac’h’s 44-page book, L’enfer (Hell, 2012) is encased in a padlocked metal slipcase, onto which clings a bronze sculpture with a key magnetically affixed in its mouth. The erotic images and stamped texts found inside are printed on rough black sandpaper.
Sicilia has produced many books with Woolworth, all requiring ingenuity and stamina. The pages of the book, Spell-Bound (1992), were dipped in beeswax; Les Milles Nuits et Une Nuit volumes 1–4 (1996–2015) is a “lifelong work-in-progress,” a transformation of a 1911 French complete edition of 1001 Nights that Sicilia is tearing apart and rebuilding into a series of six contemporary artists’ books, enriched with lithography, linocut, photogravure, woodcut, embroidery and hand coloring.9
Jim Dine’s recent book, My Letter to the Troops (2016), incorporates a long poem by the artist written on the occasion of his 80th birthday, along with 64 linocut portraits drawn from life. Among the most affecting were those of Woolworth’s key workshop printers Julien Torhy and Marc Moyano. Perhaps the most beautiful objects in the whole exhibit, however, were the black-inked lithography stones for Dine’s book, Donkey in the Sea Before Us (2010). Tucked away in a vitrine beside books by Jason Dodge and Miquel Mont, these stones, the smallest in Woolworth’s shop, were easy to covet.
Two book projects were taken apart and pinned to the wall, giving a sense of the complicated processes and endless decisions underlying the finished object: the proofs for Desgrandchamps’ first artist book, Fragments (2014), which interleaves lithographs with the artist’s texts on painting and excerpts from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, documented the complexity of laying out image and text by hand.10 Another 41 proofs—these for Dine’s first Pinocchio book from 2006—revealed the artist’s ongoing investigations of character, narrative and form.
Other noteworthy inclusions were Frédérique Loutz’s exquisite artist’s books made from a single folded sheet of paper; a giant display of lithographs dwelling on contemplation, traces and loss, from conceptual artist Marie-Ange Guilleminot’s ensemble Nuancier (Color Chart); Mélanie Delattre-Vogt’s fine lithographic drawings, based on culinary images from a 1970s freezer manual where disembodied hands cut up squid, duck, pig and bunches of rhubarb. For a 2014 exhibition at the Albertina, the late, precocious Austrian artist Gunter Damisch shipped a stack of precut wood panels from Vienna to Paris, leaving the Woolworth studio team to compose the final images as they pleased in a mix of collage, monotype, woodcut, drawing and painting.
The exhibition captured the feel of the studio as a place of production where, as Pierre Wat put it, “Things are made and things are lived.”11 The first thing to hit one upon entering was the distinctive smell of lithographic ink: nearly all the prints were simply pinned or clipped to the walls as if pulled fresh from the press.
The workshop often opens its doors at night for poetry readings and musical events. And, perhaps needing more pressure in his life, Woolworth cofounded and codirects the new limited editions fair, MAD, now entering its third year at Paris’s La Maison Rouge.
Woolworth cites Pierre Bonnard’s reduced-palette lithographs that “take your breath away” as examples of effective constraint and has repeatedly constructed restraints of his own: the Sisyphean scope of some projects, the small editions; the messy matter and process of printing itself; the shifts of pressure felt by the hand turning the wheel. These direct the creation of slow, precious (though not exclusive) images in contrast to the easy, swift imagery that blankets our daily world.12
“Global and economic trends go towards standardization, uniformity. I believe in the exceptional, the intimate and the rare,” Woolworth observes, and this ethos is what made this retrospective such a rich experience for the eye.13 The variety, beauty, technical intricacy and simple stamina required to create the works on view testified to the role of the atelier as both a “laboratory of ideas” and “place of resistance,” in Braekeleer’s words.
In 2012 Atelier Michael Woolworth was designated a living patrimony of France (Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant). A year earlier, Woolworth was honored with the titles Maître d’art and Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French culture ministry.
“I am not an artist, and that is one of my greatest advantages,” he reassures us.14 Well, amen to that. And “Long may he live!”
- Other print studios previously exhibited at La Louvière are L’Atelier de Gravure de Moutier, Jura, Switzerland (8 June-8 September 2013); L’Atelier Bruno Robbe, Honelles, Belgium (22 October 2010–23 January 2011) and Studio Franck Bordas (4 October 2014–11 January 2015).
- François Mourlot founded the commercial family printing business Atelier Mourlot in Paris in 1852. His son, Jules, expanded the business into printing food labels, such as the famous Poulain chocolate products, maps and stationery. In the 1920s, François’ grandson, Fernand, opened a fine-art stone lithography studio dedicated to publishing limited edition prints and fine quality posters. Picasso produced over 400 astonishing lithographs in the Mourlot studio between 1945 and 1969.
- Pierre Wat, “Life Under Pressure,” Atelier Michael Woolworth exhibition catalogue (La Louvière: Centre de la Gravure et de l’image imprimée, 2017), 34.
- Ibid., 23.
- Ibid., 25.
- This was one project that Woolworth had to outsource to a mechanical press, the scale and weight of editioning being simply beyond the capacity of hand presses.
- Wat, Life Under Pressure, 26.
- Ibid., 23.
- Michael Woolworth, quoted in ibid., 100.
- Fragments was awarded first prize for an artist’s book by the French Academy of Fine Arts, 2015.
- Wat, Life Under Pressure, 22.
- Ibid., 27.
- Exhibition notes, wall text.