On Stanley William Hayter

by Susan Tallman

September 2012

In June 1944, as Allied forces slogged their way through Normandy, the exhibition “Hayter and Studio 17: New Directions in Gravure” opened at The Museum of Modern Art. It was a show of engravings and etchings, as well as plaster reliefs and templates, by 32 artists from North and South America, Eastern and Western Europe, and North Africa. Some were famous—Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Joan Miró—most were not. All of them had worked with the artist Stanley William Hayter, founder of the collaborative print workshop Atelier 17 and the most influential printmaker of his generation.

Hayter was a powerhouse: arriving in Paris in 1926 after a brief stint as a geochemist with the Anglo Persian Oil Company, he exerted a kind of gravitational pull on his fellow artists; his studio became a social and creative hub for nascent Surrealists, his ideas and techniques became a kind of currency. In the unlikely medium of engraving, Hayter found a way to use physics— chemistry, resistance, momentum and conservation—to jolt the artist’s mind and hand out of their habitual patterns. Relocated to New York during World War II, Hayter’s influence spread through a second continent. Rothko and Motherwell passed through the atelier on their way to Abstract Expressionism; Jackson Pollock engraved plates with looping skeins of line that seem predictive of the drip paintings to come.

Hayter knew everyone: the preface to his manual of intaglio techniques was written by Sir Herbert Read; the philosopher and Wittgenstein scholar Peter Hacker edited a major collection of essays on Hayter. Anaïs Nin left a compelling portrait:

He was like a stretched bow or a coiled spring every minute, witty, swift, ebullient, sarcastic. … He always moved about between the students, cyclonic, making Joycean puns, a caricature, a joke. He was always in motion. I wondered how he had ever spent hours bent over copper plates, delicate, demanding, exacting work. His lines were like projectiles thrown in space, sometimes tangled like antennae caught in a windstorm. I never saw him at low ebb or passive, and even pain, which he was known to have, seemed to inspire only a more desperate aliveness, alertness. A volcanic personality.

When Hayter died in 1988, at the age of 86, his friends seemed genuinely shocked that such an outcome was possible. But by that time Hayter’s work—his prints and paintings, his technical innovations, the productivity of Atelier 17—had slipped to the periphery of art discourse. He had led a movement that valued close engagement with materials: curiosity leading to mastery, mastery leading back to curiosity. In the brochure for the 1944 MoMA show, Hayter explained the relevance of print techniques to modern art this way: “the effect of the graphic and plastic researches of modern painting and sculpture since the nineteenth century had been to set modern artists new problems of technique, and certain of these problem, notably the integration of space and object, find a perfect medium in methods of line engraving.”

Such language, focused on formal problems and technical solutions, doesn’t resonate today, though the underlying approach, the idea that art objects are artifacts of inquiry, does. So does the belief, on which Atelier 17 operated: that art does not move forward through individual acts of isolated genius, but through collaborative exchange. And so does the notion that artists are best trained not by rigid programs of imitation, but by assisted adventures of their own design. Since his death, the audience that recognizes Hayter’s name or his several visual styles has grown ever smaller, even as his approaches to teaching, workshop practice and material problem-solving have become so pervasive that we no longer think of them as innovations.

In this issue of Art in Print, generously supported by a grant from the Dedalus Foundation, we reassess the legacy of Stanley William Hayter. We asked writers with different areas of expertise to consider aspects of Hayter’s art and practice from the vantage point of 2012. Ann Shafer of the Baltimore Museum of Art focuses on the overlooked content of Hayter’s images. Julia Beaumont-Jones of the Tate interviews printmaker Stanley Jones about Hayter’s influence on British printmaking, particularly the Curwen Press. Artist Liza Folman provides a lucid explanation of Hayter’s color printing innovations, while Andrew Raftery assesses the breadth and depth of Hayter’s ideas, down three generations of artists and teachers. Finally, Art in Print staff writers put together an overview of essential Hayter reading.

As Shafer points out, Hayter’s valorization as a technician has come at the expense of his reputation as an artist. Art is always a marriage between ideas and materials, and the manipulation of those materials—technique—is what makes the marriage work. In the half-century since “Hayter and Atelier 17,” we have become re-habituated to the idea that technique can be outsourced: printers, fabricators, engineers, the rolodex or contact list of the on-the-go contemporary artist. This is nothing new: Raphael did not weave his own tapestries, Bernini did not cast his own bronzes single-handed. It may be that Hayter’s moment—those mid-century decades when dirty fingernails were seen as key to new thoughts—was an aberration. But Hayter’s legacy remains: if relatively few artists still use his precise techniques of engraving or viscosity printing, almost all follow his dictum: “it is the importance of the idea (communicated by importance of the idea (communicated by whatever process), and this alone, that determines the validity of the work.”