Flashback Friday: René Block – The European Approach

Imprint Volume 25 Number 2, 1990
cover image: Mike Parr, Optic Iland, printed by John Loane, 1990, drypoint, 108 x 78 cm

‘In previous visits to Australia I had rediscovered a very strong participation in an international dialogue by a number of Australian artists. These artists have developed their own language.’

This article was published anonymously in the autumn issue of Imprint, Vol 25 No. 2, 1990 (eds. Ashley Crawford, Ray Edgar and Charles Green)

René Block, artistic director of the recent Sydney Biennale, The Readymade Boomerang, is a significant figure in contemporary art. Both Galerie René Block and then DAADgalerie in Berlin have been closely associated with the key figures of the European avant-garde of the sixties and seventies. His experience and contacts resulted in one of the most stimulating Biennales seen in Australia and a major print portfolio of historical significance.

Block’s involvement with prints grew out of his experience with the Fluxus group and their concerns with the production of artwork in unlimited editions at very low prices. Both Fluxus and the creation of multiples have in common the intention of denying a work of art’s status as a unique and precious item. ‘I was not especially involved as a classic editor of prints in the Parisian way,’ says Block. ‘When I established my Edition the artists and I were more interested in the industrial production possibilities of producing multiples. I was interested in the industrial production of artwork in larger editions for low prices. Unfortunately the realities were different. It was almost impossible to use the facilities of industrial production. And in terms of distribution there was no need, no interest for large editions. The market was not ready.’

Block’s Edition Block has overseen the conceptualisation and production of multiples by numerous major international artists. Works by Richard Hamilton, based on consumer products such as electric toothbrushes (The Critic Laughs), and Joseph Beuys’ Felt Suit and sledges, and the first video multiple, Nam June Paik’s The Thinker, are a few examples of the fifty or so editions he has so far completed.

Artists like Brehmer, Vostell, Polke and Richter who have shown with Galerie René Block in Berlin were influenced by American pop art in its early stages; however, their concerns were more directed towards illustrating the confrontations between the experiences of East and West Berlin. Their vision of consumer culture, which they referred to as Capitalistic Realism, resulted in Block’s Graphic Capitalism portfolio in 1967 and his book about the complete prints of these artists in which images of a similar nature from East and West were juxtaposed.

In another portfolio, Weekend from 1972, artists were encouraged to decide between one and five prints, allowing development of new ideas rather than one typical image, an approach which remains one of the earmarks of Edition Block. ‘Generally artists are obliged to choose one image to represent their work, but as some of them were not printmakers, I thought it would be helpful to them to develop a new idea in a new medium which is easier with a suite of some prints. Beuys at that time was not interested in prints at all so his contribution to Weekend is an object. All prints and the object were published in a suitcase.’

Like all Block’s projects since 1964, when he opened his first gallery at the age of 22, the shows and the portfolios are marked by a distinctly blockbuster status. The Sydney Biennale portfolio is similar to Block’s Hamburg folio of 1985, but on a larger scale. Titled Art of Peace, the Hamburg portfolio was published during the Biennale des Frenders and helped provide Block with both the finance for that show in Hamburg and the experience to plan the Sydney exhibition on a larger scale.

‘I proposed to the City of Hamburg that we do a print portfolio and they gave us a loan. The portfolio acted as security. The edition of forty with a price of 5000 marks gave us a loan of 200,000 marks.’ Whilst this didn’t sell immediately, the Hamburg government has been suitably impressed with its consistent sales and inflation value making it a worthwhile exercise.

Over the next year he planned a selection of prints by Australian artists coinciding with Australia’s bicentennial. The ‘Aus Australian’ project, as it came to be known, was printed largely by John Loane.

‘In previous visits to Australia I had rediscovered a very strong participation in an international dialogue by a number of Australian artists. These artists have developed their own language. It was not necessarily planned as a bicentennial portfolio. That status occurred by chance closer to the 1988 celebrations but the portfolio was planned in 1986 following the very impressive and successful exhibition Five from the Fifth in Berlin’s DAADgalerie.’

Aside from work by one of pop art’s originators, Richard Hamilton, the recent biennale portfolio of twenty-one artists includes many Fluxus names such as Nam June Paik, Emmett Williams, John Cage and Ben Vautier along with many first time printmakers. The long list of big name artists contains regular collaborators with Block and demonstrates his professional ongoing working relationship with a number of artists.

Having secured the likes of Rosalie Gascoigne, Ilya Kabakov and Rosemary Trockel to produce their first ever prints, Block says, ‘some were hesitant at the beginning because there was no immediate solution for their ideas. But by offering the whole range of printmaking styles, it was a matter of utilising the right technique for each particular artist. I convinced Ken Unsworth to try woodblocks. This was interesting for him too because it was his first woodcut. I tried to influence the use of different styles where I could but of course did not influence the artistic decision. Though I did persuade John Cage it would be wonderful if he could contribute a “Methostic” with the portfolios title The Readymade Boomerang. Hamilton experimented with the paint box of a computer for the first time and for him this print is a very important work. Also we cooperated with some of the best printmakers worldwide, including printshops in Vienna, Paris, Rome, London and Berlin.’

The range of mediums used by the printmakers borders on startling: Janet Burchill silkscreened on sheets of tin, Julian Schnabel used montage of the different print techniques of lithography and etching, Barbara Bloom used photographic offset lithography, Peter Tyndall incorporated silkscreen: the list of variations goes on.

The Readymade Boomerang print portfolio is testimony to two things: the first is René Block’s love for multiple edition prints, the second is the artists’ respect for this maverick European print ‘editor’.