Fred Genis: Master Printer
A page from the original article published in Imprint Winter 2010 Volume 45 Number 2.
‘Genis provided his own model for the modern printmaking studio. Contrary to the communal atmosphere of Stanley Hayter’s Atelier 17 model, where both emerging and established artists often worked side by side, Genis preferred working with one artist at a time, creating the right environment to work in and produce art at a peaceful, unhurried pace.’
This article was written by the current PCA President Akky van Ogtrop and published in the winter 2010 issue of Imprint, Vol. 45 No 2.
Akky van Ogtrop presented a public ‘conversation’ with retired master lithographer Fred Genis at Tweed River Art Gallery in Murwillumbah, NSW, in conjunction with the exhibition Printer’s Proofs: From the Fred Genis Collection. Here she reflects on Genis’s career and its effect on Australian printmaking.
When lithography was established in the late eighteenth century in Germany and spread throughout Europe, it became a known fact that the European printers always kept the mysteries of lithographic processing firmly to themselves. In the 1950s a number of lithographic studios were set up in America to explore and de-mystify these processes. Treating lithography as a science, they exposed all the wonderful techniques now available to others. By 1960 the USA took the lead in the advancement of lithography as a fine art form, as important graphic workshops were established: Universal Limited Art Editions [ULAE] on Long Island, founded by the late Tatyana Grossman, and the Tamarind Workshop, starting in Los Angeles and now located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, under the direction of June Wayne. These provided opportunities for collaboration between artists and master printers, which frequently resulted in innovative prints of great technical complexity. Other printing studios experimenting with combinations of photolithography and offset lithography have further expanded the potential of this medium.
The career of master printer Fred Genis coincided with this high point in printmaking. After studying in the Netherlands at the Amsterdam Graphic School, and many years of travelling and working mostly as a commercial lithographer around the globe, Genis went to the USA, where he was able to realise his dream of working as a lithographic printer in a number of fine art lithography studios.
Genis tells the story that, after reading an article in Newsweek about June Wayne, the founder of Tamarind Workshop, he wrote her a letter asking if it was possible for him to study at Tamarind. To his surprise he received a letter back from her. She could not give him a grant but offered him a fellowship at the studio. His experience at Tamarind allowed him to develop skills through research and practice. There he met Ken Tyler and worked in his workshop, Gemini in Los Angeles, before joining Irwin Hollander in partnership to form Hollander Workshop. Hollander Workshop printed the majority of the most important American Abstract Expressionist prints of the late 1960s. Painters such as de Kooning and Motherwell made some of their first lithographs in this innovative workshop.
According to Genis, de Kooning hated working directly on lithographic stone when he first tried it. He also quickly rejected aluminium plates. Genis and Hollander offered him transfer paper so that he could work in a manner more familiar to him. De Kooning spread his drawings on the sheets of transfer paper on the floor. He then cut them up and re-aligned sections of them to make collages. These collages were then transferred to plates for printing.
Genis has an impressive American track record but after eight years in the USA and then a further five years of working in the Netherlands, he finally decided in 1979 to move to Australia permanently. It was the right time because custom-printing had become a significant part of contemporary Australian printmaking practice. In the mid-to-late 1970s Sydney was the hub of custom-printing, mainly due to the activities of Port Jackson Press, established in 1975 by David Rankin.
Genis brought with him his complete lithographic workshop and settled with his family in Kenthurst in NSW. There he created a studio in the most idyllic environment. Since settling in Australia he has worked with Lloyd Rees, Brett Whiteley, Robert Jacks, Colin Lanceley, John Olsen, Guan Wei and many others. As each artist brought their individual talents and ideas to the studio, wherever his studio was, Genis was able to facilitate and extend the possibilities available to them.
As with Willem de Kooning, some of the Australian artists like Lloyd Rees also took some urging to try out lithography. But in 1980, after much persuasion from David Rankin from Port Jackson Press, Rees agreed to work with Genis and created The Caloola Suite, a suite of 67 lithographs. Genis continued to work with Lloyd Rees and printed his entire lithographic oeuvre.
His first Australian assignment was with John Olsen for a print commissioned by the Print Council of Australia. Genis recalls that the stone broke in two. He rang the Print Council to tell about this disaster. After some thought, the Print Council person asked him if it was possible to glue the stone together again.
Olsen lived close to Genis’s studio in Kenthurst. Genis invited Olsen to make a series of lithographs: Down Under. As with de Kooning, Genis introduced Olsen to transfer paper, and the directness of the process allowed the prints to have a freshness and spontaneity not possible with etching. For Olsen this method was ‘fabulous for picking up brush marks, any stain or blot’.
More than other printmaking techniques, artists using the lithography medium still largely depend on access to a good printer, and the development of the medium has been greatly influenced by when and where master printers have established their studios. Colin Lanceley remembers, when he came back to Australia in 1981, one of the first people he met was Fred Genis: ‘Fred is a wonderful lithographer. I’m sure you know his work. It’s been a tremendous privilege to work with him. I don’t think I could really, sort of, make prints at all – I have no equipment at home, for instance. I depend very heavily on the technical help and expertise of masters like Fred Genis.’
Genis provided his own model for the modern printmaking studio. Contrary to the communal atmosphere of Stanley Hayter’s Atelier 17 model, where both emerging and established artists often worked side by side, Genis preferred working with one artist at a time, creating the right environment to work in and produce art at a peaceful, unhurried pace.
Teaching was another part of Genis’s career. From 1980–1982 he was employed as a lecturer by Sydney College of the Arts, where he set up the lithography studio, and in 1997 was appointed Head of Printmaking at the National Art School, Sydney. During these years lithography still formed an important part of printmaking education. However, with the introduction of new techniques, many art schools have since stopped teaching lithography and training opportunities are no longer available.
In 1993 Genis moved his studio to Blackwattle studios at the end of Glebe Point Road, overlooking Blackwattle Bay, where he continued printing and publishing until the studios were pulled down to be replaced with apartments. In 1999 he relocated with his family to Possum Creek in Northern NSW, where he continued to print for some of the artists that he had worked with previously.
Genis has now retired from printing. As he tells it: he started his printing career in Australia with John Olsen and he finished with John Olsen.
Fred Genis sold his entire workshop to The Art Vault in Mildura, where one of the focal points of the gallery is the hundred-year-old lithography press.
His story is an extraordinary account of artist/printer collaboration in the post-war era of printmaking.
The exhibition Printer’s Proofs: From the Fred Genis Collection showed prints made by eminent Australian artists in collaboration with Genis over a period of 15 years. It was displayed at Tweed River Art Gallery, Murwillumbah, NSW, 26 March – 9 July 2010.
Fred Genis published many portfolios in partnerships that aimed to encourage artists to use lithographic processes and promote lithography to the public. In 1995 he established Sherman Genis Graphics in partnership with Sherman Galleries. He also worked closely with publisher Lou Klepac from Beagle Press.
Additional notes from Fred Genis’ conversation with Akky van Ogtrop at Tweed River Art Gallery, Murwillumbah, 28 March 2010.
 On the advice of a family friend, Genis went to the Amsterdam Graphic School to learn lithographic printing with Coen Hafkamp: ‘As soon as I saw the hand presses I realised that I liked this medium and would focus on becoming a steendrukker (stone printer) and not a machine printer … I realised that I liked working with [artists] and I had skills in adapting to each artist’s style’.
 In conversation, Genis credited Newsweek with this article but Julianna Kolenberg refers to it in Time in her introduction to From the Studio of Master Lithographer Fred Genis, a retrospective exhibition 1963-1995, Melbourne: Westpac Gallery, 1997.
 ‘At Tamarind I needed a chop mark. Most printers used two letters but I wanted something different. I like chooks so I thought: why not a chook? That’s how I have a little chook chop mark. At Tamarind it also was customary to acknowledge the printer in the description of the print, something which is becoming more recognised now in museums and galleries.’
 ‘Lithography is disappearing at the moment at art schools. It is a medium which is hard to learn and it takes a long time … so the failure rate is high. With lithography you have to keep on doing it.
 ‘When we moved to Possum Creek… I thought that it was a good idea to make a print with John Olsen again. This time I decided that I would … take it easy. No large edition and no hurry. But the strange thing was that everything in the printing of the edition went wrong … Finally it clicked though, and I thought: I am going too slow. In printing an edition rhythm is very important. So I decided that instead of seven prints I would finish this one and quit. I told Rina (my wife) I have stopped printing, this is it and, yes, now I have to get used to this idea of retirement.’