The Ken Tyler Phenomenon

A spread from the original article published in Imprint Autumn 2006 Volume 41 Number 1 featuring David Hockney’s A Diver, Paper Pool 17 (1978) and Robert Rauschenberg’s Booster (1967).

‘… one can argue for a Tyler philosophy of printmaking. This philosophy in part is predicated on breaking down the divide between the artist and the printer: the abolition of the notion of the master printer and its substitution with the idea of artist collaborator.’

Imprint Autumn 2006 Volume 41 Number 1. Cover image: Rock art site in Arnhem Land overlaid with etchings from the Injalak Hill Suite, made by 10 artists from Oenpelli at this site. Courtesy of Injalak Arts and Basil Hall Editions.

In celebration of the free exhibition Behind the Scenes: Tyler Graphics at Work currently on show at the National Gallery of Australia until 8 May, we revisit Professor Sasha Grishin‘s article on the legendary Ken Tyler published in Imprint Autumn 2006, Volume 41 Number 1

Ken Tyler (born 1931) is one of a small number of artist printers who emerged in the 1960s and who revolutionised the American printmaking scene.[1]

Possibly the most successful printer of his generation, he worked with some of the most famous artists of his day. They included Josef Albers, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Bruce Nauman, Kenneth Noland, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, Donald Sultan, RB Kitaj, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell and Andy Warhol. Although with some, like Warhol, the collaboration lasted for only a single print, with others, like Stella, it continued over a thirty-three year period.

There is no such thing as a Tyler style, in terms of specific stylistic morphology, and over a thirty-five year period[2] he and his workshops collaborated with the Abstract Expressionists, figurative Pop artists and cool Colour Field geometric abstractionists. However, one can argue for a Tyler philosophy of printmaking. This philosophy in part is predicated on breaking down the divide between the artist and the printer: the abolition of the notion of the master printer and its substitution with the idea of artist collaborator. As Tyler recently noted ‘I get rid of the term Master Printer, I hate that word, I hate the idea of a master. I use the word collaborator, where, like in the theatre, everybody makes a contribution, everybody is an important cog in the wheel. There isn’t one important element or event which is going to change this.’[3]

He continued, ‘I felt that you needed to be on the same level as the artist you were working with and that if you were, communication would open to the point that you could suggest to the artist a better alternative and be confident that you could do this. Help the artist, don’t make them go through this ritual that they have to understand every technical detail before they could do anything. Give them the prerogative of working in a situation with an equal. By putting myself into that mindset where I felt that I was an equal, I became an artist. Just because I decided to become printer and publisher didn’t mean that I ceased being an artist. I would give everything I had to accomplish what the artists were trying to do. It was their responsibility to draw it, and it was my responsibility to print it, clearly and precisely … I listened to the artist, if they wanted a bigger press, I’d build it. If they wanted a bigger piece of paper, I’d make it.’[4]

Inherent in Tyler’s notion of collaboration was the idea that the printer was a chameleon-like character who could meet the artist’s every wish, whether it be Frankenthaler’s impossibly adventurous woodcut, Madame Butterfly (2000), which required forty-six woodblocks specifically carved by a Japapnese master carver and printed in a hundred and two colours on specially hand made paper, or the technical exactitude of an Albers’ lithograph or screenprint. In each instance Tyler would oblige. Simultaneously he would challenge the artist with previously un-envisioned technical and conceptual possibilities or seduce artists to experiment with new techniques. On one occasion he introduced Hockney to the new colour cast paper pulp works by Ellsworth Kelly, which he had just printed. This challenged Hockney, who went on to produce with Tyler his brilliant series of swimming pool cast paper pieces.

As a result of Tyler’s technical and conceptual strategies the prints produced were no longer the democratic and popularly accessible art form, but rare and expensive masterpieces intended for institutions or for wealthy collectors. For example, Stella’s Fountain sold at over $214,000 in May 2000. As a consequence, or perhaps as an integral part of this philosophy of printmaking, Tyler generally collaborated only with the ‘Blue Chip’ artists of the American and international art scene, artists who frequently achieved their initial reputations not as printmakers. Tyler frequently cites William Lieberman from MoMA in New York, who later befriended him, as arguing in a lecture that great artists make great art and from this Tyler drew the lesson that he needed to work with great artists if he intended to produce great prints. Perhaps what is fairly obvious, but not clearly stated, is that greatness is something which is bestowed by the art market and as the art market does not generally privilege printmaking as an art form through which greatness is expressed, these great artists were almost inevitably painters, with perhaps a few of them sculptors, and it was the role tat Tyler set himself to introduce them to printmaking or at least make printmaking a more significant part of their practice. The downside to this was that great printmaking became associated with the names of the major ‘Blue Chip’ artists, while professional printmakers, those who were primarily printmakers, remained somewhere working in the back blocks.

Josef Albers was the artist who first took Tyler under his wing and became ‘Tyler’s mentor of mentors’.[5] Tyler, who had trained in the Bauhaus tradition at the Art Institute of Chicago, warmed to Albers and his exacting standards and accepted the dictum that Albers was the architect and Tyler was the builder: ‘Albers was the first artist who thought that we were a team’.[6] Albers’ White Line Squares lithographs, which Tyler printed in the mid sixties, remain as some of the great gems in Tyler lithography. It is with these Albers lithographs in his portfolio that Tyler managed to entice Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns away from Tatyana Grosman’s Long Island ULAE studio to come to work with him at Gemini in Los Angeles.

Robert Rauschenberg’s lithograph Booster (1967) was in some ways a watershed print in the history of Tyler’s printmaking. This six-foot (182.8 cm) lithograph was printed from two stones on a specially made sheet of paper. Not only was it the largest hand pulled lithograph to be made up to that date in America, but it also demonstrated the Tyler philosophy of going outside to bring new technology into the studio, which challenged the traditional limitations on printmaking. Booster introduced a full-length x-ray image of the naked Rauschenberg wearing his hobnailed boots. ‘When we got the x-rays the serendipity of that was that not only did Rauschenberg’s hobnailed shoes come through, but so did his penis, which delighted Bob to no end.’[7] The print became an icon in the print world and promptly attracted Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Frank Stella to come to work with Tyler.

What was characteristic of Tyler’s print workshops was not that they specialised in ‘Blue Chip’ artists – that was the aspiration of many of the print workshops acrss America which strove for economic viability – but the hallmark of the Tyler prints was that they extended the boundaries of printmaking. The Pop artists brought with them their entourage of friends, critics and curators and as Tyler’s reputation as a printer who would say yes to everything grew, so did the scale and the ambitious nature of the projects. One of the most significant innovations was his work with paper pulp, where artists did not print onto the paper, but actually printed with paper, initially in the form of cookie-cutter templates employed to form the paper pulp, eventually growing into David Hockney’s paper pools.

Ronald Davis, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Kenneth Noland all made prints from coloured paper pulp, but perhaps the most spectacular of all were those by Hockney.[8] As Tyler recalls ‘David came to have dinner with me in August of 1978 and see the country workshop and the new Kelly paper works Ellsworth and I had made. While viewing this work, which he was very impressed by, he asked if he could stay over for the weekend and try his hand at making a little test or two in paper pulp. These tests quickly developed into studies of my swimming pool and single and multiple panel works depicting the pool at various times of the day. David stayed for forty-nine days and created ninety-five paper works. The best dinner guest I ever had!’[9] The hedonistic pools with their sonorous colours promptly became the subject of a book and quickly became iconic on both sides of the Atlantic, and were some of the most distinguished prints to be associated with Tyler.[10] The brilliantly coloured paper pulps, available in a huge range of dyes, were introduced into the printmaker’s repertoire and with Hockney they were given almost a painterly dimension.

If with Hockney Tyler introduced a new medium into mainstream printmaking, in his collaboration with Helen Frankenthaler he revisited the most ancient medium in printmaking, that of the woodcut, and gave it a radical reinterpretation. When assembling a recent survey of her woodcuts it was noted that ‘no contemporary artist has used this medium to achieve such painterly results.’[11] Frankenthaler, who has been known as a demanding and temperamental artist, worked with Tyler on several occasions, possibly most memorably on the Madame Butterfly woodcut of 2000. Tyler considered many of his collaborations with artists as marriages and in this instance ‘Helen and I had a very rocky marriage, but it was a good one and we had great respect for each other. Without that respect we could not have done what we did … Helen and I have a wonderful relationship. Through the years we made thirteen woodcuts and I don’t know how many other prints, but we could not have done this without the sparring and we could not have done this sparring without a great respect for one another.’[12]

Madame Butterfly woodcut is one of the great prints that sits appropriately on the boundary of two centuries, looking back to the ancient craft of the woodcut, back to the Japanese ukiyo-e tradition and the great Edo-period screens, as well as possibly the Munch jig-saw woodcuts, as well as towards the new technology that permitted the print to be realised on a huge scale, measuring about a metre by two metres. It was printed on three pieces of paper made by Tom Strianese from Tyler’s workshop, the two outer sheets slightly darker than the central one and matching the tone and texture of the wood grain. There were forty-six woodblocks carved from different types of wood by Yasuyuki Shibata and the artist, and they were printed in one hundred and two colours. Technically this is one of the most challenging and adventurous projects ever attempted in a woodcut, yet the final print has a palpable breathing freshness and a surface that conveys an absolute lightness of touch and sense of spontaneity.

Tyler’s chronicler fairly comments: ‘Many proofs were destroyed. Nerves were frayed. Tempers short. At various points, both artist and publisher were ready to abandon the project. Although the triptych took two years to complete, Madame Butterfly’s final dazzling serenity belies the difficulty of its making.’[13] In retrospect Tyler reminisced ‘Madame Butterfly is a one in a billion print. It was the right confluence with the right kind of people working on it, the right atmosphere and the right moment in their life.’[14]

On Australia Day, 1974, six hundred prints, rare proofs and drawings from Tyler’s West Coast workshops arrived at the Australian National Gallery. The previous year James Mollison, as the Director, had acquired for the Gallery the Felix Man Archive and the Gallery gained an international reputation as a serious collecting institution for modern printmaking. When Tyler needed to raise capital to shift his operations to the East Coast, Canberra was approached and the acquisition made. With the appointment of Pat Gilmour as the Coordinating Curator of International Prints and Illustrated Books, the relationship with Tyler strengthened and further prints were acquired. In 2002, her successor, Jane Kinsman, secured a further 2000 prints, proofs and drawings through gift and donation and the National Gallery of Australia, as it was subsequently known, became the major Ken Tyler archive in the world with its own dedicated website.

The Ken Tyler phenomenon represents a unique and unrepeatable moment in printmaking, which, at least on one level, changed the appearance of prints and projected them into a much more exalted position in the hierarchy of the visual arts.

Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA, Australian National University

 

[1] There is a considerable amount of literature devoted to Ken Tyler with Pat Gilmour’s Ken Tyler: Master Printer and the American Print Renaissance, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1986; and Martin Friedman et al., Tyler Graphics: The Extended Image, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis & Abberville Publishers, New York, 1987, amongst the most useful. Also see www.nga.gov.au/InternationalPrints/Tyler

[2] Ken Tyler established five workshops: Gemini Ltd and Gemini GEL in Los Angeles, Tyler Workshop and Tyler Graphics Ltd at Beford and Mount Kisco in New York State, and the Singapore Tyler Print Institute.

[3] Ken Tyler, taped interview with the author, Canberra, 24 November 2005.

[4] Ken Tyler, taped interview with the author, Canberra, 24 November 2005.

[5] Judith Goldman, ‘Kenneth Tyler: The Artisan as Artist’ in Martin Friedman et al. Tyler Graphics: The Extended Image, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis & Abberville Publishers, New York, 1987, p. 28.

[6] Ken Tyler, taped interview with the author, Canberra, 24 November 2005.

[7] Ken Tyler, taped interview with the author, Canberra, 24 November 2005.

[8] See Ruth E. Fine, ‘Paperworks at Tyler Graphics’ in Martin Friedman et al., Tyler Graphics: The Extended Image, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis & Abberville Publishers, New York, 1987, pp. 203–239.

[9] Ken Tyler, Lecture ‘Hand and Hand’, 5 October 2002, Canberra.

[10] Nikos Strangos (ed.), David Hockney: Paper Pools, Thames and Hudson, London 1980.

[11] Judith Goldman, Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts, Naples Museum of Art, Florida, and George Braziller Inc., New York, 2002, p. vii.

[12] Ken Tyler, taped interview with the author, Canberra, 24 November 2005.

[13] Judith Goldman, Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts, Naples Museum of Art, Florida, and George Braziller Inc., New York, 2002, p. 99.

[14] Ken Tyler, taped interview with the author, Canberra, 24 November 2005.