Quest For Experimental in Printmaking


Among artistic disciplines, printmaking is considered the one with the most strict technical limits and rules. Such rules and customs as considering printmaking a paper-based practice, numbering, reproduction using matrixes, presentation mostly as framed, and production in certain sizse still influential today. For many years, especially beginning with the 20th century, complying with these principles was considered a rule, and the originality of printmaking were defined on the basis of loyalty for said rules. The basis of the foregoing was to determine the rules of printmaking, the techniques and application details of which is complicated and susceptible to misuse, with respect to ethical limitations and to make sure that all comply therewith in production. Accordingly a standard would be set. It was important to remain faithful to the matrix prepared by the artist and that the numbered copies must be identical. Even that some institutions considered identicalness so important that they used to request presentation of two impressions printed out of the same matrix. It is only by this way the numbered works could have been tested for identicalness. Similarly, printing on paper was an important and indispensable rule. Numbering in line with the said rule and presentation of the artwork in frames and behind glass still considered the manners of application that maintain its relevance and importance today.

New approaches in perspective towards art as emerged after the end of the Second World War proved that these rules could be violated. Especially new alternatives and proliferation of interdisciplinary perspectives that were brought in by questioning the general perspective towards art and aesthetics, paved the way for printmaking artists to create productions associated with other disciplines.

As early as the beginning of 60s, Andy Warhol printed his serigraphic works on canvas along with paper, scrapping the general presentation form thereof. Serigraphic works, which normally presented on paper and behind glass, were now printed on canvas and similar materials, and even without numbering. Warhol not only changed the language of art, nut also that of printmaking. A similar approach can be observed in Rauschenberg’s combine paintings and impressions as printed on cloth. Rauschenberg used cloth, canvas, and different materials s print surfaces along with paper and exhibited a part of them without a frame. Rauschenberg’s work both combined printmaking and collage and paved the pay for incorporating different material and ready-mades. 

As seen in Warhol and Rauschenberg, and other artists of their period, different materials and especially canvas, as a replacement of paper, were continued to be used in printmaking in the subsequent years. The diversity of application increased by introduction of various materials, such as wood, fiber, fabric, and wall surfaces etc., together with the impact of technological opportunities. However, the paper will not focus on technical applications but rather concentrate on the extraordinary printmaking applications, how the rules meticulously wet for centuries were violated for the sake of innovation, and how its limits were expanded in the process thereof.

Before dealing with concrete examples, it would be better to review how such a change has occurred. From the beginning of 20th Century, printmaking has become a center of attraction for artists, with almost all practiced printmaking. This interest provoked quest for experimentation in printmaking, the grounds of which was already strong in Europe. Experimentation in printmaking was further accelerated by the works in the scope of American Federal Art Project between 1935 and 1943. It should be noted that printing workshops that were opened subsequently in the US also made a great contribution in this process as from the Pop Art years. These workshops not only served printmakers but also artists from different branches of art. Providing qualified technicians in printmaking, these workshops had become the center of meeting for different disciplines on the basis printmaking. These artists of different branches forced the limits of traditional printing and realized innovative application. On the one hand avant-garde interpretation of art and aesthetics, and on the other hand, activities of workshops, especially Atelier 17, Tamarind, Pratt Contemporaries, and ULAE, helped with dissemination of those innovative applications. While certain artists, who worked in these workshops, dealt with printmaking in their own style, others quest for new frontiers making use of the opportunities provided by printmaking.

The first half of the 20th Century is marked with a great build up in the field of printmaking, while the works beginning from the 50s presented what can be deemed as fundamental questionings.  As a result thereof, matrixes and reproduction logic survived, however numbering as seen in traditional applications ceased to exist, or materials other than paper were preferred as the printing surface.

For instance, John Cage’s ‘Not Wanting to Say Anything about Marcel,’ dated 1969, was based on serigraphic work printed on fiber, and subsequently placement of those fibers onto a wooden ground. It should be noted in this and similar work, the artist despite making use of the opportunities of printmaking, created a totally new situation in terms of both the material and form of presentation. The fact that printmaking has now become a component of a three-dimension artwork means that it can be placed in space and used like a statue.

Without a doubt, in 60s, art and the language thereof was questioned and therefore the accustomed discipline-based art understanding lost its effect. The time was evolving to a process in which there was a belief in the necessity of new languages arisen from the togetherness of different disciplines and a phenomenon of gradual dissemination of languages. And art, as always, was heading towards risky waters by being constructed upon novelties/differences. This was also navigating into the waters that was restricted and disapproved by modernism. Frontiers of printmaking was stretched to the extent it is possible in terms of both technique, materials, and size in this period, when aesthetics was re-thought and ‘what is/is not art’ was subject to debate. While new application forms arose from statue, space, and object relationship, small-sized prints grew out of spaces.

The size limit was, without a doubt, the biggest obstacle before printmaking for long and that printmaking was almost limited to the size of paper and the press. As a matter of fact, during the years of its inception, it was limited to the book size. In 20th Century the limits of the size were pushed and contrary to conventions, prints were made bigger by attaching to each other, and then the printing machines were made larger. And then, when the foregoing too was insufficient, the printing machines were set aside and new alternatives were pursued. In this sense, German artist Thomas Kilpper resorted to sizes beyond conventions. He came out with extraordinarily large printmaking practices thanks to gigantic rolling cylinders, wooden floor of a basketball field, and printing surfaces of more than 20 meters. While Kilpper surprised his followers by the size of his works, he proved to have taken a perspective out of the conventional approach also by using cloth in place of paper. His working material, production milieu, printing surfaces, and the way of exhibition were without as doubt totally novel. Also his arrangement of comparatively small sized works as exhibited in confined spaces can be seen examples of an extraordinary presentation. Despite all those innovative and out-of-the-box practices, the fact that he did not give up reproduction feature of printmaking and using matrixes, still maintained his connection with printmaking.

It is without a doubt that using matrixes is an indispensable characteristic of printmaking. Ability to reproduce impressions via matrix has been inherited today almost as the fundamental condition for an impression can be considered in the scope of printmaking. All the application forms of printmaking were established on exhibiting the reproduction opportunities. Woodcuts, Engraving, Lithography, Serigraphy, Digital Print, and other innovative applications of today were established on this principle. Today, the contemporary artists, who practice on printmaking tradition, never gave up using matrixes. They tended to pursue experimentation mostly in relationship with space, exhibition, and surface organization.

There were artists who resorted to matrix production and repeated use of the same on the same surface. For instance, Nancy Spero made her matrixes out of silicon type of materials, and used the same to prepare her compositions by repeated printing on such different material as paper, wall, silk etc. This method had been used by the masters of printmaking before paper was invented. In fact, ıt can be said that while the contemporary printmaking artists were violating the rules that were set as from Renaissance and considered unchangeable, in a sense they were referring to the printmaking tradition before the introduction of the rules. This is because of the fact that in the prints made before the year 105, when paper was invented, there had been no habit of framing or numbering. Taking into consideration that printmaking in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Far East used wood, leather, walls, and fabric as print surfaces, it would not be difficult to discover the strong commonalities between the contemporary printmaking and the primitive examples in terms of material and technique. Sappero, rather than preparing the matrix of completed composition and making prints therefrom, prepared the matrixes of the elements, which constitute the composition, and used the same for printing once, or repeatedly in line with the logic of printmaking. Therefore, the picture field was transformed into a surface, on which the same image was repeated. Sapperro, also incorporating paint and collage into her compositions, united the reproductive reality of printmaking with paint and collage in a particular reality of application of her own. She exhibited parallel critical attitude against the traditional perspective towards women along with her experimentation in technique. Her works on women identity as othernized, exposed to violence, and instrumentalized in the modern society had been the concrete indicators of a totally innovative perspective.

Another artist, who as with Sappero, made experiments regarding matrixes was Willie Cole. Cole is an artist, who deals mostly with installations and objects. In a series of work, he imprinted the steam iron’s marks on wood and paper to create scorches. Accordingly, he used the scorches to create figures and arrangements within his composition. The artist’s use of ready-mades as matrixes can be considered an interesting example with regard to the fact that it explains the relationship between the material and printmaking. Again, Kelecsenyi Csilla’s works, who poured pulp on any surface to use it as a matrix, should be noted due to the fact that her works set aside printing machine and proves each surface can be used as matrix.

Cristoph Loos is another artist, who had a problem with printmaking matrixes and built up his language structure thereon. Loos used wooden matrixes sometimes together with the imprints on paper, and sometimes as statues. He presented interesting examples in terms of both mode of exhibition and relationship established between three dimension and imprint. His spatial installations that represent in each aspect his convergence to woodcut and statue traditions, also refers to the ages old painted statue custom. Natural use of wood material, uncolored painting preference and an understanding of pictorially simplified forms constitute a strong sense of unity in Loos’ work. In this sense, it can be said that his works are experimental application derived from the relation between woodcut and other fields of application.

Having been frequently used recently, digital printing is also marked with surprising alternatives with regard to transformation of interiors and exteriors. The fact that such examples can be created in computer, and applied by sponsorship projects paved the way for implementation of big projects by removing the limit of efforts and labor of the artist. Therefore, there emerged the opportunity to grasp the imagination and phantasies of the arties via technological means. The interiors and exteriors of huge buildings were transformed into a part of artwork without a limit by the introduction of the artist’s forms. Here the interesting point is that the exhibition place becomes virtually limitless and that metaphoric meaning is created by illusory techniques.

Regina Silveira with her artwork parallel to the foregoing subverts our habit to look at an artwork from one single perspective and dominate over it by introduction of forms covering the interiors and exteriors of architectural buildings. The artwork is now everywhere in the place and it is almost equivalent to experiencing the building. Moreover the works of the artist based on the physical space/object and its shadow in interiors can be considered works pertaining to printmaking tradition.

Despite all, one should ask to what extent all these works can be considered printmaking, statue, or painting. Without regard to which category they are considered to belong to, one cannot rule out the relation of these works with printmaking and other fields. On the other hand, it is well evident that they cannot be considered printmaking in modern sense. To the extent we consider the examples printed on such surfaces as walls, wood, leather, and silk before the printing machine as the first examples of printmaking when we are to write the history of printmaking, today’s experimental examples that are related to printmaking rules at least to the degree of above, can also be considered printmaking examples. On the other hand given that today an artwork is not compelled to be loyal to a certain field’s rules, these new artworks do not need to observe the rules of the modern artwork as well.

In conclusion, albeit the relation of all these artworks with printmaking is subject to debate, it cannot be ruled out that printmaking is a very important constituent of such works. It is observed that contemporary printmaking of the said kind is being discussed more as from the 1990s with the global phenomena. Furthermore these new works attract the followers not only by the changes in technique and language, but also with the conceptional dimension of the work, use of image/images, a new composition, and a form of presentation that does not exclude the venue of presentation. Recent spatial arrangements, wall applications, use of ready-mades as matrixes, intervention into the space, and usability of all kinds of surfaces for the artwork are considered applications pertaining to the printmaking tradition. These new applications are now the contemporary look of printmaking in today’s art.


QUEST FOR EXPERIMENTATION IN PRINTMAKING,  Ninth International Conference on the Arts in Society,

Rome at Sapienza University of Rome, 23-27 June 2014