Outside the Box
This summer the Hammer Museum will host a major exhibition marking the joint acquisition of the complete archive of prints by Los Angeles publisher Edition Jacob Samuel by the UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since 1988 Jacob Samuel has published 43 portfolios of prints made by a diverse group of international artists, including Marina Abramovic, John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Mona Hatoum, Rebecca Horn, Anish Kapoor, Barry McGee, Ed Moses, Matthew Monahan, Wangechi Mutu, Gabriel Orozco, Nancy Rubins, Ed Ruscha, Robert Therrien, James Welling, Christopher Wool, and Andrea Zittel, among many others. Working primarily in series in intaglio mediums such as etching, drypoint, and aquatint, Samuel has invited artists to create prints in his Santa Monica studio but has also traveled internationally to collaborate with artists in their own studios. The number of prints included in each portfolio range from 6 to 36, with more than 550 individual prints included in the 43 portfolios. The exhibition will be situated in the museum’s main temporary exhibition galleries and will include all the published portfolios, as well as related proofs and other preparatory works.
The exhibition is organized by the Hammer Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and is curated by Cynthia Burlingham, director of the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts and deputy director of collections at the Hammer Museum, with Britt Salvesen, department head and curator of the Wallis Annenberg department of photography and department head and curator of prints and drawings, and Leslie Jones, associate curator of prints and drawings, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
By Cynthia Burlingham, Leslie Jones, and Britt Salvesen
February 26, 2010
Leslie Jones: Would you describe why you were first drawn to etching and discuss its role within the context of printmaking in Los Angeles?
Jacob Samuel: My background was originally in black-and-white photography. I went to art school in the Bay Area, which has a really rich tradition in that medium. Because I was a photographer, I never thought of myself as an artist who painted or drew. When I graduated college in 1973, I felt very uncertain about my future as a photographer because there really wasn’t any such thing as fine art photography then. And I knew I wasn’t going to go the commercial route. The professors at the school were combining photography and conceptual art at this time, and at the same time it wasn’t so important what you photographed. More important were the formal parameters you brought to the print. So that was my orientation.
In 1974 I was offered an apprenticeship at a commercial etching shop in Santa Monica, and I took it in a heartbeat. It was a very good training ground for me because it was straight commercial work. I was doing large editions of two to three hundred prints. I learned about such issues as hairline registration, working in different colors, and quality control from beginning to end.
And at the time I became very interested in the history of printmaking in Los Angeles. One of the first things I did was go to the Grunwald Center when it was at the Dickson Art Center at UCLA. I looked at the entire Tamarind Lithography Workshop archive there. Then I went to Gemini G.E.L. But what really got me was going to Cirrus Editions. I liked what the artists were doing there, particularly Charles Christopher Hill and Joe Goode, because it was coming out of process art.
Cynthia Burlingham: And when did you decide that you wanted to be a master printer?
JS: In 1976 I was working with other artists, but I wasn’t a master printer. I met Nancy Mozur, who was the manager of Sam Francis’s studio, and George Page, Sam’s lithographer. Sam was looking to have some etchings printed and asked if I would come over to the Litho Shop and meet with him. He had some old plates that had never been proofed, and he asked me to take them to the workshop where I printed in Venice and show him how they could be printed. So I printed them, and he looked at them and said, “Well, they are kinda funky, but I see what you’re getting at . . .”
And then he started inviting me over and telling me “to bring plates.” Every time I would bring plates over, we would never work. He wanted to talk, to go out to lunch, go out for a drive. We never worked. This went on for about three years. In the meantime I was doing odd jobs for him, and I became part of the little scene at the Litho Shop. It was about six people, very nice, very low-key. Then a very good friend of mine, Anthony Zepeda, who worked at Gemini, told me that they were going to start doing etchings there, and so I went to Gemini. I was hired. Then one day Sam came in and said to me, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “Well, I need a job!” So he said, “You should come work for me.” And I worked with Sam for fourteen years.
CB: How many printers were there in L.A. at that time who could do etching?
JS: Not that many. It was very low profile. Because of Tamarind, etching never gained the popularity. I also think that it had to do with art of the time. Coming out of pop art, it was more about lithography and silk screen.
CB: Were you looking at what was happening with etching publishers elsewhere?
JS: I had this abiding reverence for two people: Aldo Crommelynck and Kathan Brown. I went to Paris twice and visited Crommelynck. He treated me like a little student brother and let me hang around the shop while he was working and printing. I was twenty-six years old. And at the time Kathan was working primarily as a contract printer for Parasol Press; she wasn’t doing much publishing. So I went up there and visited her shop, and she let me talk with the printers. And one day Sam said to me, “Who’s good in the printing world?” And I said, “Kathan Brown.” Sam said, “Let’s go there.” So we went up to Oakland and visited Crown Point Press together and looked at everything, and when we left, he gave me a big vote of confidence. The other big vote of confidence was when Bobbie Greenfield had a show of Crommelynck’s work in the early nineties. I went out to dinner with Crommelynck, and he came to the shop, and I showed him the Ed Moses book Abstraktion and Apparition. He gave me a big hug and called me his brother, and he called his wife over and spoke to her in French and said, “Look at this, très joli.” That Crommelynck could have that kind of response was one of the defining moments in my career.
LJ: So was it at that point that you became a master printer?
JS: I think it was when Sam really came to trust me after about a year and a half of working with him, when I figured out how to translate his work into lift-ground aquatint.
Another influence upon me was Ebi [Eberhard] Kornfeld. Ebi and Sam were really close. Kornfeld would come every year and would talk to me about the historical context of what I was doing. Sam sent me to Bern to meet with Kornfeld. And when I went, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. My first night there he took me to his study. On the wall there were paintings by Monet and Picasso, and all the furniture was Diego Giacometti. He went down to his wine cellar and returned with a bottle of wine and said, “I’m going to go work for a while, but I’m leaving you with something to keep you busy,” and he brought out his personal collection of Rembrandt etchings. The next day he had me taken to a Swiss castle where part of his collection was being shown. When I came back, he asked me if there was any particular thing that I liked. And I told him that I liked Picasso’s Vollard Suite. He sat me at a marble table, again with a bottle of wine, and he had his assistants bring out the entire Vollard Suite.
CB: So you were also always interested in that historical aspect of prints?
JS: Yes, and every time I went to Europe, which was quite frequently as I was working with all these European artists, I always brought that interest home. In Paris there were these old map shops, with etchings and all different kinds of things. I didn’t have to explain to people what I was doing. Actually I felt like a jazz musician. I lived here, but I was working in Europe. And everyone in Europe understood what I was doing.
LJ: How do you define the role of a master printer?
JS: My job is to be as well versed in all the aspects of the medium of etching as I can be so that I have a variety of techniques to offer the artists I work with. Since I often choose to work with artists who have not done a lot of prints, particularly etchings, I’ve been able to make it as painless as possible for them. I always told them: “You don’t have to think about the technique. I’ll handle the technique.” Even if they can’t actually tell me—for instance, Jannis Kounellis didn’t speak English, so it was just a question of working together in the studio, with hand gestures. That’s what I would say is a master printer.
When I started publishing, I had this rule that I wouldn’t work with anybody whom I hadn’t studied for at least ten years, because I wanted to understand what the work was about and that way I would have something to offer.
Britt Salvesen: What were some of the other influences on your work?
JS: In the seventies I was very influenced by a record label in Munich, ECM Records. They were impeccably packaged—nothing commercial about them—and the sound was perfect. They put out the first Keith Jarrett solo albums. The album covers were artworks and had very beautiful photography. And there was absolutely nothing about it that screamed commercial or “buy me!” It was so low-key, and I really respond to that kind of aesthetic, particularly coming out of the seventies, when the dominant aesthetics were conceptual, minimal, and postminimal.
LJ: So that’s when you started thinking about doing portfolios in boxes?
JS: Yes, they put out this ten-LP set, the Sun Bear concerts of Keith Jarrett in Japan, and I was just amazed at the quality of the portfolio box.
BS: And what was happening in art at the time that influenced you?
JS: It was the movement from pop to minimal and conceptual. I remember being at Crown Point Press when it was in Oakland at the old hat factory building, and they were working on the Chuck Close Keith print. I was watching them proof that, and then they showed me Sol LeWitt stuff—lines running in all directions—and it really raised the bar because if you are printing minimal art, what it’s really all about is technique. Prints of that period by Brice Marden, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Mangold are all very understated but printed perfectly. Even when they were large-format, there was no slickness to them. Etching was responding to the needs of the artist.
I went to New York in 1976, in 1977, in 1978, and I was staying down in SoHo, getting a feeling for what was going on there. Etching really seemed to be part of that raw aesthetic. There were minimal, simple prints that were formally impeccable but also had this quality of the handmade, a little bit of roughness to it. These were all things that I responded to.
LJ: Do you have a favorite printmaker?
JS: I have a few. They are everybody’s favorites: Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Piranesi, Picasso. A contemporary artist who I think makes excellent prints is William Kentridge.
CB: Did you become interested in the series format because of its relation to the book?
JS: It’s more about what was going on with conceptual art and working in series, like the serial imagery of Sol LeWitt at Crown Point Press. They published a book of photo-etchings in a grid that were details of everything in his studio. So I responded to that, and I liked the idea of serial imagery, one image leading to the next. What got me into books was working on the Lapis Press books.
LJ: I think we should talk about how you went about establishing your traveling print shop.
JS: That came from working with Sam. On my first day he gave me a lecture. (He really liked to lecture and intimidate me, which was terrific.) He said: “Look, you’re in an artist’s studio, and we’re not making prints for dealers or curators. I don’t care if we don’t print anything that will sell; I just want you to be here and work, and we’ll see what we get. I’m not hiring you to produce a product.” Which sounded good to me: my response was, “If the waves are good, can I come in late?”
I learned from Sam that artists are more comfortable in their own studio. I thought it could be possible to do a portable studio, but how could I create perfect aquatints on the road? So in 1994 I designed a portable aquatint box, of which the primary components are the bellows from eight-by-ten view cameras. Jack Brogan built it for me. The first project I used it for was with Marina Abramović in Amsterdam. My portable studio fit into two carry-ons. I had all the plates, acid, and copper cleaner, and I was able to get these really cool European hot plates, for rolling out grounds and melting rosin. With soft-ground Marina didn’t have to use an implement to draw but could use her fingernails instead. When she saw that the spit bite could be done with her saliva, and with her being so performance oriented and body oriented, it all started to gel.
For the next project, with Rebecca Horn, I had to fly to Paris. I met Rebecca in her apartment, and the first thing she said was: “I hate prints and the reason I hate prints is because the image is reversed. I draw in a certain way, and I don’t want my image reversed, and I don’t feel it’s right to just flip them photographically. Then why not just do a photo print?” And so I made something up: she would draw on the plate, and I would print it on transparent gampi paper, and then I would unglue it by soaking it in distilled water so it came off the backing page, and then I dried it flat and reglued it the other way. You look at the prints, and you can’t tell that you’re looking at what would be called the verso. So you see the ink through the paper. The ink had to be the color of her blood; the paper had to be the color of her skin. Rebecca was drawing with twigs; at one point she picked up a log and dropped it on the plate and dragged it across the plate. She didn’t want to use a paintbrush, so she dipped dried roses in nitric acid and painted with them. These are experiences that you would not have in a print shop. It was Rebecca in her environment.
A very big part of this was realizing that I really had no control, and the whole thing about a print shop is that you are in control. But on the road I’m etching plates on bathroom floors and using whatever is around. It’s about working without a net, on the fly, and realizing, too, that by putting myself in the artist’s studio I am deferring to them aesthetically.
The next project on the road was with Jannis Kounellis, who has been one of my favorite artists since the late 1960s. Rebecca said to me, “I will call anybody you want to work with.” So I said, “I want to work with Kounellis.” She said, “Okay, hang on, I’ll call you back in five minutes.” That’s the way she was. She called me back and said: “Okay, he said he’ll work with you. Here’s their fax number. Write them a letter, and figure out when you’re going to go to Rome.” But then I didn’t hear from him, and I kept faxing him, calling him, and I never got an answer. And I said, “What am I going to do?” And my wife, Yael, said: “Go to Rome. Italy is a high-context culture. If they said they’re going to be there, they’re going to be there. They have other things going on, and they don’t have to be consulting their date book all the time.” So I go, and they were there waiting for me. The three of us sat in the kitchen, and his wife, Michelle, speaks Italian, French, and every other language, including English. Jannis doesn’t speak any English, and so she was our interpreter. Jannis said, “What do you want to do?” And I said: “I just show up; that’s what I do. And I just respond to the situation.” And he got up and gave me a big hug. And she said, “That’s exactly what he does; he just responds to the situation.” That was the goal of the adventure: to work with him in his studio, where he wasn’t confined. He chiseled the plate like a sculptor. He used salt, he used coffee, he used his hair, he trimmed his beard on a soft-ground plate. I etched it, and the hair evaporated. He could do drypoint, he could nail the plate down on a table, he could take a chisel and a mallet, and he could just start whacking it, and it was wonderful, and he completely exhausted himself working with me. He gave it everything he had. And it was one of my favorite projects. In Kounellis’s texts he wrote about the little man in Piranesi being crushed by civilization.
I sent a portfolio to Rebecca, who was very excited about the work and said, “Who else do you want to work with?” And I said, “Giuseppe Penone.” She said, “I’ll call you back in ten minutes.” Then: “Okay, he’ll work with you. Send him a fax.” It was the same kind of thing. I set up the etching workshop in the kitchen pantry. And he was in his drawing room, with floor-to-ceiling windows, and it was the middle of winter. He’d take the plate with the aquatint on it and go out in his garden, and he would paint a tree with acid, holding it in his hand. He was very open to different techniques. We did lift ground, we did white ground, we did spit bite, we did every technique you can do, drypoint, everything. And again Europeans are so grounded in their history. Even though they might not have done an etching, they know what etchings are.
I was in Europe three or four times a year. I’d sell a few things, and I just figured that if I broke even that was fine, as I was working with people whom I respected. And they were having a good time; they wanted me to work with their friends.
CB: Describe then that transition from working in the artist’s studio to having them come and visit you. Would you describe how having your own studio affected your way of working?
JS: When an artist comes to work with me, it’s their studio. Everyone really likes being by the beach. And for me beach culture filters into everything I do because so much of my history is beach culture: I went to high school just blocks from the studio, and I live near the studio. I’ve been in the water at Bay Street since I was five years old. So to be able to share that with artists I am working with makes it very comfortable. When I’m working with artists, I call them on their cell phones and ask them where they are, and they say, “I’m at the beach!” So you go down and meet them on the beach; it’s fantastic. I wanted to set up a shop that’s the most mellow, casual place possible while at the same time encouraging a totally focused work environment. I have a lot of music in the studio. You’re working at eleven at night, and you can be listening to Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, or you can be listening to Jeff Beck really loud, depending on the artist. If the artists are working with me on Main Street, I can show them a great time but a great time that a local would give them. They’re eating Oaxacan food at Texate, and it’s really very funky. Another plus of the studio’s location is that John Baldessari’s studio is close by. It’s great working with John, and he has been enthusiastic about connecting me with artists that he thinks I might work well with.
But I’ll still do projects on the road. What’s important is that I’m able to work with the artists in an honest way that reflects their natural practice. My philosophy comes from the seventies, and it comes as much from jazz as it does from art. It comes from that place where artists were making art for one another, and they were one another’s primary audience.
CB: I want to ask about the portfolio box and how it evolved.
JS: In the beginning I wanted to do something specifically small-format, in contradistinction to the prevailing print aesthetic of large, colorful prints, so the first ten publications were bound books, primarily monochromatic. I wanted them to be as discreet as possible. After the first ten I began splitting the edition into part bound book, part loose portfolio. And I increasingly established a sort of tradition in my little publishing company to make the boxes really relate to the work. So there’s an evolution in terms of becoming a little bit more elaborate, trying to keep the box in spirit with the prints themselves. You know, sometimes I wonder if I’m making too much out of this by making boxes—I no longer publish bound books—but you start something, and you just have to see it through.
LJ: So do you think there will always be a place for etching?
JS: I don’t know; I feel like the last lonely eagle out here sometimes. But that’s where teaching comes in. This is my second year teaching at UCLA, and I’m working with really talented kids, trying to impress upon them the historicity of working in a medium that’s five hundred years old. And to have a student that you’ve been working with for six weeks be doing a ten-step aquatint is really exciting. And they’re not doing it because I’m telling them to do it. They’re doing it because it makes sense for their image. And they don’t want to leave the studio.
Los Angeles magazine is the official media sponsor of the exhibition.