Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Dick Swift: The Art of Physical Printmaking
If there was no prior record of a work, I could often figure out the printing technique by some plate mark or lack of one. When I came across a couple different pieces by the artist Dick Swift (who recently passed away in June 2010 at the age of 91) I was at a loss for how he created the works. I pulled in one of my printmaking professors to explain the processes to me. This began my fascination with Swift.
The two works in the Bowling Green State University collection were etchings. One was Station Six (Veronica’s Veil) from Swift’s Stations of the Cross series. The other was a large multi-plate color etching entitled The Prophecy II. My professor told me that much of the work was done with soft ground etching and that the irregular plates for the latter image had been shaped with either a band saw or a jeweler’s saw. The plates were then printed with the viscosity method. I was able to find out more about viscosity etchings through my research into the work of Stanley Hayter—also represented in the collection—but I located only scattered details about Dick Swift. This was in the days when it was still fairly difficult to do very extensive research with the internet. I did, however, make a vow to myself that if I could ever find a copy of The Prophecy II I was going to buy it.
Annex Galleries in Santa Rosa, California. The gallery actually represents the work of Dick Swift. Dan said that Dick had recently brought in some works and that is where I was able to obtain a copy of The Prophecy II. I was also put in touch with Dick; the telephone conversation we had about his work provides the foundation for the analysis below.
Dick Swift was one of several printmakers (including Ynez Johnston and Leonard Edmondson) who worked in somewhat experimental styles in the Los Angeles area in the 1950s and 60s. Swift studied at the Otis College of Art & Design under Ernest Freed, another artist caught up in the revival of printmaking that swept the art schools in the mid-twentieth century. The chief architect of this renaissance was Mauricio Lasansky, the Argentine-American printmaker whose University of Iowa intaglio-based printmaking program produced a generation of printmakers who went on to establish printmaking departments at universities throughout North America.
Printmaking in the United States, like all art in the mid-twentieth century, was largely influenced by artist immigrants from around the world—specifically Europe. Stanley Hayter had initially started his famous Atelier 17 in Paris. It temporarily moved to New York during the period of World War II. Swift studied at Atelier 17 in 1964-65, after it reopened in Paris. Hayter was intent on bringing printmaking into a new stage of development—a period in which it would not be used solely in service of other art forms, like painting, but would be seen as its own creative medium.
Swift favored intaglio, mostly etching, within the studio. While the Long Beach print studio had facilities for intaglio, relief, lithography, and silk screening, nearly eighty percent of the work was completed in intaglio. Dick was drawn to the interaction with the metal etching plate. The tactile, almost sculptural, process of etching shines through in his intaglio works. The use of soft ground etching, especially, became somewhat of a trademark in Swift’s process.
The Veneration of the Ancestors is another work by Swift that utilizes soft ground etching extensively. While this is a color etching, it was produced more like Hayter’s early experiments with color, or like the methods Lasansky employed. Hayter sought to print multiple colors simultaneously on one plate. Some of his first experiments used color passages that were silk screened onto an inked intaglio plate. It appears that Swift rolled colors onto this plate with stencils. The color fields are broad and pure. The texture, however, is more overpowering. It creates rhythms that draw the eye throughout the composition. One is not able to fully appreciate this work in a digital image or even a photographic print. Swift’s love of the physical possibilities of the plate comes through only with examination of the actual prints.
Etching). After an initial soft ground texture was bitten into the metal plate Swift “inked” the plate with more soft ground so that the pits and crevices were filled with the soft ground. The plates were then placed in acid once more until the open parts of the plate were at a lower level than the textures created initially.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Swift’s work is the religious content in so many pieces. The artist was baptized a Roman Catholic, but he told me that he no longer ascribed to any specific religion. Though Eastern philosophies and religious concepts were more prevalent in the art world at mid-century, Swift felt that his connection to traditional Western religious concepts actually helped the acceptance of his work at the time. For him, the myths and stories of our cultures and religions touched on some themes common to all humanity.
Cathedral Floorplan etching series. Taking cues from Swift’s use of Hebrew text, I eventually began a series that mixed the abstractions of text with representational imagery, all completed with the viscosity technique.
It is a shame that so few people know of Dick Swift’s work today. It has such a unique style that offers something for everyone. If you ever have a chance to view any of his works in person take that opportunity. You won’t be disappointed.