Monday, April 6, 2009

Engraving and the Art of Stanley William Hayter: Taking the Hard Line

I can’t see that there is a very accurate measure for fame. In fact, I’m not sure we would really want to attempt creating such a system. Fame is not an indicator of what kind of influence or importance a person actually holds within his or her immediate circle or within the larger culture. It is more of a popularity contest based on some least common denominator.

For this reason, most people do not know the name Stanley William Hayter. Most artists don’t even recognize his name. That does not diminish his importance. As a printmaker, Hayter initiated some of the most significant media-specific changes of the twentieth century. But it was his inventive spirit that ultimately impacted hundreds and thousands of artists who would not necessarily classify themselves, primarily, as printmakers.

I admit that I knew next to nothing about printmaking until I was about halfway through my graduate program in painting. I knew the minimum about techniques. I also knew a bit about Durer and Rembrandt, which came from general art history survey courses. And I had some interest in the work of Leonard Baskin, but that had much more to do with style than technique. When I came into the presence of a color intaglio work by Hayter (Saddle, above) my interest in printmaking skyrocketed.

I think my earlier lack of enthusiasm for printmaking and printmakers was largely due to my preconceptions about the medium, I figured that it was merely a medium by which paintings and other artworks could be inexpensively duplicated for the masses, only in black and white. This was exactly the kind of thinking that Hayter worked against for most of his life. He wanted to transform printmaking into a highly original and creative medium in its own right.

Hayter’s first prints were in black and white, but they were works unto themselves and not derivative or reproductions of other prototype works. (A side point is that printmaking has continued to suffer from the belief that prints are mere reproductions. There is a major and distinct difference between what many call "prints" and true original print media.) Hayter’s primary process was intaglio—which encompasses a wide variety of techniques that incise or abrade a metal plate. Nearly every intaglio work by Hayter incorporated engraving. He referred to himself as an engraver and that technique was at the heart of his method.

Although Hayter is often linked to the Surrealists, he transcended the movements of the twentieth century. Hayter worked with several Surrealist artists, but his imagery was not intrinsically linked to their styles or concepts. His engraving favored freely flowing virtuosic lines that mocked the unforgiving nature of the metal surfaces he utilized. Themes for the engravings often came from literature. A master work, Death by Water (above), takes its title from a movement in T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land. It was not unusual for the works to take on such existential themes, particularly during this early black and white period.

The passage from the poem reads as follows:
Phlebus the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

While Hayter generally took a much more abstract approach to his literary transpositions, this work retains a certain faithfulness to the text. One senses the whirling undercurrents of the seas as they assault the tragic figure of Phlebus. Yet delicate lines also seem to suggest the gentle picking clean of the Phoenician’s bones.

Rescuing printmaking from the realm of simple reproduction of previous imagery would have been a sufficient and noble goal. And Hayter’s engravings were able to accomplish this in the minds of many. His next endeavor was more far reaching. His belief in the medium as an avenue for unlimited creative expression empowered him to open a printmaking workshop—Atelier 17—where others could come to experiment with intaglio processes.

At first, Hayter did not visualize himself in the role of teacher. He championed an approach of freedom in the print studio, though, in the end, if one came to study at the workshop he had a somewhat regimented approach to the medium. This was, however, a structure within which a great deal of creativity could still be expressed. Atelier 17 opened in Paris before WWII and was a creative meeting ground for many renowned continental artists of the period. When the war threatened France Hayter uprooted the studio and transplanted it to New York for a time.

Many artists came to Hayter’s workshop with little experience in printmaking. Their clean slate status, mixed with the experimental nature of the workshop atmosphere, provided the impetus to challenge tradition. Hayter harnessed the questioning spirit of these artists, bringing their collective energies together so that the whole of the Atelier’s efforts became something much more than the disparate parts.

The next challenge that Hayter and his associates undertook was printing in color. Previous color intaglios were either printed in black and white and then hand colored, or printed with multiple plates. The multi-plate method was cumbersome and produced unreliable results. Hayter felt that if multiple colors could be printed from a single plate, on only one pass through the press, the results would be more consistent.

Cinq Personnages (above) is the watershed print that marked this transition. At times Hayter had created stencils through which he had rolled colored inks onto the plates before they were passed through the press. The colors were a bit diluted with this method (though he did create some incredible images with this process). For Cinq Personnages, the colors were applied to the plate with silk screens. This rendered vibrant colors. But, while the registration of colors was better, using all the silk screens was still somewhat laborious.

What one begins to sense in this transition is Hayter’s new way of conceiving imagery. The same lyrical line quality is apparent in the engraved portions, but color and shape are equally comprising the finished products. It is this presence of color and shape that connects the work more to painting than to drawing. Drawing and printmaking had traditionally been grouped into the category of graphic arts. Hayter, who was also a painter, wanted to transcend these media specific categories.

The last stage of the color printing transformation came when members of the Atelier (usually this discovery is attributed to Krishna Reddy) found that multiple colors could be applied to one plate by producing varying levels within the plate, then inking the plate with inks of different viscosities, using rollers of different hardnesses. Saddle, the first work I encountered, is a variation on this method: it only incorporates two inks with one rolled color. The intermixing of the various inks created a breadth of color combinations and sparked a revival of interest in printmaking.

The vibrancy of the colors used in these prints was like nothing seen in intaglio works during the previous centuries. By the 1960s and 70s Hayter’s style had taken a slightly different direction, in keeping with the new multi-color printing. Still stemming from his engraved line work, the jarring color shifts resulted in combinations of either analogous or complimentary colors. The results were somewhat similar to the Op Art works of the period, yet retained a distinctive quality of their own.

Mauricio Lasansky, an Argentinean-American, studied with Hayter while Atelier 17 was in New York. Lasansky’s color printing methods were much different from Hayter’s but, along with Hayter, his impact on printmaking in the U.S. was astounding. Lasanksy started one of the first MFA printmaking programs and his students went on to found the major university printmaking programs across the nation. Still, the renewal in printmaking—intaglio specifically—was initiated when Atelier 17 was briefly located within U.S. borders.

There was actually a confluence of multiple factors that caused this renaissance in printmaking. Much of it had to do with timing. Hayter was in the right place at the right time. The U.S. was perched on the edge of its first original, world-impacting art movement—Abstract Expressionism. The experimental qualities of Abstract Expressionism were similar to the innovations found in Hayter’s workshop format. Although Stanley Hayter is not the household name that Jackson Pollock is, his spirit infused the work of many mid- and late-century artists, even if they may not recognize it.

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