Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dick Swift: The Art of Physical Printmaking

Many people first discovered my artwork through publications or exhibitions that included my printmaking. In truth, I had never worked in any printmaking medium until I was enrolled in my graduate painting program. I appreciated the various techniques as another way to explore the concepts I was developing within my paintings. In my second year of graduate school I was asked to take on a gallery assistant position in the School of Art. One of my main objectives was to design a database and enter records for the 2000 – 3000 artworks in the collection. It was rummaging through the vast print collection there that most peaked my interest in 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.
In the year 2000 I asked the members of a printmaking email listserv if anyone had information about Dick Swift. A few members let me know that they had studied under Swift in the printmaking program at California State University—Long Beach. Next I received a message from Dan Lienau of 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.

Even though Dick joked about how a printmaker friend referred to the soft ground process as the “venereal disease” of printmaking, he was able to transform the process into something new. The Stations of the Cross prints provide a glimpse into his process. While Hayter’s work, particularly from the late 1950s onward, was almost purely abstract, Swift preferred mixing representational imagery with abstraction. The impressions made in the soft ground on “Stations” plates reveal the use of fabric textures. These do not act purely as decorative elements but as integral design forms. The haloes on the figure of Jesus seem to be lifted from the textures impressed into the ground from a paper doily. The textures in the clothing of the figures seem more natural because it is often based on textures of actual cloth. One can already find elements of the artist’s personal visual vocabulary cropping up in this series.

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.

However, it is works like The Prophecy II, its earlier counterpart The Prophecy, and Oedipus that show Swift’s mastery of the medium. Again, the prints cannot be fully appreciated in reproduction. In order for the simultaneous color viscosity printing to work there must be distinct levels in the plates. This creates incredible texture in the prints. Each of these works used a variation of the soft ground technique that Swift developed (as explained in Leonard Edmondson’s book, 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.

These works are so intricate that Swift says they took more than a couple months to complete. It is no surprise that they would take so long to create when one investigates the intricacies of these prints. The mixture of representational forms, Hebrew text, and abstractions found in the Prophecy works is mind boggling. Swift felt more could be done to the first print so he worked on a second version. Not only did he leave out one of the original plates, a comparison between the individual printed portions shows that Swift altered the images, adding linear etched passages and textures as he further developed the plates.

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.

These large, multi-plate works convinced me that there were aspects of etching that could compliment my painting processes. The realism embedded in portions of these prints let me know that it was possible to utilize color etching—and viscosity printing in particular—in a way that was not as abstract as Hayter’s work. It took some time for me to figure out how this would manifest itself in my own work. I first employed the technique with the 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.


Deborah said...

I am enthralled to see your words about my grandfather! I actually learned alot from your blog regarding my secretive grandfather, and to know someone took an interest in his work and related to him must have been a very special phone call. I am so grateful he had a fellow artist take the time to seek him out! You are right, he should have had more notice in his lifetime, and the irony that the chemical he used in his craft were what took him. Thank you!

Deborah Melford said...

I am enthralled to see your words about my grandfather! I actually learned alot from your blog regarding my secretive grandfather, and to know someone took an interest in his work and related to him must have been a very special phone call. I am so grateful he had a fellow artist take the time to seek him out! You are right, he should have had more notice in his lifetime, and the irony that the chemical he used in his craft were what took him. Thank you!

Musings on Contemporary Art & Artists said...

What a joy to get a message like this. I hope you check back and see how much I appreciate hearing from you. I had an exhibition from my print collection last year and would love to send you some copies of the catalogue that was produced. Contact me at tyrus@tyrusclutter.com

Anonymous said...

I own two prints of Dick Swift, one is an artist proof of "Christ before Pilot" and the other is station #10 of the "Stations of the Cross Series"

I have been a fan of his for over 20 years.

Ken Winick

Anonymous said...

I recently acquired a print of his "Holy Night" artists proof. What might the value be in this piece?

Anonymous said...

I recently acquired a print of his "Holy Night" artists proof. What might the value be in this piece?

Musings on Contemporary Art & Artists said...

I have had several requests about the value of Dick Swift prints since this essay was first posted. I am not a licensed appraiser though I do have some ideas of what are reasonable values in the current market. There are several factors that impact the pricing such as scarcity of the images, size of the edition, the particular printing method, etc. One of the best places to check on the current value of the prints is the Annex Galleries of Santa Rosa, CA. They are the only dealer that I know that still handles Dick's work.

SoCalLibrarian said...

Thanks for this post about my dad, Tyrus. I'm Deborah's aunt - the link is making it's way around the family (Dick had 5 kids, I'm #4).

~ Allegra

Anonymous said...

I have The Prophecy II (3/50) hanging on my living room wall. I don't know and don't care what it's worth. I LOVE it and will hand it down to my daughter one day, as she loves it too! Thanks for the info on the artist.

Anonymous said...

I just acquired a Dick Swift print titled "Nocturnal Signs" (43/50) today and found this blog. Thank you so much for the information.

delvinho said...

I have one Station of the cross( # 10 lithographs) and I have an interest to collect the others. Would appreciate hearing from any availability.


Tanya Hanson said...

I studied with him in the summer of 1971. Brilliant and unforgettable. He gave me an artist proof of a "very special print for Tanya." I treasure it.

Tanya Hanson said...

(Ps. He was brilliant.)