Acclaimed American printmaker Ken Tyler worked with a dazzling array of artists, from Lichtenstein to Hockney. David Acton on the man who inspired a generation of printers
‘I’m not sure where the great printmakers of the future will come from,’ mused Ken Tyler. The retired master printer and publisher shared his thoughts in a recent conversation at his Wildcat Hollow Farm, nestled in the Berkshire Mountains of New England. He discussed the state of fine printmaking in the United States, where Tyler worked at the epicentre of the print boom from the mid-1960s into the ’90s, matching entrepreneurial flair and business acumen to his skills as a printer and sensitivity as a creative partner. Tyler’s technical prowess and willingness to embrace new materials and processes won him international acclaim from artists and collectors.
Last year, Tyler donated over 450 prints to the Tate and selections were exhibited recently at Tate Liverpool and Tate Modern. There were collaborations with Robert Motherwell and Joan Mitchell – conveying the energy and immediacy of Abstract Expressionism, alongside prints by Helen Frankenthaler that possess a delicate, almost Asian sensitivity to nature. They contrast in turn with bold woodcuts on dyed handmade paper by John Walker and Donald Sultan. Among the most astonishing works on show were dramatically designed and coloured prints by Frank Stella and James Rosenquist, four metres high and up to twelve metres wide. Though diverse in content and facture, all these works share a refinement of imagery, and their visual effects are possible only through printing or papermaking.
What sparked the American print boom and Tyler’s own success was ‘the ambition and generosity of the Pop artists,’ he enthuses. He worked with artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg – and later with Richard Hamilton, Malcolm Morley and David Hockney RA – on prints that interweave popular culture, reproductive media, the mechanical and the handmade. Financial profit was uncertain; timing was essential: ‘You must have the right artist, the right collaborator and the right time. These are the “holy trinity” of collaborative printmaking.’
Typically American, perhaps, was Tyler’s ability to improvise. ‘Ken can always put something together with baling wire,’ his fellow Midwesterner Rosenquist used to say. Independence and an inclination to experiment motivated the artists. For example, in 1978 he helped David Hockney create Paper Pools out of coloured and pressed paper pulp. Tyler attributes the strength of the work to the artist’s hand: Hockney drew with the pulp. ‘The artist’s drawing skill and the printer/collaborator’s agility in directing the artist need not be complicated to be great. It is quality of the image that matters, not the technical complexity.’
Tyler’s own inspiration came from lithographs by Picasso, in which he still sees a disregard of time-tested print shop rules. He admired European print-makers and their long tradition of workshop mastery. But he saw that this inheritance could be limiting – since their forebears achieved masterpieces by honouring workshop customs, not often overcoming them. Tyler senses that today’s internet-driven global culture seems to demand electronic media, and this can detract from what he believes is most compelling of all. ‘The marriage of new technology and ideas with art techniques ancient as civilisation itself (i.e. drawing). This is a dichotomy ideal for fine art printmaking and artistic collaborations. The art business isn’t doing enough to celebrate and combine the technology of digital imagery with the power of the human hand,’ he believes. ‘Yet there are great possibilities, maybe even the greatest artistic opportunities in printmaking lie ahead.’
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