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Why Warhol was prince of prints

A rewarding new show in London reveals where the American's true brilliance lay

Image Credit: Reuters
Inking a new path Andy Warhol’s Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century (1980), at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London
Gulf News

What makes Andy Warhol such a significant figure in the history of art? The answer may surprise you, for it is not so much the banal subjects from popular culture he chose to paint but his innovative working method. In 1962 Warhol decided to make fine art by transferring images on to paper or canvas using the silk-screen process, a simple technique of printmaking often employed in the mass production of cheap commercial products such as T-shirts and greeting cards. As his friend Henry Geldzahler, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, observed, Warhol’s innovation was to “bring commercial art into fine art” and “to take printing techniques into painting. Andy’s prints and paintings are exactly the same thing. No one had ever done that before. It was an amazing thing to do.”

With 80 works ranging from 1964 to 1985, the exhibition, “The Portfolios”, at Dulwich Picture Gallery of Warhol’s silk-screened prints is just big enough to give us a good idea of the range and variety of a body of work unique in American art. Artists were making silk-screened prints long before he came along, but usually as a simple means of reproducing their own work. Warhol made the technique his own by choosing existing images he found in newspapers and magazines and then transferring them on to paper and fabric. He liked the way silk-screened images tend to print out of register, giving them the look of mechanically reproduced photos in tabloid newspapers. Having chosen the image, he sent it to a lab, where it was stencilled on to an acetate plate. Warhol then manipulated the acetate with chemicals and scissors to give it the distinctive Warhol “look”.

Assistants could and did perform other steps in the process of silk-screening, but only Warhol worked on the acetates. Once he was satisfied, the acetate was transferred on to a meshed screen. In the final step, the printer forced silk-screen ink through the mesh and so transferred the design on to paper. For a painting the process was exactly the same, except that Warhol used paint and canvas. The silk-screen process enabled him to choose a motif and then to reproduce it repeatedly in different colour combinations. In most cases, each additional colour required a separate silk-screen.

As you walk through this show, notice that the introduction of colour is gradual and reflects Warhol’s increasing mastery of the silk-screen technique. From the black-and-white newspaper photo of a “Race Riot in Alabama” (1964), he moved on to a limited range of red, black, white and yellow in a series of “Campbell’s Soup Cans” (1969) and then the delicate palette of lilac, rose, light green and mauve he used in “Flowers” in 1970. Because silk-screening is essentially a mechanical process, it hardly mattered whether Warhol, his assistant, or a commercial printer actually pressed the silk-screen ink through the screen’s mesh.This insight enabled Warhol to set up his factory-like method of art production.

It was an especially important factor when it came to print-making because, unlike his paintings, Warhol’s prints were never made in his studio, known as the Factory. He would simply give the acetate to offsite printers with instructions as to the colours to be used and the way he wanted the image printed. Sometimes he only spoke to printers such as Rupert Jasen Smith over the telephone and often his directions were vague. “He wanted the prints to be ‘more something’ or ‘less something’,” remembered Bob Colacello, editor of Warhol’s Interview Magazine, and an employee from 1970 to 1982, “but he couldn’t say what that ‘something’ was”.

Though the colours were mixed by the printers, Warhol always refused Jasen Smith’s invitations to supervise the work in progress at the printer’s studio in Tribeca. After printing the image in many different colour combinations, Jasen Smith brought all the proofs to the Factory, where Warhol chose the ones he liked best and selected them for publication. Jasen Smith then printed the edition. In a conventional print-making process such as etching, the artist prints a limited number of impressions and then destroys the copper plate. But silk-screen prints are not finite in this way. The number of finished works depended on how many impressions Warhol needed, thought he could sell, or needed to limit for commercial reasons. To control the market in his prints Warhol signed and numbered his prints and sold them in limited editions, which from the 1970s onwards included special “trial proofs” and “artist proofs” — the unique proofs that had not been selected for inclusion in each portfolio and which he or his publisher could sell for more money than other prints in an edition.

Jasen Smith was considered one of the best printers in America and he worked with Warhol from 1977 until the artist’s death a decade later. One of the most exciting things about this exhibition is the quality of the work he did for Warhol, which was immeasurably more complex than anything Warhol had done in the 1960s. Feast your eyes on screen-prints from the still life series “Fruits”, where saturated red, velvety purple, lush orange and sensational washes of lilac are used to create a visual experience as sensuous as anything Warhol had ever done. In the 1978 series featuring four Polaroid shots taken by Warhol of Mohammad Ali, the boxer’s brown skin is shown against orange, pink and blue backgrounds. In some of these later works the surface is lightly sprinkled with “diamond dust” (finely powdered glass).

On the other hand, not all of the late work has this kind of visual impact. I find the series “Endangered Species” of birds and animals perfunctory, for example, and mythical figures such as Uncle Sam feel flat and uninspired. But a late, diamond-dusted self-portrait with his shadow retains the intensity of the earlier work. The explanation may simply be that Warhol had more input in some projects than others, but there is no doubt that when he and Jasen Smith worked together their close collaboration was one of the great partnerships in American art.

Its ending, though, was murky. Jasen Smith was responsible for creating thousands of Warhol’s paintings and prints in addition to the ones the artist signed and numbered. His large-scale manufacture of Warhol’s prints continued after Andy’s death in 1987 and ended only with the printer’s death in 1989. This is not the place to discuss what happened to pirated prints, except to say that the great majority are not on the market. Although many may be of high quality, their status remains ambiguous because Warhol did not give his approval to their publication.

I bring this up because the show at Dulwich contains only works that are signed and numbered by the artist. Whatever drawbacks there are to showing a corporate collection such as this (the selection was sent ready-made from the US and does not have a catalogue) at least the status of the works in it does justice to Warhol by showing his art as he wished it to be seen.

Andy Warhol: The Portfolios is on at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London until September 16