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The big Americans: Albers, Frankenthaler, Hockney, Johns, Lichtenstein, Motherwell, Rauschenberg, Stella

The big Americans
Albers, Frankenthaler, Hockney, Johns, Lichtenstein, Motherwell, Rauschenberg, Stella
4 October 2002 – 27 January 2003

Joseph Albers White Line Squares VI 1966
 
Joseph Albers 'White line squares VI ' 1966 National Gallery of Australia.
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The genesis of our world-class contemporary international print collection took place in 1973, almost a decade before the Gallery opened to the public. Following the recommendation of art critic and writer Robert Hughes to the Master Printer, Kenneth Tyler, that he approach the fledgling Gallery, great riches arrived. In a recent significant gift and purchase this initial acquisition has been augmented to form an extra-ordinary storehouse of major works by major artists of the contemporary period produced at the Tyler workshops from the 1960s to the present day. A selection is featured in the exhibition The big Americans: the art of collaboration at the National Gallery of Australia from 4 October 2002 to 27 January 2003. The big Americans explores the different ways in which these artists each worked at the world renowned Tyler studios, and includes major works from the Gallery’s rich collection of editioned original prints, screens, paperworks, illustrated books and multiples, along with rare or unique proofs and drawings.

Each artist — Josef Albers, Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella — is noted for their significant output in other media. For this reason, a selection of key related paintings, sculptures and photographs is included in the exhibition drawn from International and Australian collections.

In 1965 Ken Tyler established his print workshop Gemini Ltd in Los Angeles. This later became Gemini GEL [Graphic Editions Limited] — known as the ‘Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer of print workshops’. Gemini GEL achieved its reputation as a result of Tyler’s commitment to his artists, he said to them ‘here is a workshop, there are no rules, no restrictions, do what you want to do’. Tyler explains that when it comes to printmaking, ‘if you have all these “can’ts” in there you change the nature of creativity’. He continued with this philosophy at his later studios, first at Bedford and then at the purpose-built workshop at Mount Kisco — both in  New York State on the East Coast of America.

David Hockney Caribbean tea time 1987
David Hockney 'Caribbean tea time' 1987 National Gallery of Australia Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund 2002.
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From the start, Tyler wanted ‘to go to the very top’ and sought to collaborate with some of the postwar greats in the American art scene. He first set his sights on émigré artist, Josef Albers — an artist obsessed with form and colour since his Bauhaus days. Together they produced the seminal series White line squares, which became Tyler’s calling card — he took the set when he visited other artists on his wish list, saying ‘if I could do that for Albers, just think how far I could go for you’. For Tyler, White line squares were the ‘first notes on the piano’, and what followed a ‘symphony’. It is this ‘symphony’ of extraordinary innovation, scale and technical virtuosity, which is the subject of The big Americans.

  Robert Rauschenberg 'Banner' from the series 'Stoned moon' 1969 National Gallery of Australia.
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Many of the great artists of the time were seduced by what was on offer to them and were pleased to spend time in an environment of unlimited possibilities. The consummate draughtsman David Hockney, for example, was given a ‘complete palette of colour’ and a ‘complete palette of drawing techniques’ — something Hockney had never been offered so comprehensively before.

Two other pre-eminent artists who were enticed into the studio were Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Rauschenberg, according to Tyler, was not impressed by the technical facilities – for him, the printing press was ‘just a device’. Instead Rauschenberg created an intimate space in the studio, focusing on the rich possibilities of Tyler’s treasured lithographic stones. These surfaces, or ‘skin’ as the artist called them, were sensual, ‘sexy’ objects to draw on, to experiment with. Scale seemed limitless and Rauschenberg produced ground-breaking art, mixing different techniques and photocollage. Jasper Johns also came to work on Tyler’s ‘gorgeous’ stones, which had been ferreted out by Tyler from an old building site and carted to his studio in an old VW with broken springs. Johns’s lusciously coloured numbers such as Figure 7 1969 with its smiling Mona Lisa were created from one such favoured stone.

Jasper Johns, Figure 7 from the series Colour numeral 1996

Jasper Johns 'Figure 7' from the series 'Colour numeral' 1969 National Gallery of Australia.
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Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein came to see the possibilities and produced such masterpieces as the print and sculpture series Peace through chemistry at Gemini GEL in 1970. With its deadpan, meaningless title, this was a spoof on modern art. Equally witty is Lichtenstein’s Reflections series made at Tyler Graphics some 20 years later in which the artist reinterprets and refines his earlier paintings and prints drawn from cartoon, romance and war comics or from other artists’ work. Included in this is Swee’-pea — the offspring of Popeye and Olive Oyl — its howling face reminiscent of the expressionist painting The scream by Edvard Munch.

After moving to Bedford, Tyler developed a close personal and working relationship with Robert Motherwell,  whom he had also worked with in his Gemini days. Producing ‘painterly prints’ for major abstract painters such as Motherwell as well as Helen Frankenthaler was an incredible challenge. Both artists worked in an intuitive ‘automatic’ manner and, while their work was redolent of a whole repertoire of art imagery from the past, each maintained a ‘freshness of expression’ despite the rigours of technical production.

Robert Motherwell Blue elegy 1987
 
Robert Motherwell 'Blue elegy' 1987 National Gallery of Australia Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund 2002.
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The collaboration between Tyler and the foremost American abstract artist, Frank Stella, was once described as ‘part brinkmanship, engineering, and some-times theater’. Robert Hughes views it as ‘one of the great partnerships in modern American art’. Over the years Stella and Tyler have refined their unique process of working from a completed collage, adopting a wide range of printing techniques for the one work, and editioning on specially made paper. ‘Frank the scavenger’, as Tyler calls him, creates the compositions from the ‘debris d’atelier’ (studio debris), which means past imagery from Tyler’s ‘supply center, a living inventory, a library of shapes and images’ is recycled as the source material for Stella’s painting and sculptures, then back into printmaking, resulting in the extraordinary, ambitious works for which he has become renowned. Examples of Stella’s work in two and three dimensions feature in The big Americans.

Complementing The big Americans, a program of public lectures and master-class workshops with Ken Tyler and visiting artists were held in Canberra at the Gallery, the Australian National University, and the Canberra School of Art, and in Melbourne at the Australian Print Workshop. The master-classes provided an important opportunity for Australian artists and students to work with master printmaker Ken Tyler.

Jane Kinsman
Senior Curator of International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books
National Gallery of Australia

Further information will be added to this site as the National Gallery proceeds with its research and documentation.

Last updated September 2014