Printers and Proofs

“Proof”at Planthouse gallery in New York presents the work of three master printers and publishers: Leslie Miller (The Grenfell Press), Ruth Lingen (Poote Press), and Jennifer Melby. Printers’ names are not generally household names. There are a handful—Aldo Crommelynck, Stanley William Hayter, Bill Goldston—who may be familiar or even renowned, but if we don’t often recognize the names of printers, we’re more likely to know the names of those they’re printing. So, in this case, a gallery show with three women artists becomes a sort of front for a much larger and more eclectic group show including works by: Joel Shapiro, Mary Heilmann, Chuck Close, Claes Oldenberg, Elizabeth Murray, Carrol Dunham, Jim Dine, Frank Moore, Kiki Smith, Robert Ryman, Robert Gober, Terry Winters, James Siena, Ida Applebroog, Cindy Sherman, Victoria Haven, Joanne Greenbaum, and Mark Tansey, to name more than a few, though not all.

At this point (in history?? in this blog post?), it might seem banal to raise questions relating to authorship in printmaking. That might be more true, however, if it weren’t that 9 in 10 times the question of authorship in printmaking is settled, de facto, in favor of the “artist” (setting aside those cases where the roles of printer and artist coincide). “Proof” raises this issue again and troubles it. For example, while the press release presents “Proof” as “a three-person show featuring prints and artist’s books made by master printers Ruth Lingen, Jennifer Melby and Leslie Miller,” the exhibition checklist does not credit individual works to particular printers but, as is conventional, credits only the “artists,” e.g. Elizabeth Murray, James Siena, Vija Celmins, Henrik Drescher (See the images above from Planthouse’s website. There, too, the names of printers are omitted in image credits). The works are seemingly both “made by” the printers and not exactly “by” the printers, at once.

Confronted by the show, two questions come to mind: What does it mean to present these items—a woodcut by Joel Shapiro, an etching by Mary Heilmann, a “sculptural wall unit” with letterpress, lithography and collage by Jessica Stockholder and Jeremy Sigler, or a book by Susan Howe and Robert Mangold—even obliquely, as works by Miller, Lingen, and Melby? Second, what does it mean to consider the proof as the work? Does “Proof” advance the printers as authors of the proofs, while reserving the finished works for the artists? The press release reads: “Trial proof, state proof, artist’s proof, publisher’s proof. The lives of printers are filled with this vocabulary. For a printer, often the only tangible result of a collaborative project on the press is a proof.”

Master printers help artists realize complex and exacting designs in a very technical medium. But to arrive at desired ends, printers make trial runs and become producers of all the uneditioned work. If printers are too often regarded as technicians of art, “Proof” offers a reevaluation of printers as artists, but of the dummy or the draft.

“Proof” is up through August 22nd at Planthouse (107 W 28th st. NY, NY).

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