Annabel Osberg on “Ink, Paper, Stone: Six Women Artists and the Language of Lithography”

June Wayne (1918–2011), the founder of the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, was primarily a self-taught artist with strong convictions and lofty ideals. In 1959, frustrated by a dearth of technical knowledge and available resources to support the large-scale production of fine-art lithography in the United States, she designed a detailed proposal for a print manufactory and fellowship program, complete with plans for the recruitment and training of expert lithographers. After overcoming numerous obstacles, including the Ford Foundation’s initial reluctance to provide funding, Wayne opened her atelier in 1960 on Tamarind Avenue in Hollywood, where it remained until 1970. Supporting two artists at a time for overlapping two-month residencies, the fellowship allowed those unversed in lithography to collaborate with master printmakers, enabling the residents to focus entirely on working through their ideas without needing to solve technical problems.

“Ink, Paper, Stone: Six Women Artists and the Language of Lithography” comprised seventy-eight prints made by Ruth Asawa, Gego, Eleanore Mikus, Louise Nevelson, Irene Siegel, and Hedda Sterne during their residencies at Tamarind. Curator Gloria Williams Sander culled from the museum’s comprehensive collection of 1960s Tamarind prints with an eye to the underrated. A sense of experimentation permeates the works that were on display, revealing unexpected facets of each artist’s practice as she explored the medium’s wide-ranging potential, often plying Tamarind’s master printmakers with ambitious questions with regard to materials and techniques.

Some of the most absorbing studies in materiality were done by Mikus, who at the time of her residency was already known for her monochromatic mixed-media series “Tablets,” 1960–2017, combining elements of painting with sculptural relief. Seeking to achieve similar effects via lithography, she initially queried the experts, “Can I make a print without ink?” Naturally, the answer was no. Instead, in Tablet Litho 29, 1968, Mikus imposed numerous folds on a giant sheet of white paper, which she then printed with patterns of wobbly parallel lines in pearlescent off-white ink, creating a delicate, remarkably tactile, shimmering surface that allowed the nacreous ink lines to catch light, miragelike, against shadows formed by the creases.

Across the room, Nevelson was represented by an untitled 1967 suite incorporating unusual combinations of techniques—such as running textured cheesecloth through the press and hinging together identical prints—to achieve rhythmic, layered transparencies approximating the patterns and linearity of her carved-wood sculptures. Her emphasis on movement and line is most aligned with that of Gego, an architect turned abstractionist who traveled all the way from Venezuela to enact a variety of lively experiments, including books and folded prints. Works by Gego and Nevelson alike frequently resemble geoglyphs or aerial views of farmlands.

Sterne explored wide-ranging evocations in various prints inspired by a head of lettuce. Some appear mandala-like and calming, while others suggest anatomical diagrams of the interiors of eyes and brains; one untitled 1967 piece vaguely resembles a severed head. A series of seascapes, “Untitled (The Vertical Horizontals, I-V),” 1967, retains a completely different feel, evoking flowing water and clouds.

Asawa similarly exploited the potential of lithography to rapidly rework a motif, most notably in Desert Plant and Desert Flower, both 1965. These prints express two-dimensionally the negative space and buoyancy of her famed wire sculptures.

Siegel, a Chicago-based intaglio printmaker who has described her work as Pop Surrealism, was the most underrecognized artist here and is the only one still living. With details so vast and intricate as to approach horror vacui, Siegel’s lithographs depict stylized figures in pools, beds, and futuristic interiors. Their strange, creepy emotional tenor and idiosyncratic geometric shapes are just as intriguing as those of better-known Chicago Imagists.

True to Wayne’s ambitions, Tamarind is widely credited with sparking a lithographic renaissance in postwar America. Snapshots and didactics provide candid glimpses into the workshop’s industrious yet convivial atmosphere. A small vitrine in the final gallery contained correspondence offering further insight into the fellowship’s nomination process and compensational details, while revealing Wayne’s prowess in promoting her residents to local dealers. Also revealed were the sacrifices artists made to carve time away from everyday responsibilities, along with their appreciation for the opportunity. A handwritten thank-you note to Wayne from Asawa states, “I can only think of superlatives to describe my feelings about Tamarind.”

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