University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Art Department

Printmakers Master Time

by Carol Pulin, Ph.D.

A retrospective exhibition for three older, well-respected printmakers seems like a nice opportunity to showcase some beautiful prints. The three shared a special love of teaching, so that ties the exhibition together. Simple enough. The prints selected certainly display the artists’ accomplishments in transforming realistic views and abstractions into striking artwork that uses the medium and materials to superb advantage. What else makes the choice of these three artists especially significant, explaining why their work plays off each other’s, emphasizing the brilliance of their prints?

All three artists chose printmaking as their main artistic medium for creative expression in the 1940s and 1950s; their understanding of print’s potential before the American Print Renaissance of the 1960s prepared and indeed helped establish (through their own work and their influence on students) printmaking’s place among the arts of the second half of the twentieth century. While critics and the marketplace may have focused on artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg who sought publicity and attention, these artists—Lee Chesney, Krishna Reddy and Ken Kerslake—shaped printmaking into a new, experimental medium that could truly and fully express modern ideas. In this respect, perhaps the most significant aspect of these three artists’ work is its intentional and informed commentary on printmaking’s technical and conceptual role in contemporary arts.

Indeed, each of the three artists has been called a printmaker’s printmaker, as if to explain why they have not received wider acclaim. It implies a concentration on exceptional craftsmanship, forgetting the audience that may not appreciate the fine points of a difficult technique or even becoming enamored with technical expertise while forgetting its function of conveying the artists’ ideas through images. Here, however, are master printmakers who used their extraordinary skills to crystallize their visions so effectively that everyone can see the intrinsic value of their imagery and ideas.

Their imagery is obviously not the same, from Lee’s gestural expression and Krishna’s apparently geometrical abstraction of nature to Ken’s seemingly more realistic subjects. Yet each seems to be asking viewers to do the same thing, to rethink and more fully consider the boundaries between reality and art in a way that will take them beyond the ink on paper, with all its sensual and aesthetic feeling, to another higher plane of reality.

Quite how this happens may be as mysterious as printmaking’s indirect process. The essence of printmaking is the transfer of an image from a matrix to the print itself, usually ink on paper. While this makes it possible to produce identical multiples, printmaking’s separate steps have more important conceptual consequences. The artist must have the ability and temperament to work with a hard matrix of wood, stone, metal or glass, drawing and carving marks onto or into a resistant solid. Then, in contrast, he must choose fluid ink and a soft paper to hold crisp lines above its surface or accept color into its very fiber. Particular techniques give very distinct results; for example, a line carved cleanly into a metal plate results in a sharp, crisp edge, while a line drawn through a brittle ground and etched by acid can print a velvety black as infinitely deep as the paper is thin. The master printmaker knows his methods and materials so well that he can anticipate how his handling of the matrix will affect the quality of the line and hence the visual perception of the image.

Printmaking’s indirect process with its complex relationship between materials and image is mirrored by the viewers’ involvement with the print. When the texture of ink on paper constructs a spatial relationship between the actual flatness of the print and the implied depth of the image, or a portrayed object and its interlocked shadow reverberate until the substance and light shimmer together as a single unit, then the viewers’ sensitivity to the physical object takes them to the next stage. The viewers’ emotional response to the picture is altered by its style and depiction and all the characteristics of the print itself as a physical object -- the elegance of black and white and the rich, luscious colors; the intimacy determined by the scale of the mark-making no matter the actual dimensions of the paper; the joy of the aesthetic response and clarity of the intellectual experience. Merging the content of the print with its distinctive context as a print makes the viewer receptive to the next level, the artist’s ultimate meaning, the visual expression of his thoughts, ideas and spirit.

Time is the corollary of the indirect process of printmaking. The time it takes to carve or etch or fix an image in the hard material of the matrix allows time to reconsider light values, space, color. There’s time to let the materials interact with the subject and image and to change the matrix from state to state as a print is proofed. And there’s time suspended in that magical moment between inking the matrix and pulling the print. Time in the larger sense is also a factor in the success of these three master printmakers: time to develop their identities as artists and their individual understanding of life.

Yet these three artists, Lee, Krishna and Ken, gave up so much of the time that they might have spent creating their own work. They gave that time to teaching, sharing not only technical knowledge but also discussing the conceptual and theoretical issues touched upon here. Just as their prints stir thinking about philosophical and spiritual topics, their conversations with students and colleagues inspired all to think more deeply and do more with their lives. They understood so well that students are the future and treated students as colleagues working together in the studio and talking together about the most significant questions in contemporary art and the world.

Dr. Carol Pulin is Director of the American Print Alliance (, Editor of Contemporary Impressions, and former Curator of Fine Prints and Master Drawings at the Library of Congress.