What is a print?

What exactly is a print? Generally it has seemed to be a reproduction, often in multiples or an edition, of a starting image. A copy.

A newspaper is a print. So is a magazine. And coupons in a magazine or a newspaper. Preprinted envelopes are an edition of hundreds of thousands.

But why do we elevate printmaking to an art form? What makes it special, or viewable, or collectible?

The process of screenprinting generally involves taking an image positive and transferring it via chemical or mechanical means to a piece of stretched fabric and creating an image negative. This negative is actually parts of the fabric that are left “open” or uncovered. By human strength or mechanical means ink is forced from one side of the screen through to the opposite onto a substrate which can be a variety of materials such as paper, sticker, or wood.

The method is similar in lithography or typesetting. The reverse image, for instance, on a newsprint press of yesterday, by means of metal pieces of type, were loaded into a block to form words and sentences, then inked, and mechanically pressed onto sheets of paper creating a form of mass reproduction. Born was the printing press. The reverse image became correct and readable or easily interpretable via the process. Process became reproductive.

Screenprinting is used for many outputs. Artwork, clothing, bumper stickers, record covers, et cetera. And artists have used it either as a primary or secondary art form whether they were involved directly or indirectly. Many famous artists throughout the years have designed the final image concept of what was to be screenprinted but they themselves did not actually perform the mechanical work. An example of this is Ellsworth Kelly whose geometric single and polychromatic shapes were designed and conceived by him but produced by print shops like Gemini GEL, a famous and oft used commercial and fine art printer in California.

Perhaps the most famous screenprinting advocate of all time, Andy Warhol, input the least amount of work into his craft. It is well known that a majority of Andy Warhol’s works were never even touched by his hands during the creation process. He employed a variety of friends and artists in his Factory throughout his career to undertake the necessary steps to make his editions on canvas and paper. Andy may have chosen the images but someone else made the painting.

Who is the artist? The conceiver or the creator? This is a similar conundrum that John Baldessari presented in his work The Commissioned Paintings from 1969-70. In response to criticism from Al Held regarding Conceptual art, Baldessari took photographs of his friends pointing at random objects during walks about town. He then took these photographs to various hobbyist painters whose work he had seen before and commissioned them to make paintings of the pictures. He took these paintings and stenciled the words “A PAINTING BY” followed with the name of the person who painted the picture.

Baldessari took an image positive (the photographs) and delivered them to a means of mechanical reproduction (the hobbyist painters) and created single editions (one lone copy) of each work. The paintings, and the complete edition of all the single editions, are credited to him. Who here is the artist and what is the original image? What is the work? The photograph, the paintings, or the work-as-a-whole.

Again, with Warhol and Kelly, where does art and creation begin and is any of it original?

On some level we all understand what a print or printed material is. If there remains abstract thought in this process of reproductive creation it is the question of whether the printed material itself is the art or the process of making each print is the art itself. If we challenge such ideas as aligning and registering each single piece of paper throughout the process of reproduction and instead go beyond this, into a place of working live-abstract and creating each print as-the-artist-goes, and new kind of screenprinting emerges.

If each print is now unique and individual, but they all begin from each image negative yet “xeroxed” differently, are they now all single editions of themselves or is the edition of all the editions the art? One-hundred pieces of one, or one piece of one-hundred? An art form that is both divisible or complete defined by the perspective of the viewer.

¶ 2008·02·12