OUTSIDE THE BOX
EDITION JACOB SAMUEL, 1988 – 2010
ARMAND HAMMER MUSEUM
May 23 – August 29, 2010
Jacob Samuel, a master printer and the art world’s “best-kept secret” has a life that many would envy. He gets artists to think “outside the box.” As publisher and printer of “Edition Jacob Samuel,” he does exactly what he wants—publishing prints by some of the most famous artists in the world and producing highly regarded editions of original works, prized by international museums. With few exceptions he works only with artists whose oeuvre he has admired and known for at least ten years, and, if he finds that a project is not going well, he simply backs away. Samuel, as the printer and publisher of his imprint, Edition Jacob Samuel (EJS), is completely in charge of his enterprise. After remaining discretely in the background, the printer is featured in the current exhibition at the Armand Hammer Museum, Outside the Box, which displays his entire Edition. For two decades, he has enriched the art world with an old-fashioned medium, etching, working quietly at the service of the artists. The exhibition currently on view features the total output of his publishing career, which has been jointly purchased by the Hammer and by the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art.
The artists in Los Angeles have always independently produced what the trade knows as “artists’ books” and the city has always supported artists who wanted to produce prints. Print workshops such as, the Gemini G. E. L. and Tamarind Institute, are now world-famous. East Coast artists, who wanted to make prints, such as Jasper Johns, came to Los Angeles. Printmaking has been part of the West Coast’s artists’ fascination with materials and experimentation with process. These printmaking workshops were founded in the sixties when Los Angeles was not on the art map, or at last not on the mind of New York critics. Being on the Left Coast and far from the art game, artists in Los Angeles had the freedom to experiment without having to respond to an art market. Although artists, such as the printmaker, June Wayne, from Tamarind, are mostly famous in L. A., book and print artist, Ed Ruscha, is internationally renowned. Ruscha began his career with his series of laconic books, cataloguing the sights of the city, from palm trees to parking lots. His self-published books, which, at one time, you could buy for five dollars, include Every Building on Sunset Strip and my favorite, Royal Road Test. Nowhere are the unexpected possibilities of printmaking explored more inventively than with Ruscha, who has printed with blood, spinach juice, carrot juice, even chocolate, instead of ink.
Samuel honed his craft through a long-term collaboration with the Los Angeles artist, Sam Francis, who died in 1994. In comparison to the exuberant and complicated prints of Francis, the aesthetic of Edition Jacob Samuel is more restrained and reductive. Even though it would seem that Jacob Samuel’s selection of etching, which requires a certain level of exactitude, might constrain the artists’ inventiveness, the prints produced through Edition Jacob Samuel are full of surprises. Ruscha’s work with the printmaker is a case in point. The artist is famous, not just for his books and prints, but also for his paintings, which often feature signs. “Signs” has two meanings with Ruscha, first the familiar advertising signs that guide us, and second, the semiotic sense of sign, that is: signs carry meaning. In one of his better-known paintings, he artist presented the word “hotel” in vivid orange with the letters arranged vertically. The meaning of the arrangement went beyond the word and implied that the “hotel” in question is a cheap one. An expensive hotel always writes out its name in horizontal elegance, while a cheap hotel uses garish neon, economically fixed to the side of the building.
The trademark of Ed Ruscha’s work is the combination of image with text, with the text predominating over the image, until the text becomes the image. After decades of such visual-verbal puns and semiotic play, the prints Ruscha produced for the Edition, Blank Signs of 2004, take the play with signs one step further. In this series of prints, the signs are road signs in the desert, a place where one would need directions; but the signs are blank. The artist’s use of masking on the etching plate rendered the shape of the signs and their supports as ghostly shapes outlined against his delicate drawings of the desert terrain. The traveler is lost without any clues. Perhaps it was the desert winds, but the words are bleached away from the surface of the roadside signs, but the wit of the act of masking out the word play is clear to those who know the artist’s signature satirical style.
Ed Ruscha, like another artist featured in the show, John Baldessari, is local to Los Angeles and can make prints in the city. But what makes the work of Jacob Samuel different from that of Gemini and Tamarind is that artists do not have to come to his print studio; he can travel internationally, carrying his portable studio with him. When an artist comes to the printer’s workshop, he or she is not at “home,” so to speak. But Samuel comes to the artist’s studio where the artist has the full resources of the home studio at her disposal. Through his portable workshop, Samuel provides the printing materials and the artist provides the inspiration and then the portable studio is packed up and the printer goes home. A world famous artist is a busy person, Samuel states, and he respects the limited time of someone like Dan Graham, also in the show. The printmaker and the artist consult on the final result at long distance. The collaboration between the artist and the printer is that of the leader and the follower, the one who initiates and the one who carries out the instructions. Samuel insists upon being humble to not just the artist but also to the materials themselves.
The delicate relationship between the artist and printer are on view with the prints of the German artist, Rebecca Horn. For those of us in Los Angeles, our introduction to the artist was at her influential retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990. Although she had been a leading German conceptual artist since the late 1960s and she had taught in San Diego in 1974, like many European artists she did not get her due in America until mid-career. Her installations in Los Angeles were a revelation in artistic intelligence, but not every work could travel, for example, one of her most important early works, the Overflowing Machine of 1970. Now owned by the Tate, the original machine included a nude dark haired young man, standing immobilized on a pedestal, surrounded by tubes (one of Horn’s trademark materials) through which red blood coursed. The conduits of blood circulation ran up and down on the outside of his body, making the invisible visible.
Her recurring theme of blood reappeared in the series of prints made between Samuel and Horn. The two had met on the occasion of her retrospective in Los Angeles, but Horn was not interested in prints. She actively disliked the effect of the reversed image and said as much to Samuel who immediately offered to solve that problem. The solution was to ask a local supplier of Gampi paper to invent a form of transparent paper. The image could be executed and the print, on surprisingly strong transparent paper, could be flipped over, reappearing in a reverse of a reverse, according to the artist’s original intent. Working in Horn’s large well-appointed studio in Berlin, the printer set up his portable studio and let the artist have her way. Restricted to blood-stain red and to a paper the color of her creamy skin, the redheaded artist made a series of prints, one featuring blood cells, another with marks made from a log from her studio fireplace dragged over a plate, and still another “painted” with a bouquet of dried roses. Like many of the artists in this exhibition, Horn is a writer and is as well known for her poetry as she is for her art, and the poems interspersed among the images preexisted the prints.
Just as Horn scored her plates with found objects, such as twigs, Marina Abramovic scratched her plates with her fingernails. Discussing her Spirit Cooking with Essential Aphrodisiac Recipes of 1996, Samuel noted that Abramovic “performed” her prints, meaning that the process of execution became a performance for the performance artist. Each artist brought his or her unique art form to the experience of making prints. In 2004, Mona Hatoum used her hair as a drawing tool, with coils and strands placed carefully preserved on pieces of paper and then slowly slid onto the plate. The Anglo-Indian artist, Anish Kapoor, commissioned a very special set of colors, deliberately made to reiterate the soft velvety dry pigments of his early works. The result was a set of prints with deep and profound colors that resonated and seemed to lift off the paper. Meredith Monk sang to Samuel as she made her prints of musical scores, and close friend, Chris Burden, shared his many encounters with coyotes in Topanga Canyon, told in a school-boy’s handwriting for Coyote Stories of 2005. Each series of prints presents a new but familiar facet of the personality of each artist.
Jacob Samuel takes pleasure in providing opportunities to artists. His Santa Monica studio, located in one of the last un-gentrified blocks in the city, is clean and spare, but, in the window, floats a transparent print by Gabriel Orozco, a Lotus Leaf from 2003. The transparent print ascends above the heavy and gleaming printing press. Although he has an artistic degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in the Bay Area, Samuel insists that he “does not think like an artist” but thinks technically. (Collectors of his paintings would disagree.) The son of immigrants from Wales—his grandfather peddled pins—he grew up in Malibu and Venice, when Venice was “Dogtown” and the “Z Boys” ruled. A long-time surfer, Samuel was interested in the Italian Arte Povera movement of the Sixties. Not unlike the post-war cinema of the Italian filmmakers who used ambient light and sound and untrained actors, the artists of the Arte Povera movement were fearless in striking out beyond the materials approved by fine arts at a time when painting ruled.
One of the veterans of the 1967 movement, the Greek artist, Jannis Kounellis, stepped out of his comfort zone in 1999 and produced a series of prints for Edition Jacob Samuel that were surprisingly delicate and lyrical. It is this fertile mix of Samuel’s interest in the historic discipline of prints, his reductive aesthetic, fueled by the concept of serial imagery of the sixties, and the willingness to be open to the possibilities of unexpected and unorthodox materials that gave rise to his imprint. Many of the artists featured are also writers who produce poetry or narratives, which respond to the images, or vice versa. Samuel employs a professional typographer to execute the pages of text, which have their own presence and yet are subordinate to the images. The rows of small spare prints are elegantly presented in simple and pale frames, hung side by side and while the series is under the name of the printer, “Jacob Samuel,” Outside the Box can also be thought of as a group show, featuring world famous artists. Oddly, collectors have not been interested in these print works and ninety percent of the purchases come from museums, which support the publisher’s efforts. For the art audience interested in the full range of an artist’s work, the exhibition, Edition Jacob Samuel, at the Hammer this summer allows the viewer a rare glimpse into the rewards of the collaboration between artist and printmaker.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger