Friday, October 23, 2015

POST #103: TO TELL OR NOT TO TELL: the artists’ dilemma

I recently (by sheer accident) invented a new printing process. It looks like drypoint but doesn’t need a $5,000 press or special plates and tools or paper. All you need is an inexpensive laser printer, a digital camera and a computer.  Here I was, just playing around with the printer and I got something that knocked my socks off, literally took my breathe away. I feel like such a total fraud but the results look like the moody cityscapes done by WPA printmakers in the 1930s. If I put them in nice frames they look like real prints and are so exquisite anyone who sees them wants to buy one (unlike my paintings that need nerves of steel and 12 foot high walls.) I recently showed a few of them to a well-known printmaker and she ordered me to copyright my process. When I hesitated, saying “I don’t do copyright,” she said, “well, at least write about it. Stake a claim.” So that’s what I’m doing. The process is cheap and simple and when you put a mat over the print and stick it into a faux-fancy frame, it looks like something you just bought at Swann Gallery for a coupla grand.

I have mixed feelings about artists hiding their methods. Secrecy about one’s work is kind of a leftover from the Medieval guilds where techniques and materials were passed down from generation to generation. I truly believe that it’s not the technique but the artistry that ultimately matters. Picasso once did a series of paintings on clear plastic panels so the camera could watch him from behind. I could look at that film forever and still not be Picasso. 

While we’re on the subject of artists hiding their methods, let me tell you about Mark Rothko. I adore Rothko (one of the few of that era I do admire) and was always curious about his methods, his materials. A few years ago, I read a definitive biography of his life, 500 pages. Named everyone he ever slept with but not a word about how he worked. Did he prestretch canvas?  Underpaint? Mix his paints with varnish? Not a single word. I was telling someone who knew Rothko personally and he explained that Rothko was notoriously secretive about his methods, never even allowing his assistants to be in the studio when he worked. I can’t understand why. His work came from a spiritual place inside him, not from how he mixed his paint.

But let’s go back to my original dilemma. Should I stake a claim or let my technique go out into the universe? I have a friend who taught printmaking for many years at a major art school. During that time she came up with a monoprint method that kept the original painting intact while creating a reverse print, something that never happens in a traditional monoprint. She never wrote about her discovery, let alone applied for a copyright, just taught it to hundreds of students who then took it with them to workshops throughout the country. It eventually turned up in a printmaking text as someone else’s idea.

What should I do?

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