In 1978, Jimmy Carter was president, punk rock was in its ascendency, graffiti art was in its nascency, and San Francisco artist Gary Lichtenstein bought a silkscreen press.
It was made by Medalist Equipment and its purchase was a transitional moment for the young artist, who at the time already had honed his printing bona fides working with San Francisco rock ‘n’ roll poster making master Robert Fried. Nicknamed the Little Volkswagen because of its size and the fact that it had wheels, the press would become Lichtenstein’s persistent companion, relocating with him first to a barn in Connecticut and ultimately to an ample space in Mana Contemporary cultural center in Jersey City.
It is there that Lichtenstein works his magic, the silkscreen printing collaborations that turn the work of contemporary artists into brilliant, new creations that are alive with otherwise unattainable color, depth, and soul. Now, more and more, street artists are turning to Lichtenstein for help in making the transition from the streets to the galleries.
“For me, working with Gary was a game changer.” – Al Diaz
“For me, working with Gary was a game changer,” said street art legend Al Diaz, whose series of silk-screened subway lettering pieces were printed by Lichtenstein. “When you work with a person who brings so much energy and experience to the table, it is a true collaboration. He makes the print an art piece in itself, not just a representation of an art piece.”
Lichtenstein also made striking black-and-white prints with street artist Lecrue Eyebrows. “Mine were just two colors, so at first I was thinking what can we do to make just two colors pop? Gary and I worked together six or eight times to get it right. I’ve never seen prints like this; I was taken aback when I saw them for the first time. With Gary, it’s not just like someone printing my art, it’s a collaboration,” he said.
“With Gary, it’s not just like someone printing my art, it’s a collaboration.” – Lecrue Eyebrows
It’s this collaboration, along with the vivid colors and stark definition, that draws artists to silkscreening and to Lichtenstein in particular.
“It’s the personality of the artist that is the heart and soul of the decisions made.” – Gary Lichtenstein
“Silkscreen is different from other forms of printing – where prints are frequently made in the absence of the artist – because it’s the personality of the artist that is the heart and soul of the decisions made. It’s a lot more than just making a reproduction of something. In fact, silkscreen is not a process of reproduction. It’s a process of reinterpretation,” Lichtenstein told UP Magazine during an interview at his Jersey City studio.
“It’s all about analyzing the complexity of a project… the number of screens required, the number of colors required, and the registration challenges. Every color is another layer, another screen. I take an image apart one color at a time in black and white. This is the process of ‘separation.’ Then I put the image back together one color at a time. It’s like building a house,” he said.
Screen printing originated in China more than a thousand years ago as a means of putting designs onto fabric. It was adopted by the Japanese and later the French, but it was not until the 20th century that the technique was used as an artistic medium, called serigraphy by early practitioners. It didn’t really take off, though, until the 1960s when pop artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Peter Blake and others popularized it as a means of creating contemporary art.
“It was the bastard child of fine art printing.” – Gary Lichtenstein
“It was the bastard child of fine art printing; it was used primarily for commercial purposes like supermarket signs and windows. But it really took off with pop art in New York City and the psychedelic art and rock posters in California,” Lichtenstein said.
“In the 70s, when I was working with Robert Fried, it was an archaic process.” – Gary Lichtenstein
“In the 70s, when I was working with Robert Fried, it was an archaic process. We were exposing our screens in the sun, washing them out in a car wash, hanging paper up on cliffs, mixing ink any way we could,” he said. Sadly, Fried died in 1975 just days before the two were to open a show of Fried’s original work in San Francisco.
Later, Lichtenstein thought he heard a dirge for silk screening when digital printing enabled fine art reproductions to be made faster and cheaper.
“I thought I was toast when digital printing really took form in the 90s. I thought, ‘I’m gonna focus on painting and just printing my own prints, which I had always been doing throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s,’” he said.
Instead, though, artists like Charles Hinman, Michael De Feo, Tom Christopher and Phil Smith began coming out to the Connecticut barn seeking Lichtenstein’s by-then-well-known approach to silkscreen in order to make superior prints of their work too.
Later, Lichtenstein met a few independent print publishers who introduced the work of Jane Dickson, Robert Cottingham and Robert Indiana. The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum followed with a museum editions program that included Roz Chast, Gary Panter, Jessica Stockholder and Gerard Hemsworth.
Among those who were instrumental in bringing Lichtenstein into the world of graffiti and street art were artists Diaz, Eric Orr, Cey Adams and hip-hop photographer Janette Beckman.
One remarkable collaboration started when Eric Orr relayed his stories about making chalk drawings with Keith Haring.
One remarkable collaboration started when Orr relayed his stories about making chalk drawings with Keith Haring in NYC’s subway stations in 1984.
“Eric had this great story about his friendship with Keith and we wanted to tell it in the best possible way,” Lichtenstein said about the process that would lead to a print featuring Orr’s signature Max Robot with Haring’s venerable Radiant Baby.
Lichtenstein and Orr met when they worked together on a United Way project and later the two collaborated on a series of signs featuring Orr’s robot character to present COVID warnings for Urban Pathways.
“After we worked on the two previous printed projects and I saw his passion…I decided I wanted Gary to be the one to print my collaborative Orr-Haring drawing which I’d been holding onto for 6 years after I was given permission from the Haring Foundation,” Orr said.
“He’s patient, and really cares about the end result of all the silkscreen projects,” he added.
“He’s patient, and really cares about the end result of all the silkscreen projects.” – Eric Orr
Lichtenstein often works with artists in conjunction with West Chelsea Contemporary, the New York and Austin based gallery devoted to street art.
“For the most part, street art is temporary. A great way to memorialize it and give it a longer lifespan is through a print edition,” Lichtenstein said.
Lichtenstein also worked with the LISA Project, the Manhattan-based nonprofit that works to bring street art murals to neighborhoods in New York City and beyond. To mark the LISA Project’s 10-year anniversary, Lichtenstein printed works by Shepard Fairey, Ron English, Crash and Daze, and Indie184 as a fundraiser.
“I needed not only a master printer, but one with a team that could shepherd the charity through the whole process,” said Wayne Rada, executive director of the LISA Project. “From that experience GL Editions has become a long-term partner. Working with Gary himself is an artistic journey, a creative experience, and he tells a damn good joke,” he said.
The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown Ohio will be recognizing Lichtenstein’s 45-year career.
Meanwhile, the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown Ohio will be recognizing Lichtenstein’s 45-year career with an exhibition of his paintings and collaborations March 19 through June 11. “It’s not a retrospective, it’s a survey of projects and stories. It’s an opportunity to bring a lot of these prints, along with the stories behind them, to the museum,” Lichtenstein said.
Currently, Lichtenstein also has a temporary gallery showcasing multiple prints on New York’s Upper West Side at 473 Amsterdam Avenue. Artists on exhibit include Adams, Orr, Diaz, Eyebrows, Beckman, Jane Dickson, Futura, Ron English, Alice Mizrachi, Bob Gruen, Crash, Daze, Indie184, Fairey, Jessica Stockholder and Ted Kim.