The Creative Symbiosis of Artist and Printer: Collaborative Efforts Foster Innovation in Design Techniques

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An eccentric and solitary figure, driven to explore a private vision - that's the popular view of an artist.

"Contemporary Printmaking in America: Collaborative Prints and Presses" at the National Museum of American Art offers a new way of looking at the creative process. The unifying theme of the eclectic collection of 90 works is collaboration - most frequently the relationships between artists and printers.

Helen Frankenthaler once turned to her printer, Ken Tyler, and asked, "How do you get the color of a mulberry when it bleeds?" The result, "Essence Mulberry - State I," is a striking woodcut on handmade paper. "Ken presents me with all the possibilities that are in my vocabulary," she says of their collaboration.

Jennifer Bartlett collaborated with four master printers to create the five-panel "Graceland Mansions," which shows different images of a houselike form. She uses the same five colors in each image and suggests five different times of day by a skillful placement of shadows.

"Accident," an award-winning lithograph by Robert Rauschenberg, is aptly named. The stone on which the print was drawn cracked as it passed though the printing press. When a second version of the composition also broke, Mr. Rauschenberg decided to make the mishap the subject of his work. He relied on the technical skill of his printer to produce a print from the broken stone; it was a complicated procedure because the rough edges were vulnerable to pressure.

Washington artist Sam Gilliam offered a museum audience a first-hand account of how the collaborative process actually works. Annually for the past 28 years, he has made a trek to the Jones Road Print Shop and Stable in Wisconsin, one of the best-known print shops to come out of the new focus on printmaking in the 1970s. It's famous for its spirit of experimentation, the variety of techniques artists use - collage, sewing, glitter - and for producing its own handmade paper.

The "stable" in the workshop's name is no artistic affectation. The shop is located in a rural area where collaboration involves pitching horseshoes, cutting the grass and drinking beer with the owner, Bill Weege, as well as serious artistic endeavors.

Mr. Gilliam says that collaboration often comes about from the need "to get people unstuck."

"You need a person from the outside to solve a problem, to do something in a different way," he says. He dispells the stereotype of the contentious artist. …