The History of Printmaking in Los Angeles

In the year of 1914, when the shadows of conflict began to loom over Europe, an artistic bloom quietly began in a corner of Downtown Pasadena. Conceived by two artist brothers, The Print Makers of Los Angeles convened their inaugural meeting. Howell C. Brown, in his writings, underscores the synchronicity of these events: "The initial gathering coincided with the onset of the Great War. The global unrest should have impeded any rapid growth, yet paradoxically, it did not." This article follows the genesis of the Los Angeles printmaking scene, situates its evolution within the intricate weave of history, and traces the indelible marks it's made on contemporary art til the present day.

The dawn of the 1920s saw the Print Makers of Los Angeles emerging as a nexus point for hobbiests scattered across Southern California to exchange knowledge and ideas, exploring techniques from intaglio to lithography, and screen printing to reliefs. The seeds of the Los Angeles printmaking scene were thus sown by these enthusiasts, including such early luminaries as Harold Doolittle and Paul Landacre of Echo Park, against the backdrop of a country soon to be disrupted by the Great Wars.


Paul Landacre. Wood engraving on paper 5 1/5 × 7 2/5 in | 13.3 × 18.7 cm Edition 99/250Paul Landacre. Wood engraving on paper. 5 1/5 × 7 2/5 in | 13.3 × 18.7 cm. 

It was amidst this turbulence in the 1930s that the U.S. government planted two legislative cornerstones that would reshape the art scene in Los Angeles. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) launched the Federal Art Project (FAP), an initiative borne of the Roosevelt administration, in an act to sustain artists' employment during the nation's struggle to rise from the ashes of the Great Depression. These decisive steps, while taken in response to a broader socio-economic crisis, would inadvertently orchestrate a profound reshaping of Los Angeles's art landscape, with printmaking at its core.

As the echoes of World War II began to recede, Los Angeles found itself primed for a blossoming of contemporary art. This period was catalyzed by the introduction of the G.I. Bill, which afforded a surge of artists to participate in newly founded printmaking programs at UCLA, USC, Otis, Pasadena Community College, and UC Irvine.

One such product of this efflorescence was Lynton Kistler, who emerged as the founding figure of Kistler Lithography, notable as the first lithography print shop established in the West Coast. While contemporary recognition often tilts toward surviving presses and establishments, it was this modest studio nestled in MacArthur Park that redefined print-making as an art form rather than a process. This endeavor left an indelible imprint on the Los Angeles art landscape, uniting key figures like June Wayne and Clinton Adams, the founding duo of Tamarind Press which would later train a generation of master printers.

June Wayne, Tenth Wave (1972). Color lithograph on BFK Rives.
June Wayne, Tenth Wave (1972). Color Lithograph on BFK Rives. 41½ x 29½ in. | 105.4 x 74.9 cm

Art history holds a special place for Wayne's prophecy written in her 1969 Ford Foundation grant application: “A handful of people is all that is needed for a renaissance in an art. Such a renaissance is the purpose of this project.” And indeed, it was in this studio on Tamarind Avenue in Hollywood in 1960 where the renaissance would take place. Under the tutelage of technical director Clinton Adams, this atelier nurtured a generation of master printers, among them Kenneth Tyler, co-founder of Gemini G.E.L., and Jean Milant of Cirrus Editions.

Ruth Asawa, Desert Plant (1965). Color Lithograph printed by Tamarind Press.Ruth Asawa, Desert Plant (1965). Color Lithograph. Published by Tamarind Press. 18 1/2 × 18 1/2 in. | 47 × 47 cm. 

Europe had maintained a rich tradition of collaborative printmaking across centuries. However, at this juncture in history in America, a stark divide segregated the world of fine arts from printmaking. The revival of lithography by June Wayne and its inherently collaborative nature initiated a reconsideration of printmaking's standing, elevating it as a bonafide art form on par with painting, drawing, and sculpture. It was within the walls of Tamarind Press that the boundary-pushing experimentation unfolded, with artists like Ruth Asawa and Josef Albers spearheading the movement. Tamarind introduced novel programs for working printers and rotating artist residencies, establishing the core structure of the program that still exists today at the University of New Mexico.

After working at Tamarind Press in 1960’s, master printer Kenneth Tyler set up a modest print shop alongside partners in the 1960’s named Gemini G.E.L. The foundation of this venture was characterized by an unequivocal ambition to pursue artist-centric ethos which would play a pivotal role in nurturing the avant-garde movement's emergence in the post-war era, providing a platform that enabled experimental printmaking. Robert Rauschenberg, who had previously dabbled with lithography in New York, found in Gemini G.E.L. a space conducive to pushing the boundaries of convention. His inaugural creation, “Booster,” a six-foot-tall lithograph and screen print, shattered traditional norms, marking the largest of its kind at that time. The resounding success of this piece brought printmaking into the limelight as a legitimate art form, attracting a roster of eminent artists such as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, and Claes Oldenburg. This movement allowed printmaking to serve as a conduit for the expression of the avant-garde, shifting paradigms, and forever altering the landscape of contemporary art.

Robert Rauschenberg, Booster (1967). Lithograph and screenprint. 72 3/16 x 35 9/16 | 183.4 x 90.4 cm. Publisher: Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles

As GEMINI G.E.L. established itself through working with avant-garde artists from the East Coast, a parallel narrative was unfolding within Cirrus, which began establishing itself as the creative incubator for Southern California artists. It was here that the pulsating energy of the pop-art and conceptual movement found expression, attracting such seminal figures as John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha.

Ed Ruscha, Pepto-Caviar Hollywood (1971) Screenprint with Pepto Bismol and caviar in colors. 15 × 42 1/2 in | 38.1 × 108 cm. Publisher: Cirrus Editions, Los Angeles

The emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between artists and master printers continued at Cirrus, leading to some groundbreaking creations. One of the most renowned examples of this was the conception of "Pepto-Caviar." This work was born out of a seemingly mundane incident - Ruscha had sent an assistant to a nearby grocery store to purchase a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, curious to see how the liquid would interact with paper when pressed through a silkscreen. The initial proof was promising enough to spur an entire edition, prompting the assistant's return to the store for a case of the product. The cashier, unaware of the artistic endeavor in the making, remarked, "Well, I guess this stuff really works!" Regrettably, the visually striking pink skyline was doomed to fade faster than conventional inks used in printmaking, a poetic testament to the fleeting nature of experimental art.

Mixografia, a revolutionary venture that emerged in Los Angeles in the late 70s, breathed new life into the art of printmaking. Pioneered by Luis and Lea Remba, the Mixografia technique was born from a blend of artistic vision and mechanical ingenuity, encapsulating the spirit of experimentation and innovation that characterized the era.

John Baldessari, Crowds with Shapes of Reasoning Missing (2012). Mixographia print on paper.
John Baldessari, Crowds with Shapes of Reasoning Missing, Example 1, (2012). Mixografia® print on handmade paper. 30 × 43 1/2 in | 76.2 × 110.5 cm.

The inception of Mixografia can be traced back to Mexico City, where Luis and Lea Remba began their journey by leveraging their skills in mechanical engineering and lithography, to invent a printmaking process that allowed three-dimensional qualities to be captured, redefining the print medium. This novel technique, Mixografia, facilitated artists like Rufino Tamayo, who produced nearly eighty editions of Mixografia prints. The distinct three-dimensional and vividly colored prints by Mixografia underscore the radical transformation in printmaking in Los Angeles during the 1970s, re-igniting the printmaking scene and inspiring a new generation of artists.

These fascinating anecdotes embody the spirit of the era – a time of boundless creativity, fearless experimentation, and irreverence for convention. It underlines the significant role Los Angeles printmaking played in art history, providing a tangible link between artists' visions and their realization, and capturing the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Such endeavors didn't merely mark a divergence from tradition but laid the foundation for the dynamic landscape of contemporary art as we know it today.