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When Paper is More than a Surface

Paper is fundamental to traditional printmaking, but paper as a medium can be as diverse as the images printed on its surface. Surface Tension: Contemporary Prints from the Anderson Collection (on view at the de Young through January 15, 2012) puts paper front and center, exploring the ways in which artists from the late 1960s to today engage paper as more than just a surface.

Though no ink touched the paper in Josef Albers's Embossed Linear Construction series (1969),  he used embossing, a traditional printmaking process, to transform ordinary sheets of watercolor paper into subtle bas-relief constructions that extend into the viewer’s space.

Josef Albers (American, 1888–1976). Embossed Linear Construction 2-D, from a portfolio of 8 inkless embossings, 1969. Inkless embossing on 300-gram Arches watercolor paper. Anderson Graphic Arts Collection, gift of the Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson Charitable Foundation. 1996.74.17.8

The term bas-relief usually refers to sculptural formats on which a shallow-depth composition projects out of the primary surface, a traditional example of which can be seen below.

Winged Genius, from the North-west Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, 885–856 BC. Assyria, Nimrud. Bituminous limestone. Museum purchase, Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Income Fund and The Walter H. and Phyllis J. Shorenstein Foundation Fund. 1995.47

To create a paper bas-relief using embossing, a damp piece of paper is run through a press on top of an inkless printing plate that contains incised lines and shapes. The paper is then pushed into the incised lines, which form raised areas on the surface. The deeper the incisions in the plate, the higher the bas-relief of the paper, so by varying the depth of the lines on the plate, Albers changed the heights of the lines in the finished print. The importance of light to the aesthetic success of this series (just as for traditional bas-relief sculptures) cannot be overstated. In the gallery, the way light hits the surface of the prints changes as you move around the room, at turns highlighting and obscuring elements of the composition, so much so that the lines almost appear to disappear at times.

Prints made at the Mixografia workshop in Los Angeles, like Ed Ruscha’s Dog (1995), demonstrate another way graphic art exhibits qualities of relief sculpture.

Edward Ruscha (American, b. 1937). Mixografia Workshop (publisher). Dog, 1995. Mixografia on handmade paper. Anderson Graphic Arts Collection, Gift of Mrs. Gunther R. Detert, Prints and Drawings Art Trust Fund, Funds in memory of Suzanne Reger, Dr. Saliga Reger, Katharine Hanrahan, Jenicka Rosekrans, Allen Swayze, Edward C. "Chuck" Bassett, Pat Steger, John Langley Howard, Hilda Mary "Johnny" Danforth, Dorothy Munn, and Other Memorial Funds. 2000.28

As part of the patented Mixografia® process, moist handmade paper is manipulated into deep copper printing plates that act as molds to cast the paper to varying degrees of depth while simultaneously printing the image. With help from the workshop, each artist develops the templates for these molds beginning with any solid object. This object is then incised, impressed, or carved in a relief composition. To make the molds for Dog, Ruscha collected various grasses and pressed them into a layer of wax; a copper printing plate was then made from that wax impression. Ruscha explained that one of the primary reasons he considered working at Mixografia was:

“I had never done a relief before [and a shop] that could use many colors, in one pass, with such detailed relief intrigued me… People look at [my] Mixografia and shake their heads, they don’t know how it could be done… the reliefs are almost trompe l’oeil.”

The sculptural qualities of these and other works in the exhibition are best seen in person, rather than as flat images on a computer screen. So come to the de Young to experience Surface Tension for yourself. You’ll be amazed by some of the other ways in which artists in the exhibition make sculptures out of paper, and continue to expand the boundaries of the printed surface!