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Ink | A Community of Printmakers at Manhattan Graphics Center

Manhattan Graphics Center offers facilities for intaglio, lithography, screenprinting and a darkroom.

Manhattan Graphics Center.

Printmaking fosters a sense of community and it thrives in spaces where dedicated artists come together to share traditions and inspire innovations. For nearly thirty years, Manhattan Graphics Center has provided printmakers, both new and advanced, with a welcoming environment where knowledge is nurtured and collaboration is possible. The artists who gather here to learn and practice printmaking come from diverse backgrounds and have distinct voices, and together they embody the vitality of the city that this printshop calls home.

Manhattan Graphics Center was organized as a democratic and independent workshop. It was founded in 1986 by twenty artists and teachers who worked at the Pratt Graphics Center in Midtown Manhattan. When Pratt Institute announced that they were selling this building, the group banded together and dedicated time, money and materials to preserve a printshop in the borough. One of the most remarkable aspects of Manhattan Graphics Center is that it is entirely run by artists on a volunteer basis. The daily operation of the printshop is managed by keyholders, who donate their time in return for use of the facilities. And the programs they offer (classes and workshops, lectures, exhibitions) are guided by a board of directors upon the recommendations of the Center’s members. In 2012, after over twenty years of being located downtown, the printshop moved to 250 West 40th Street, the heart of the burgeoning art scene in the Fashion District.

Vijay Kumar and Yasuyo Tanaka transferring an image from a screen to a copper plate.

One of the best introductions one can have to Manhattan Graphics Center is through their classes, taught by experienced printmakers that provide instruction and inspiration in a variety of techniques, from traditional to experimental. Each of the instructors brings a different outlook to teaching; course offerings range from screenprint and lithography to collagraph and monotype. Classes on two of the earliest forms of printmaking, intaglio and woodcut, demonstrate the potential of these centuries-old techniques for contemporary artists.

Vijay Kumar is one of the founders and most devoted supporters of Manhattan Graphics Center. He serves as an expert and guide in exploring the limitless potential of intaglio printmaking. Born in Lahore, he trained as an artist in India and, after traveling in Europe, arrived in the United States in 1969. He has vivid memories of the printmaking he saw as a child, such as patterned woodblocks used to print fabric, and brightly colored lithographs of Hindu deities. His own work often possesses a quiet tension, where networks of linear marks and geometric shapes serve to focus attention and engage reverie with the printed sheet itself. As an instructor, he brings thirty years of experience in plumbing the intricacies of etching and aquatint.

Vijay Kumar. “Untitled,” 2012. Sugarlift etching.

Frederick Mershimer, another intaglio instructor, is known for his masterful work in the older and lesser-known technique of mezzotint. Popular in the 18th century, this tonal process allows artists to capture subtle gradations of light, but its labor-intensive process often discourages present-day artists from attempting it. One of the most difficult steps is preparing the copper plate, which must be thoroughly covered with a series of shallow indentations using a tool called a rocker. Mershimer has alleviated some of the work with his invention “the rocking machine,” combining traditional processes with modern ingenuity.

Frederick Mershimer. “Across the Floor,” 2011. Mezzotint.

Japanese woodblock, one of the oldest and most intricate techniques, is taught by Takuji Hamanaka. He trained in Tokyo at The Adachi Institute, where he learned skills used by the great masters of ukiyo-e, Hiroshige and Hokusai. He worked as a professional printer at Watanabe Studio in New York and assisted artists including Sol Lewitt. In those prints—and his own work—he adeptly demonstrates the delicate clarity and precision possible when printing from woodblocks.

Takuji Hamanaka. “Northern Wall,” 2009. Woodcut with gampi collage.

Of all the course offerings, chemigram technique is one of the most unique. A hybrid of printmaking, painting and photography, it is a camera-less method of producing images that was developed by Pierre Cordier in the 1950s. Chemigram relies on the manipulation of photo processing chemicals, and a series of resists on light-sensitive paper that are often created with stencils and screen printing. Instructor Richard Turnbull and member Doug Collins skillfully guide visitors through this hybrid process, and discuss its possibilities on their blog devoted to nonfigurative photography.

Richard Turnbull. “Untitled,” 2011. Chemigram.

The rich variety of prints generated by students and teachers are displayed in monthly exhibits at the Center, which range from solo to thematic group exhibitions. Many members’ work can also be seen in exhibitions throughout New York. For instance, the latest juried show at the International Print Center of New York, New Prints/2013, includes work by members Yasuyo Tanaka, Sarah Hauser, and Frederick Mershimer. Manhattan Graphics Center has also published numerous portfolios in which artists bring individual perspective to a common theme. Their titles reflect the diversity of offerings, including On Broadway, Spontaneous Combustion, Mythologies, Naked, Portraits in Words and Images, Negative Space, 9/11, and most recently, Rip/Off, which features prints by 65 artists interpreting the idea of artistic copies and emulation.

Manhattan Graphics Center is always wanting to introduce new people, from both near and far, to their workshop. This year they launched summerINK, a series of short, intensive workshops that are geared towards artist-tourists visiting New York. In addition to their regular courses, they offered photogravure, engraving, collage, and book-making. They have also begun to partner with local high schools, which often do not have the facilities for making prints, to inspire a new generation of printmakers. With a portable press in hand, instructors have visited the High School of Fashion Industries and invited students to the Center; accompanied them on visits to museum collections; and arranged for their work to be displayed in storefront windows.

Karel Demel. “Unicorn,” 2005. Etching with aquatint.

The reach of the Center goes well beyond the borders of New York. They have worked with artists in Poland, Scotland, Holland, India and Russia, bringing their work to New York and, in return, sending back prints made by their members. This month, they will offer a tantalizing glimpse into printmaking in Czechoslovakia by hosting the exhibition The Spiritual Dimension in Czech Printmaking, showcasing the work of eleven artists, including the evocative and surreal prints of Karel Demel.

When an artist decides to make prints, he or she is often faced with the question of where to make them. Few artists have all the necessary materials, dedicated space, and expensive presses to make prints in their own studios. Most seek out a printshop and then have to consider what makes a space functional and inspirational. It is not only the facilities and equipment that matter, but also the energy and experience of other artists in the space that can make a print studio feel like home away from home. For artists living in or visiting New York, Manhattan Graphics Center offers an accessible environment and enthusiastic community to make the world of printmaking come alive.

Nicole Simpson is a guest writer for Ink, a forum to discuss contemporary prints, printmaking, and book arts. Simpson is a PhD candidate in Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY and is writing her dissertation on exhibitions of prints in the 19th century. Previously, she worked as a print specialist at the New York Public Library and Christie’s.

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