Kathan Brown – founder of Crown Point Press
Crown Point began in 1962 as a print workshop, but started publishing prints in 1965 with etching portfolios by Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud. Leigh Cooper interviewed
Kathan as Crown Point began preparing for its 50th anniversary.
San Francisco Arts Quarterly, 2011
Would you explain how Crown Point began and how it has become what it is today?
It’s been almost fifty years, so it's a big chunk of time. I started the press for myself and my friends, essentially. That was in 1962. Artists would come in to work with the equipment, use the studio, and I would often show them some technique because they were enjoying coming in but they didn't know so much about the process of etching. That's how the workshops began. But publishing is different, and although we still do workshops, we are mainly known today for our publishing.
How is publishing different?
The publishing part is where we invite artists to make etchings with us, pay all the costs, and sell the work. This is our business. We publish two to four artists a year, and we exhibit and sell our published art in our gallery, at art fairs, and on the web—it’s real art, but because it is in editions the prices are a lot lower than the same artist commands for unique work.
The artists we publish come from all over the world. Usually they spend a couple of weeks here. We work with just one artist at a time. They come in every day and do whatever they want to do on plates; they use copper plates like pieces of paper, really. The printers help them learn the process, and also the printers do the proofing, and later the printing, for them. After the artists have OK’d the finished plates, they leave, and the printers spend a month or two, maybe three, printing small editions (ten to fifty) of each image. Later the artist signs and numbers each print.
In our workshops, everyone learns to print their own work, but when we publish, we don't want artists to spend a lot of time printing because once they make the plates the printing can be done by anyone with the necessary skill. The artists concentrate on the platemaking. We give them advantages so that in a short time they can get something that they really love, that they are connected to, that they touched and created. The skill of our printers is at their disposal, but the creative part is all done by them.
How did you get started with publishing?
We had a workshop where people could draw on the plates from a live model, and Richard Diebenkorn called me up one day and asked if he could come to it. He said he had done a little bit of drypoint, which is drawing straight on the copper without acid, and he liked the feel of the resistance of the metal when he was drawing. So he came to that workshop, and he really did enjoy the drawing but he didn't enjoy the printing. He couldn't figure out how to print anything very well, so I took pity on him and started printing for him.
Eventually I asked him if I could publish the prints he had been making. Those early prints of his were actually difficult to sell even though they were only $100 apiece, because people didn't really know what they were, I think, back then. But it was a great investment! And such a great pleasure—Diebenkorn loved the etching process, and I was able to work with him from 1962 off-and-on over the years until he died in 1993.
Through your work you have proved that the etching/printmaking process undoubtedly inspires the creative process. Can you describe the growth you have witnessed with artists over the years?
Many of our artists have told me that they've learned something about their paintings from working in the etching studio, and often they report that a body of work they’re doing in painting is influenced by the etchings. You can hear and see Julie Mehretu say that in a video in the "Artists Talking" section of our website. Sometimes artists tell me that after working with etching they understand better what they were already doing with painting. When you make a print you have to simplify things in a certain way and you're also making layers. So in printmaking you're thinking a little differently, thinking more, maybe. On a deep level you understand something that you didn't before. Artists come back over and over again, so I think they are learning something.
How do you introduce artists into the two-week program?
We usually start by looking at prints that other artists have done and not explaining anything. They're thinking about what they want to do, and they say, "I really like the way that mark is made, I really like the way it looks on paper," and you say, "That's a soft ground mark," and you take them into the studio and give them the tools to make a mark like that. You do tests to see if they like it. And we do the same thing in the workshops actually. It's not like school at all. You can start anywhere.
Do you ever look at artists' work and think about how it would translate into this process?
You know, that's a good question because I think many gallery owners and publishers do—they’ve said to me "Oh, I think that would make a good etching." But I try not to think that way. My husband, Tom Marioni, is a conceptual artist, and he influenced me in that regard. He has always said conceptual artists can use any medium. They use the medium that works best for the idea they have at the moment. That's what defines them as conceptual artists. They're not painters, they're not sculptors, they're not printmakers. They can use whatever's suitable. So it was natural for me to extend that idea to believe that if an artist thinks he or she can use printmaking, then he can. We worked with Vito Acconci, who doesn’t draw, and he did some really exciting things with us. But I don't think anyone would have thought to ask him to make prints until we did it.
I think it's much more interesting if you don’t have an opinion ahead of time.
If they think they can use it, they can probably use it, whether they are conceptual artists or not. And if they don't think they can use it, they probably can't.
Or it won't be useful to them.
If they're not going to have their heart in it, it's not going to be useful to them, and the work will not be very lively. And for that reason, too, it’s best not to try to talk an artist into doing this. If they want to do it, and if they’re a good artist, it will be good work.
Do you find that the artists’ enthusiasm for the etching process is a driving force for continuing to educate the public about it? What inspired the Three-Minute Egg—your video segment in which you discuss the creative process?
I’ve always been a proselytizer for etching. I like it so much myself—it’s the pinnacle of printmaking; nothing else has as much presence. And when I started Crown Point there weren’t many artists using it outside of academia. Of course, the enthusiasm from artists for the process does push me to try to explain it to everyone who is curious about it. At one point in my life I thought I would be a writer—I studied writing and editing in college—and the skill I developed then has helped me a lot.
The thing that started me on the Three-Minute Eggs was a book that I wrote called Magical Secrets about Thinking Creatively: The Art of Etching and the Truth of Life. The title is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, of course, but I have learned a lot of useful life-lessons from watching artists work in the studio. The book and the Three-Minute Eggs are an effort to share some of those lessons. I've been shooting video in the studio for a long time, and there are DVDs in all the Magical Secrets books. And I use little clips, going all the way back to the seventies, as the basis for my Eggs, which are just bits of history or fun or wisdom. I have to think of them as almost throwaway or I can't do them, because each one is only three minutes, and boiling things down that much requires some sticking-out of the neck!
You can't take anything too seriously.
That’s one of the Secrets: "Take Yourself Lightly."
In the ‘80s, Crown Point was also going far afield with your work in China and Japan. What drew you to incorporate woodcut into Crown Point’s repertoire and to take artists to Asia to do it?
Hidekatsu Takada, who was born in Japan, was a student of mine when I taught in the ‘70s at the San Francisco Art Institute, and then he worked for many years with us as a printer at Crown Point. He was able to make a contact for us in Kyoto with Tadashi Toda, a master at printing woodcut in the watercolor Ukiyo-e tradition. So, beginning in 1982 and for the next ten years, we took one or two artists a year to work with Toda. Takada translated, and also he understood very well how we approach working with artists, so it all went beautifully.
I think I started that program out of restlessness because the year we began was the year the press was twenty years old. Woodcut was something different for us, but it was like etching in being an old handmade way of printing that was at the time falling out of use. And I love to travel!
And what about China? How did that program come about?
I was acting on an opportunity. An American professor who is an expert on Chinese printing saw an exhibition of the works we’d done in Japan and offered me the introductions necessary to do something similar in China. Our first trip was in 1987. Then the massacre at Tiananmen Square happened in 1989. We continued intermittently after that, and ended up bringing seven artists to China. It was very exciting, but complex. We worked with printing shops in four different cities.
As this issue of San Francisco Arts Quarterly goes to press, you are preparing to open an exhibition at Crown Point Press that will feature recent prints by Wayne Thiebaud. Can you tell us about your association with him?
Back in 1965, when I published the Diebenkorn prints that I told you about at the beginning of this interview, half of each edition was sold as loose sheets in portfolios, and the other half bound into books. Over time I’ve become less keen on the book idea, because a book with etchings in it has to be so expensive—prints are actually more accessible on walls. But back then, that's what I wanted to do. My second book in the series, also published in 1965, was by Wayne Thiebaud. I didn’t know him, but I had seen a great show of his pies and cakes—his first show of those images I think—in San Francisco, and I called him up and invited him to do etchings.
The result was the book called Delights. In it are seventeen small black and white prints of objects, some food—olives, candy sticks, a wedge of pie—and some other things—a gumball machine, a roadside cherry stand. The first print in the book is called "Lunch" and is his drawing, done on the plate, of two sandwiches and two avocado-halves, the lunch I made for us in the studio on his first day of work.
Thiebaud is 90 now, and in the 47 years since we made Delights together he has been back to Crown Point for 16 projects (I just counted them), including three woodcuts in Japan. We’ve worked together on average every three years. I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s a major source for my Magical Secrets.
Some of the prints Thiebaud has made over the years are colorful and quite large in size, but often he likes to work using limited means so we have many line etchings and drypoints without color or with one color.
He pays a lot of attention to line quality. The new works, which he made at the beginning of the summer this year, emphasize that. They are mainly drypoints, drawn directly into the copper with a sharp tool, and are small landscape images. The subject matter is different from the prints in Delights, but there is a similar feel, strong and clear, small and concentrated, black and white. I love looking at them. I’m so lucky to be in this business and be able to work with Wayne Thiebaud and others of my artist friends again and again as time keeps on running by.