If you follow visual arts in our region, you probably know about most of the museums and larger galleries that populate it. Even if you don't, you have probably read about what a magnet the arts are for visitors and those who relocate here.
Still, you might know little or nothing about an institution that has as much, if not more, status in the contemporary art world than any other in these parts.
It's housed in a modest facility on the University of South Florida campus with scant gallery space to reveal its revolutionary wonders over the decades. That is why the Tampa Museum of Art has used most of its 15,000 square feet of gallery space to do so with "Graphicstudio: Uncommon Practice at USF."
Now in its 46th year, Graphicstudio is an atelier (ah-tel-YAY), or studio, in which artists collaborate with a production staff to create prints and sculptural multiples. Many ateliers exist worldwide but Graphicstudio was, from its founding in 1968, special. With its university affiliation, it could draw on the expertise of a diverse staff across many disciplines and it was ambitious in harnessing that expertise to invent new methods of creating editions using unexpected materials.
Donald Saff gets the credit for its founding. He hired a crack team of technicians and master printers and, through his contacts and charisma, persuaded artists to come to the campus to create limited editions. Mostly, Graphicstudio used the lithography process in the beginning and printed images on paper but experimentation and innovation were always the goal. We see that in the earliest works in the show, such as a 1972 series titled Made in Tampa by Robert Rauschenberg, who used clay to mimic cardboard and used the cyanotype process, which is a type of blueprint, as an artistic medium.
Collaboration is at the heart of such workshops. Individual artists have revolved in and out of the studio and Graphicstudio's team seems never to have told any of them "it can't be done" judging from the scope and span of this exhibition. And judging by the number of artists who came when they and the atelier were young and have returned at least once to create new work.
Philip Pearlstein, the first artist invited to Graphicstudio, came back in the 1980s. Jerusalem, Kidron Valley is his large print made using a woodblock printing method that the studio invented called heliorelief.
Pearlstein said, "We are using (the process) in a much more flexible way than it was done traditionally. . . . It would be inconceivable to do a large-scale project like this landscape in a private . . . workshop. It would be impossible in terms of dollars."
Ed Ruscha, James Rosenquist and Rauschenberg made return visits. Younger stars such as Christian Marclay have, too.
In all, Graphicstudio has collaborated with more than 100 artists and produced thousands of prints and sculpture multiples. As large as this show is, only 46 artists and about 100 works could fit into the galleries. Still, it's representative of the studio's span and scope.
Since Saff, Graphicstudio has had directors that put their stamp on its direction: David Yager, Alan Eaker, Hank Hine (now director of the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg) and currently Margaret Miller, who joined USF as an art professor in 1971. Hine, for example, expanded its reach, bringing in artists from Latin America and the Caribbean. Miller has cultivated relationships with international artists and, because Graphicstudio is also officially USF's Institute for Research in Art, encouraged more research on materials and processes that have led to some exquisitely complicated and beautiful sculptures. Teresita Fernández had her drawings translated into layers of stainless steel cut by precisely calibrated water-jets for Landscape (Panoramic Mirror), which draws the viewer into a leafy denseness of perceptual experiences.
The innovations aren't spurious or stunts. As Miller writes in the catalog, they "derive from the artists' intentions and interests and the ability of the production staff to utilize and define the most appropriate techniques to realize the artwork." (I encourage you to buy a catalog if you can afford it. It's $29.95 and reproduces not only the art in the show but wonderful essays by curator Jade Dellinger, Miller, former directors and some of the artists who have worked at Graphicstudio. Miller's narration of the epic quest to figure out a way to create lava for Keith Edmier's sculptures is alone worth the price.)
But the studio also utilizes the tried and true, albeit at the highest level. Acclaimed painter Theo Wujcik used the centuries-old method of etching for his portrait of Ruscha, whom he befriended when the artist came to Graphicstudio and Wujcik was one of its master printers. Vik Muniz is celebrated for portraits he creates from unexpected materials, anything from chocolate sauce to diamonds, that he photographs. The original is destroyed and the reproductions become the art. He was inspired by a fingerprint portrait Chuck Close had made at the studio, created a self-portrait made of old stamps a printer gave him that was printed in a double process of lithography and screen print. It looks like a conventional drawing until you look closely.
All of these cool projects cost money, and USF contributes funding, but Saff took the genius idea of having a limited number of subscribers for the limited edition prints, which would help underwrite the studio. The subscribers would additionally purchase the works if they chose. The practice has become a status symbol among collectors of contemporary art and there is now a waiting list for subscribers. Miller also crafts a good mix of established artists and young ones. The young ones may not be well known, but she has a long track record for recognizing talent and picking winners.
Graphicstudio isn't a tourist draw; it's an artists' draw that, in its own way, has put our area on the art map. See this show and you'll see why.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.