Axellence in Fine Art
Discover how Axelle Fine Arts approaches the printmaking process and why it continues to rely on traditional methods.
There is a delicious irony behind the name of exotic sounding Axelle Fine Arts of New York, (www.axelle.com) part of a string of high-end galleries in Soho, Boston, New Orleans, and San Francisco selling original paintings and prints. In the rarefied and sometimes pretentious world of art, owner Bertrand Delacroix takes some delight in explaining why his galleries are named after a dog, the Delacroix family’s German Shepherd. “It is easy to remember,” he says. “Same in all languages, sounds like excel, it’s sweet and feminine for the ‘elle’ and strong and masculine for the ‘axe.’ It also provides our company a goal—to be axellent at all times!”
What really makes this gallery chain a breed apart in the art world is its print shop, the focus of this article. Delacroix comes from generations of fine-art printmakers, and has waged a personal battle in the fine art world against giclée prints, which he hates and also blames for destroying what he terms “the real print market.” (Note his “no giclée” logo on the Axelle Website.)
“Nobody knows what is what anymore, and prints are no longer considered original works of art,” he says with disgust. “They might as well be posters. Galleries began to publish limited-edition giclées in the late 1990s in hope of making a killing by cutting out the fine-art publishers. Some got lucky, picked a few good images, but most failed after incurring manufacturing and marketing expenses—many abandoned the concept. There was so much inventory of prints, so many editions, hand-embellished giclées, and so much confusion.”
In 1999, he made the decision to set up a print shop that featured traditional art-printing processes. After checking out the operation six years later, I’m pleased to report that the predictions about the death of the limited-edition serigraph were a little premature.
Today, Axelle Editions is a contract printshop that specializes in fine-art screen printing, intaglio, relief, and hot-stamping/embossing. The staff collaborates with approximately 100 artists a year. These artists are either self-publishing or working closely with other galleries or museums. The studio also prints between five and ten editions a year for Axelle Fine Arts and its stable of artists. The atelier is located on the 4,500-sq-ft third floor of the restored former manufacturing facility and showroom of NCR, where they made the cash registers, not the carbonless paper.
I had the opportunity recently to interview Luther Davis, the director of the print shop, and give Screen Printing magazine’s readers a chance to learn more about the operation and the current state of the art world of screen printing, at least as it pertains to 312 Atlantic Ave., in the old Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.
Luther, can you start by giving us a bit of background regarding Axelle Editions and how you started?
In late 1999, Bertrand bought the assets of Noblet Serigraphie from Jean-Yves Noblet. At this time, I was a master printer at Noblet Serigraphie and was asked to direct the new printshop. We moved into the beautiful, but neglected, National Cash Register Co. building. It took three semis to move the Sias PSMatic, UV drier, take-off, Seybold paper cutter, racks and other equipment to Brooklyn, and it was all swung in the windowless third floor by crane. We did not have power or water for three months as the building was being renovated, but we printed etchings while we waited.
What kind of printing equipment do you have?
We started with a Brand 35 x 60 etching press, and a 63 x 48 Sias PSMatic, with take-off and Sias Uvex drier. In 2002, we added an M&R 30 x 40 Saturn, and in 2004, we added a 30 x 40 AWT High-Tech Micro. We also have a 20 x 30 Acromark hot stamper, and an 8500-lb. Seybold paper cutter. Our screen-washout room is completely sealed and tiled with built-in floor drains, and the entire layout and set up was purpose-built—one of the advantages of working with a completely gutted space when we put the print studio together.
The transition to a digital workflow in commercial printing operations is widespread, as well as the reliance on four-color-process printing to handle most full-color jobs. How does your print studio go about separating colors on art prints that can have 60 or more colors?
Until 2002, all of our separations were hand drawn using ink and litho crayon on ruby and mylar. We have pneumatic pipes running all over the shop, and we'd just snap in an airbrush gun and get to work. As we got busier, it was increasingly difficult to keep up with the workload laying everything out by hand. I would be doing separations for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, while trying to mix all the colors and print. More and more artists were coming to us with digital files and it finally just made sense to bring in the needed equipment and streamline the workload.
Now we have two Macs: a dual-processor G4 and a dual-processor G5. For scans, we either use our Creo Jazz flatbed or we send the work to Artscans Studio in California, which does exceptional work. Our typical file sizes are 250 MB to 1 GB, and we use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. We output our films on an Epson 9600. We also have a Roland Camm-1 Pro that we are using mainly for gallery signs, but we've cut a few rubies with it as well.
We still do a lot of hand separations. Most of the artists we work with are adept at painting and drawing. So we usually start the print process with a line drawing. This summer we did a large print with artist Alexander Ross. He spent the week working reductively on two sheets of Rubylith.
Our number of colors on a print is usually about 20, and most of these editions the artists can dedicate the time it takes to work on the color separations themselves. However, we often have an edition going that will take 60 to 80 colors. Our record is 110 colors, all hand separated. On these high-color-count prints, the artist cannot be present for the entire edition. These separations get laid out digitally and hand corrections are done accordingly. When other printers hear that a print has 60 or more colors, they often respond by asking why—thatis, until they see the prints in person. We take special care to match sheen, chroma, and even texture. Since we don't use halftones unless the design calls for them, our blends are very subtle. Viewers often need to be told that they are looking at a print and not an original. The ultimate compliment I've received was when an artist saw our print of his work at an exhibition and asked, “What is that painting doing here? I thought it was sold.”
What kind of ink do you use to produce these works of art? What do you print on?
Ninety percent of the ink we use is water-based and predominantly from TW Graphics. We have been using Nor-Cote for most of our UV-ink needs and Nazdar for our oil-based. Sometimes, the artists we work with bring their own paints, which create some really interesting results. We just printed two editions with Kate Shepherd using a high-gloss boat paint and four editions with Torben Giehler using Golden artists medium and a 72-thread/in. mesh.
We really like printing on Coventry Rag. Since we print so much with water-based inks, we like papers that keep their shape even though they may have 60 colors on them. Axelle editions are typically a mix of 150 on paper and 150 on canvas. A lot of our clients have been leaning to Somerset Satin 500 gms, which is a premium paper and very white. We have had a lot of work lately on Ampersand Clayboard, which is a 1/8-in.-thick clay primed hardboard. It really holds registration. We have a project in progress printing on mirrors, and one of our most challenging jobs recently was for artist Rudolf Stingel. He wanted a bright red Victorian wallpaper pattern repeatedly printed on 300 pieces of 4 x 8-foot, 1-in.-thick sheets of aluminum-coated styrofoam insulation.
We did a test on four sheets, and it worked perfectly thanks to Nor-Cote's Matt Cuningham and the specialty ink he made us. Based on the ease of the test, I thought it would take two people two days to print—then the semi showed up filled with bowed, wrinkled, and extremely itchy insulation pieces. The end result was spectacular, but it took a complete retooling of the shop and all hands on deck to get it done.
What’s your typical day like at Axelle?
We work Monday through Friday, 9-5. I start each day by mixing or approving the day's colors. We try to keep three presses going at all times, so this can take a while. We usually proof then run each color over the whole edition. Only rarely do we print a complete trial proof first before editioning.
We typically cycle each press through 1000 impressions per day. That translates to two to three colors per press depending on how long it takes us to match the color. We print cautiously though. We have a very exacting registration on our images. Often, it comes down to a pixel landing on a pixel. Our clients want extremely clean work as well. If the print looks dirty, people won't buy it. So no pinholes if we can help it.
When we first started, we would print 250 sheets to end up with an edition of 200. It seemed like a lot of spoilage, but if you lose one print per color and you have 75 colors, you could be in trouble at the end. On our last edition, we started with 250 sheets and after 65 colors, we had only lost 12 pieces.
After the presses are running, I answer my messages, which usually deals with scheduling of artist visits (we try to have an artist in the shop every day, but only one at a time!) and pickup/deliveries. Then I sit down and make the color separations for the next day. If it's a 60-plus-color job, then we try to stay three to five colors ahead of the printing. For smaller jobs, we separate the whole job. In the afternoon, I try to line up the next month’s work. We usually have 10 to 15 works on the table at any time—a few die before they reach the printing stage. Others mushroom to even bigger projects than originally planned.
Where do your artists come from?
The artists we work with are largely from New York, but we have artists coming from all over the world. We've had a rock band from Japan, and individuals from Austria, Canada, France, Spain, England, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Germany. From the US, they come from as far as California and as close as two blocks away. What's great with our location is artists can come to town to install a show at a gallery and hop on the subway to make some prints.
We try to take on work that is interesting or challenging. In the last year, we have had work up at more than 20 museums worldwide and countless galleries. In November, we helped prepare work for six shows in New York alone. We had a print with Shazia Sikander at the opening of the newly redesigned MOMA and work with Sue Debeer at the Whitney Bi-annual.
Many printmaking programs are shrinking due to lack of interest. What is your experience?
From my experience, academic printmaking programs are not shrinking as a result of lack of interest among the students. They are shrinking from lack of interdepartmental support. For example, the Parson printshop came under fire a few years ago. The powers-that-be decided to expand the school's neighboring café/coffee shop and do away with the shop. The students went ballistic over it, and rightly so—within a block radius of the school there are 10 places to get coffee and nowhere else to print! The students picketed, had sit-ins, and brought in the media, without the faculty. The school then agreed to move the printshop to a new location. The students kept at it still, and as of now, the coffee shop is completely gone, and the printshop actually got a little more room. Part of this shrinking trend has to do with technological changes. While I was at Ohio State, the print department was moved out of the main art building to make way for a digital lab. By the way, this has also happened here in Manhattan to the entire print industry. When I moved to New York, there were a hundred printshops of various kinds on Varick St. Now, all but a handful are gone mainly because landlords could get more money per square foot and less mess by turning them into apartments and offices. Printmaking departments are being moved away from the epicenter of art programs and more towards the periphery.
What is driving the interest in screen printing?
As I said earlier, the students are still very interested in printmaking programs. My class at Parsons fills up as soon as they post it, and there is always a wait list. Right now, screen printing is very hot. Part of the interest is a reaction to the cleanness and predictability of digital printmaking. Students want rougher images that show the work of the hand. I've had students make screen-printed catalogs of misprinted logos just to later scan in a computer to get that feel. There also is a lot of interest in one-of-a-kind printed and embroidered clothing. My students are nearly all adept at Photoshop and Illustrator, and they like that they can compose at home all of their layers, come to class, and get a poster, T-shirt, and bag all from the same screens.
What’s your take on screen-printing/graphic arts education today? What can be done by the screen-printing industry to make it better? It is my experience that there are a lot of dedicated teachers doing an excellent job with very little equipment. When I learned screen printing, all we had was a table with hinges and a sink. That was it. No exposure system at all, and certainly no computers. All of our stencils were directly painted on the screen or we utilized cut paper as a resist. There is still a substantial amount of school shops out there with little or no equipment. I think it's important for the screen-printing industry to know that there is a large, untapped, creative force out there that is not necessarily benefiting from the industry's knowledge. I make sure that any used equipment that I come across gets a chance at ending up in a school. I also open up the shop for classes to tour, and I try to answer teachers’ technical questions when they come my way.
Where do you see screen-printing/printmaking (fine art or commercial) education going in the future? Most art departments now have a multimedia department, where 20 years ago that was not the case. Printmaking is now being revitalized as an important component of these programs. The same could be true with graphic-design and textile programs. The Parsons print shop, run by Bill Phipps, has embraced the entire school. It is not just for the fine-art department. I think this is an important consideration for academic print shops. There is strength in numbers.
Luther Davis, who was born in Nuremberg, Germany and raised in Cleveland, OH, received a BA from Grinnell College in Iowa and an MFA from Ohio State University. He arrived in New York with an etching press in the back of a Ryder truck but was quickly blown away by the possibilities of the screen-printing process and its adaptability when he landed a job at Noblet Serigraphie.
Still excited by the process after more than 10 years and many challenges and changes, he and his staff of six use a work model where they rotate through all of the production jobs in the shop instead of being stuck in a particular position. He believes this keeps everyone on top of things and fresh. His fellow workers all have college degrees, but only two came with actual screen-printing experience. With backgrounds that range from puppet building to paper restoration, they all share one attribute: a love of art and the creative process. Many of them, including Davis, produce their own art prints, and the studio allows them to use the equipment and facility after hours.
One of the things that sets Luther apart from his peers in the printing world is the fact he finds time to teach all levels of screen printing at Parsons School of Design. His courses are extremely popular and are filled the minute they are posted.