Katherine Brimberry and Mark L. Smith
by Judith Taylor
Released this month, Flatbed Press at 25, published by the University of Texas Press, is described as “a visual feast for connoisseurs of contemporary printmaking.” Indeed, a visual feast it is. Beautifully illustrated, the book chronicles the 25-year history of collaboration and printmaking by the highly respected publishing workshop in Austin.
The Texas shop, says Tallman, is both “doggedly pragmatic and crazily ambitious.”
Founders Mark Smith and Katherine Brimberry first crossed paths when Smith was curating a print exhibition, saw Brimberry’s work and invited her to participate. In the “it’s a small world” category, Smith and Mike Brimberry, Katherine’s husband, had known each other as children in Vernon, Texas. When they reconnected in Austin in the late 1980s, both were involved in studio art programs but thinking ahead. Brimberry wanted a place where she could set up her own studio and a community printshop; Smith wanted to establish a venue for print publishing. The pair pooled resources and founded Flatbed in 1989.
Susan Tallman, editor-in-chief of Art in Print, introduces Flatbed’s journey with an essay that places the workshop’s history within a national context and defines its uniqueness. “Brimberry and Smith,” she notes, “set out to invite compelling artists from outside the region and nurture home grown talent.” For Tallman, the release of Flatbed Portfolio I, a collection of work by Texas artists, “demonstrates just how fluid the notion of regional identity can be. It includes works by native Texans who left the state (Terry Allen, Luis Jimenez) and by those who stayed (Melissa Miller, Celia Muñoz) and works by people who arrived from elsewhere to study or teach (Dan Rizzie, Sandria Hu, Michael Ray Charles), some of whom stayed and some of whom left.”
Tallman goes on to observe that “…the strongest thread running through the portfolio is the often bumpy interlacing of Hispanic and Anglo culture.” Celia Muñoz’s Sweet Nothings—a love letter in two languages—evokes the bilingual/bicultural experiences one would expect from a border state. These observations ring true today as well as in the portfolio of which Tallman speaks. Recent printmaking projects—Ricky Armendariz’s Saturn and His Children Remix (2014) and Alice Leora Briggs’ compelling La Ventana (2015)—immediately come to mind and are featured in the book.
“[T]he strongest thread running through the portfolio is the often bumpy interlacing of Hispanic and Anglo culture.” – Tallman
This beautiful volume presents a retrospective of a quarter of a century of publishing fine art prints. Multipage spreads showcase 35 prominent artists who through collaboration have produced a range of work at Flatbed. The section simply titled Additional Prints focuses on individual prints by 21 more artists. The full-color, high-quality plates speak to the contributions Flatbed has made to contemporary printmaking. In all, there are 167 plates in the 400-plus-page book.
Each artist who came to Flatbed brought a new perspective and each project a new set of challenges for the printers to resolve.
The writing hits the perfect pitch—scholarly, at times, yet engaging and fluid. Smith emphasizes that “…[t]here have been stories at every turn.” These stories of how artists arrived at Flatbed, their explorations in printmaking and the finished editions provide a defining archive in contemporary printmaking.
In writing about New York-based John Alexander, Smith leads with a behind-the-scenes background. “Known for his mural-scaled, highly abstract landscapes and his idiosyncratic figures . . . he decided to use his Flatbed experience to, as he put it, prove that ‘he could still draw from life.’ And draw he did, rendering 10-13 color plates for each print.” The project took two years to complete and involved mailing proofs and often working long distance.
Smith shares a bit of humor in recounting the story behind Alexander’s color lithograph Angry Heron (2002). “The artist—in an attempt to protect his koi pond—fired some BB pellets to scare away an offending heron. Unfortunately, he happened to do so just as prospective collector and Buddhist Richard Gere was driving up, resulting in both the actor’s immediate departure and the heron’s angry countenance.” “Alexander’s unique ability to imbue his animals with personality is evident in the majestic bird’s facial expression.”
Smith derived the name Flatbed from an article by Leo Steinberg in which he refers to Rauschenberg’s format in his paintings as a “flatbed picture plane” that alludes to “hard surfaces such as tabletops [and] studio floors,” saying painting beginning in the 1950s insisted on “a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes.” This analysis struck a chord with Smith and Brimberry, and the flatbed plane also seemed a good analogy to both the flat bed of the etching press and the high plains of West Texas where they both grew up (Brimberry near Lubbock and Smith in Vernon).
A year-by-year chronology reads like a personal journal complete with family photographs. In late 1989, Smith and Brimberry signed a lease on a rundown, un-air-conditioned warehouse building facing the train tracks at 912 West Third. Brimberry moved in her 24 x 60-inch American French Tool press, and Smith hung the sign. A few months later, they acquired a 54 x 105-inch Takach Garfield etching press and officially opened their doors with a grand opening party.
Immediately the wheels began to turn. The first project was a series of three stellar intaglio prints with Jack Hanley. It was an impressive beginning for the fledgling press, Brimberry and Smith recall. Hanley’s inclination for experimentation suited the spirit of the new shop, and his expertise and inspiration were instrumental in establishing a truly professional collaborative spirit.
During the editioning of Hanley’s Ideologies Suite, Gerald Manson, Master Printer of Austin’s Third Coast Press, joined the Flatbed team. Manson’s expertise and his attention to detail set the standard for consistency and quality. The standard of excellence in editioning that Manson established remains a cornerstone of the shop.
Sculptors, notes Brimberry,“tend to think conceptually and technically. Rather than recreate an image, they strive to create something new.”
By the end of that first year, it became clear that with the large Takach Garfield press, Flatbed was in a unique position to attract artists who wanted to create oversized works. James Surls was the first of many. Surls, a sculptor known for his monumental works, had a strong interest in printmaking. When his prints began to outgrow his own press, he came to Flatbed to print his 43 x 71-inch white-line woodcut, Night Vision—one of his masterworks. It was the first of many collaborations between Surls and Flatbed. The largest work, Through It All (2010), measuring 48 x 96 inches, depicts a dense array of eyes and knives.
Each artist who came to Flatbed brought a new perspective and each project a new set of challenges for the printers to resolve. While Flatbed draws artists from all disciplines, Brimberry always enjoyed working with sculptors, as three-dimensional artists “tend to think conceptually and technically. Rather than recreate an image, they strive to create something new.”
Luis Jimenez, like Surls, was a highly regarded sculptor who created monumental polychrome fiberglass sculptures celebrating Hispanic culture. As a printmaker, his draftsmanship skills resonated with the medium. His first collaboration at Flatbed was Self-Portrait, a three-color soft ground etching that is both haunting and expressive. It is a work that many have come to know well from the original copper plate, which hangs prominently in the printshop today. “You feel the artist’s presence through that plate, don’t you,” commented Master Printer Tracy Mayrello recently. The work is considered one of the masterworks of both the artist and the shop.
Talking with Brimberry shortly after she received the advance copy of Flatbed Press at 25, I asked her what single work she considered to be the most significant print Flatbed had produced. Without hesitation, she replied Robert Lever’s Victory: The Celebration. “The universal theme is as moving today as it was when printed in 1991 on the heels of Operation Desert Storm.” The imagery is darkly ironic and supports Levers’ pacifist leanings. The three uniformed, almost skeletal figures are depicted as puppets led by a bandmaster directing the celebration. It would be the last project before the artist’s death. With a touch of emotion, Brimberry noted, “It is a powerful piece—a strong work of art in any arena—and as pertinent today as when it was produced.”
Brimberry herself grew while working on Victory: The Celebration. Technically, the size and complexity required inventiveness, something Brimberry never shied from. Freedom, innovation and experimentation have always been hallmarks Brimberry relied upon in the print shop. Mixed with the highest of standards and that Takach Garfield press—touted as the biggest etching press west of the Mississippi—Flatbed followed in the footsteps of other great print shops. The Texas shop is both “doggedly pragmatic and crazily ambitious,” says Tallman. “At 25, Flatbed has earned its place in the pantheon of American collaborative printshops with a body of work neither Brimberry nor Smith could have imagined at the start.”