HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — Despite a life that nearly spans this century, artist June Wayne is not nostalgic. This is not to say the past doesn't inform her art: One of her most important works, "The Dorothy Series," (1975-79), memorializes her mother's life.
What the lack of a backward longing really means for this diminutive modernist - widely credited with reviving the art of printmaking - is that she has a firm grasp on the issues that shake her world, from politics to science, in the late 1990s.
On a cool but bright morning in her studio on Tamarind Avenue in Hollywood, her home and workplace for decades, this Los Angeles-area legend is more interested in former White House intern Monica Lewinsky's role in history than her own.
"I see [women like Ms. Lewinsky] as pawns," she muses as she gives a tour of her large, neat workplace. "I've seen this sort of thing played out on a political front in the same way with artists," she continues, segueing into a discussion of the many ways in which she has contributed to what she calls the "ecology" of art in this country.
"I'm interested in what creates an environment in which the arts can grow," says the artist, feminist, and social activist about all her political forays, from testifying on behalf of the Work Projects Administration in 1939 to in recent years decrying the efforts of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and others to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Though she supports government funding for the arts, Ms. Wayne is also a firm believer in the need for self-sufficiency as an artist, a credo to which her life is testimony. Growing up without a father and leaving home to become an artist in her teens, she has always been dedicated to finding her own path, personally and professionally. For instance, while she rejects gender politics, she has always supported women's right to equal job access and pay, even going so far as to sponsor workshops on the problems of women artists.
She maintains that these ideas need to be discussed beyond the artistic community in the general American culture. "The NEA is a symbol," she says, adding that without it, the larger principle of the importance of art in public life is lost.
While Wayne is generally considered an important figure in 20th-century art, it is her history of activism and eclecticism that has kept her name from becoming a household word. Indeed, the work for which she gained most renown, the 1959 founding of the influential Tamarind Lithography Workshop, which trained many prominent printmakers, caused her to give her own art a backseat to her artistic activism for more than a decade.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art curator Victor Carlson calls Wayne "someone who for half a century has been a leading modernist in this part of the country." His museum is hosting a current exhibition, "June Wayne: A Retrospective." that features more than 100 of Wayne's paintings, collages, tapestries, and prints. The show reveals the breadth of her work and reinforces her place among influential 20th-century artists.
"June Wayne made it possible for a whole succeeding generation of artists to have access to the materials and the knowledge of how to make a print," Mr. Carlson adds.
For many, a print means a reproduction of a painting for sale at a museum bookstore. But an artistic print is an original, produced by one of several processes, such as woodcut, silkscreen, or lithography.
"A print offers an experience not available from a painting," she says as she shows a visitor the custom furniture in her studio, designed to bring serious print collecting into everyday life. As she pulls out one of the long, sleek drawers, bursting with pages of prints, she notes, "A painting is like a symphony, while a print is more akin to a chamber orchestra or a sonata.
"The experience is a deeply emotional one," she says, leaning over the image of a whooping crane landing in a glade of tamarind trees. Her interest in the birds, once nearly extinct, is environmental, she says. The tamarind trees represent a reference to her own studio on a street with that name.
"You have to learn to 'read' a print, just like a good book," she says.