How To Tell A Proper Print

Better technology blurs the line between a true art print and a mere reproduction

IN the world of printed fine-art images there are "original prints" and then there are "reproductions." One (potentially, at least) is "art." The other is not, and could never be. An analogy might be that a mirror image can't ever be the original.

An original print, even though it involves repetition, is creatively primary: the work of a living artist, signed and numbered. A reproduction is derivative, a multipliable replica. Made with ink on paper, it is likely to be in a different medium from the original. The artist doesn't even have to be living.

These are the definitions arrived at by printmakers in this century. But the question is: Are such definitions still valid?

The world of prints, both "original" and "reproductive," has become very complicated. Reproductions are sometimes promoted in terms similar to those applied to original prints. In a 1990 statement, Joseph Winkelman, president of Britain's Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers, said that printmakers "are concerned that the very integrity of the art form is being terribly corrupted." He pointed to "a deluge of reproductions deceptively promoted as original prints." He urged that "clearly defining an original print would help solve the problem, but it is not altogether a simple task."

To discuss these issues, a British committee was formed in the fall of 1991. Composed of a cross section of interested parties, its purpose is to define clear trade descriptions of the different kinds of printed images. In the United States, the International Fine Print Dealers Association in New York has prepared a list of categories. These are designed to be informative rather than to draw "lines of legitimacy."

To many original-print makers, distinctions between extreme categories of printed images remain conceptually clear-cut. In Mount Kisco, N.Y., Ken Tyler, one of America's leading master printers says "it's very black and white. You either have done something that smacks of a reproduction. Or you've done something that smacks of an original print."

Kip Gresham, a director of Curwen Chilford Prints in Cambridge, England, reckons "it's a serious failure of education," that people do not know the basic difference between a reproduction and an original print.

It's a problem partly because there are efforts to disrupt definitions. This is done most often, and most dubiously, for commercial gain. But it can also be the legitimate strategy of artists, and printmakers, wanting to "break the rules" in order to make fresh, different prints. Mr. Gresham has found that because he cannot be against artists using new forms of printmaking, the guidelines his firm has used in the past are continually eroded.

It is this persistent push toward originality that makes both Mr. Tyler and Gresham admit that there cannot be, in terms of technique "a precise definition, in our century, of what an original print or a reproduction is," as Tyler puts it.

An original print can, for instance, if an artist so chooses, be made with the same four-color offset printing process as a mechanical reproduction. Back in the 1960s, when Tyler made his reputation as an instigator in a renaissance of printmaking in the US, the Pop artists were fascinated by commercial printing. Tyler has always argued against mere traditionalism for its own sake. But he is emphatically not a maker of anything remotely like "reproductions." His prints are complex ("too complex to fake!" ) and average about 30 in an edition.

If definitions alone cannot protect the integrity of the "original print," both Gresham and Tyler conclude that the best way forward is a detailed, scrupulous documentation of the making of all individual prints. Tyler has done this since the '60s. It comes down to the degree of an artist's involvement in the making of a print.

FOR the makers of reproductions there have been major developments. No one would deny a need for better reproduction of works of art - images that appear as posters, postcards, and book illustrations. It becomes trickier, however, when reproductions are made to be framed and hung on dining-room walls like originals.

Mechanical printing and reproductive technology are increasingly sophisticated (color by laser scanning, for example). But this also means it is possible for the unscrupulous to make a reproduction look extremely close to an original print. This capacity can lead, at worst, to criminality: The passing off of reproductions as original prints is fraudulent. At best, it could mean better fine art reproductions. But it should be clear that such items are reproductions.

In the face of all this complexity, a major London institution, the Victoria and Albert Museum, has launched a series of reproductions of 12 watercolors in its collection, calling them "masterprints."

The term is a powerful one to use for a reproduction. By all accounts, these reproductions are of outstanding quality. Katharine Butler in the V.&A. Enterprises office, when asked why the reproductions hadn't been called "facsimiles" - a clear name for first-rate reproductions that has an honorable history - answered, "It's interesting, we debated that word and we thought that its meaning had been rather lessened by the fax machine...."

But the museum goes further in its marketing procedures for its masterprints. It applies to these reproductions the terminology, and thus the air, of the original print. It emphasizes that they are in limited editions. The prices (between $325 and $500) are high for reproductions.

Each print is accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by Susan Lambert, curator of prints, drawings, and paintings. Further, each print is hand-numbered and, presumably to enhance their value, the first numbered print in each edition is now part of the collection of prints, drawings, and paintings. (In fairness, the museum has a large collection of reproductions as well as original prints: Its interests are not only in original art). But when all is said and done, the word "masterprint" is su rely a misnomer that suggests these reproductions have the quality or character of "original" prints. And that is not the case.

Ken Tyler sees this as a backward step, particularly for an educational institution. "They can chase any kind of goat around the yard that they want. It's not going to make any difference. What they are doing is a blatant reproduction." He goes on: "It's a thorny issue." But, he says, " If there is no artist involved, there is no originality."

And involvement with artists - Albers, Rauschenberg, Hockney to name but three - is what Tyler himself practices. Mr. Hockney has even praised him for what amounts to an unusual collaboration: the printer offering possibilities to the artist quite as much as the artist bringing his creativity to the printmaking. It is the stuff of great originality, and it is a vast distance from the making of reproductions, however skillfully that may be done.

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