Michael Rothenstein described his workplace as a ‘studio-laboratory’, and nothing comes through more strongly from the diverse, sometimes startling images on show in the Fry Art Gallery’s current exhibition, Michael Rothenstein: Sustained Invention (27th May to 3rd September 2017) than the artist’s desire to experiment in the print making process. Complementing the large, major pieces in the exhibition are objects that further evidence Rothenstein’s range: youthful drawings, mature sketchbooks, ceramics, book illustrations and two of his own books on print making technique, Linocuts and Woodcuts from 1962 and 1966’s Frontiers of Print Making. Both books are fascinating, and Frontiers of Print Making in particular gives an insight into Rothenstein’s thinking as, during the 1960s, he moved away from recognisable imagery and conventional print formats.
A large, quite dark presence in Sustained Invention is The Bull, a linocut from 1956. In Frontiers of Print Making Rothenstein describes how the particular textures in the image were achieved, but, perhaps more intriguingly, also discusses why he felt this experiment to be a dead end. His initial insight was that printing blocks could be made by building up the surface of the lino quite as legitimately as by cutting it away. Thus in The Bull sand was added to the lino corresponding to the roadway before inking it up in a dark brown. This area was then printed again, slightly out of alignment (or ‘off-register’) with a lighter brown. The aim was to give the road surface ‘movement and density without emphasis’. On reflection, however, Rothenstein was dissatisfied; not with the results, but with the very concept of this technique. He felt that it had allowed him to gain in printing something of the textual effects of brushstrokes in paint, but as such it was not an effect unique to printmaking. It was the search for just this uniqueness which then led him to print with found materials, such as wood and man-made metal objects, where the printed texture itself became the subject of the works.
Such a use of found objects was linked with the development of the process Rothenstein called ‘open-block printing’ (a process devised, he says, ‘in the graphic workshop at Great Bardfield’). In Frontiers of Print Making Rothenstein gives an extensive description of the making of Black, Blue and White, a companion piece to the Fry Art Gallery’s Radial Shakes. It would be difficult to reconstruct the precise sequence of events from the text, but his primary intention is, perhaps, more to show how thinking about materials and problems can lead to new styles of image making. He discusses how the final arrangement of different elements was fixed by drawing their position on a register sheet, how separate proofs were taken to allow the use of objects of different heights, and how he had allowed the thin cross-section of tree used in the design to dry and crack, giving the radial pattern which characterises the whole.
Frontiers of Print Making is, above all, a book encouraging artists and print-makers to think innovatively. Yet there is also a degree of defensiveness to it, a defensiveness about a tradition that is seen to be under threat. It was written at a time when screen printing, and in particular screen prints that incorporated news and magazine photographs, had moved quickly from America, and the work of Rauschenberg and Warhol, to international dominance in the world of art-prints. By advocating experimentation with older forms of relief printing Rothenstein was going against the grain. In the book he acknowledges the potential of the American-style photo-images, but also notes that their characteristics – what he identifies as a ‘curious stillness’ – can destroy the connection between an artist and the viewer. He worries that the use of commercial methods will turn art into ‘a public address system’.
Rothenstein is much more positive, however, about the potential to use photo-images as one element in a combine print. Here the visible human gestures of the artist and the mechanical, reproduced photo-image can play off one another, enhancing the ‘communication’ of the whole. With these comments Frontiers of Printmaking once again illuminates Rothenstein’s own practice as a print maker since, as Sustained Invention shows, this type of combined print was precisely the direction his own work was to take in the late 1960s and 1970s.