One day in East Hampton in about 1960, the Pop artist Larry Rivers introduced Jasper Johns to a Russian-Jewish émigré named Tatyana Grosman, the somewhat unlikely founder of the printer Universal Limited Art Editions, or ULAE. Grosman was on a mission to recruit exciting contemporary artists to make original lithographs, and she had become enamoured with a Johns painting of a coat hanger, an audaciously banal subject in that era, that she had seen at the Museum of Modern Art.
Not long afterwards, Johns recalls, “she delivered several heavy stones to my Front Street door”. They were lithographic stones, on which he could draw. “I quickly decided that it was easier to make the trip to West Islip [on Long Island, New York, where ULAE was based] than to carry the stones up several flights to my studio. Once I began, it was clear that there were things to learn and to play with.”
Johns is typically understated in describing his ongoing 53-year odyssey that has not only heavily influenced the direction of his practice but also helped alter the very definition of what a print could be: not a reproduction or a step-sibling to painting, but a work of art in itself, of equal importance to any other medium.
One artist brought another, and soon Grosman had lured a virtual who’s who of the era – from Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly to Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell – to her cottage with the promise of lunch and the freedom to experiment. In the process, ULAE became a storied force in contemporary art.
“You get the sense there were all these young people with nothing to lose,” says Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London. “They had no money, just ideas. They would get fed, watered and the materials they needed. It was almost utopian.”
Now Blazwick and Bill Goldston, who succeeded Grosman at ULAE after her death in 1982, are mounting an exhibition of Johns’ prints at the Gallery at Windsor, in Hilary and Galen Weston’s exclusive Vero Beach, Florida, development. It is the third annual collaboration in the Whitechapel at Windsor series, mounted to chime with Art Basel Miami Beach. The show focuses on Johns’ body imagery, including recurring figures of a man and a boy as well as renderings of hands doing sign language and a family portrait made when Johns’ father was a baby. “He uses the body as a kind of language,” Blazwick says.
While many might speculate that Johns’ imagery is deeply autobiographical, Goldston notes, “I don’t think anyone knows the meaning it has for Jasper. I was more interested in the repetition of the image – you know, how he says: ‘Take an image, do something with it, do something else with it.’ It has more to do for me with how the image changes from one print to another.”
Grosman’s role as printmaking’s catalyst began when she was already in midlife. Before then, she had been buffeted round the world by the 20th century’s calamities. As a child, she and her family escaped the Russian Revolution, settling in Japan, then Germany. With that country’s embrace of Nazism, she and her artist husband Maurice moved to Paris. After the Germans marched in, the couple fled to Spain, then Portugal and finally to New York in 1943.
Faced with her husband’s failing health and the need to earn a living, Grosman turned to printmaking. Their friends were artists and the language of the printing press was not entirely foreign, since her father had owned a newspaper in Siberia. Still, no one expected ULAE to elevate prints to such an art form that MoMA would acquire one of every single ULAE edition, as it has for half a century.
“Tanya was attentive and encouraging, as I think she was to any artist she trusted to work at ULAE,” Johns says. “Her European, old-world background seemed to strengthen, or stabilise, her interest in experimentation and novelty.”
Grosman was not a master printer herself; for expert knowhow she turned to people like Goldston, who first came to ULAE in 1969 to work with Rauschenberg, and who, like his good friend Johns, had embraced printmaking as central to his artistic practice. “He and I sort of became brothers,” Goldston says.
Initially, Goldston thought ULAE would be a temporary gig. “All I wanted to do was be an artist,” he recalls. Grosman, though, persuaded him to stay.
On a sunny autumn day, Goldston, 70 and elegant in a navy blazer and grey trousers and sweater, begins his tour of ULAE at the one-time gardener’s cottage, which now houses a lithographic press on the main floor and an etching studio in the basement. Upstairs is a viewing room.
Well into his employment with Grosman, he recalls, “every night I had to lock the cabinets and give her the keys”. Her insistence, he says, was not for lack of trust. “It was out of respect for the artists and their work.”
ULAE’s main operation is now a few miles away, in Bay Shore. There, the staff of 10 still cooks and eats lunch together daily around a square wood table, along with whichever artist or collector happens to be visiting. Prints by Lee Bontecou and Larry Rivers hang on the walls, along with ULAE’s “birth certificate”. A drawing Goldston made in art school – the only piece of his not in the bin, he says – sits over the sink, placed there, he notes, as a staff joke.
Goldston, who grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, first worked with Johns in 1971. He’d been assigned to print images for a planned Johns catalogue raisonné on an offset printer, a device then considered acceptable for high-end books but artistically inferior to a lithographic press. Much to Grosman’s horror, he consented to Johns’ request to show him the press, which was housed at another location. “I came close to losing my job that day,” Goldston says.
Johns, as Grosman feared, became enthralled with the new technology. One morning Grosman stopped by while the two men were hard at work. “Jasper was drawing on a plate,” Goldston recalls. “As fast as he could paint them, I could get them ready. She came in. I saw her standing in the door. Four or five minutes, she did not say anything. She closed the door and left.” At lunch back at the house, Grosman told him, “The energy in that studio was so electrifying I was afraid to interrupt it.”
That spirit of experimentation has guided Goldston and ULAE into the digital age. “Ideas are ideas,” he says. “You think Giotto wouldn’t have loved the possibilities of what we’re using today? It’s all another method to get the idea out of the brain.”
Artists who’ve worked with Goldston say that he is a master at getting out their ideas. “It’s always done very gently, sometimes without your knowledge,” says Terry Winters, whom Goldston first brought out in 1982.
Lisa Yuskavage, who had made a mental note of ULAE as a student studying Johns, compares Goldston to Fred Astaire: “He lets you move, but he guides you at the same time.
“He pushes me,” she continues. “He disobeys me.”
Yuskavage recalls how she resisted his suggestions to try digital. “I’m like, ‘Digital blah blah blah,’” she says. Against her wishes, he scanned the image they had printed, printed it digitally extra-large and then, using the keys she had given him to her studio, snuck in and pinned prints all over. First Yuskavage was annoyed. Then she took out her pastels and went to work drawing on the prints, several of which have since been acquired by museums. “Bill is not just a printer,” she says. “It was his leap. It was not my leap.”
Says Goldston of their collaboration: “We’re having a heck of a good time.”
That the business is not always profitable is beside the point. Though Goldston considers it a “blessing” that 15 or 20 collectors can enjoy the finished product, “it’s not about making multiples. It’s about something creative.”
‘Jasper Johns: Shadow and Substance’, December 8-April 30 2014