Elaine de Kooning and Steve Poleskie, photo by Eddie Johnson
Remembering Elaine de Kooning
at Chiron Press
by Steve Poleskie
The Denver Art Museum is currently holding an exhibition titled “Women of Abstract Expressionism.” It will be up until September 25. I haven’t seen the show but a recent review in The Week magazine features a full color reproduction of one of Elaine de Kooning’s bullfight paintings. Richard Lacayo, whom I knew when he lived here in Ithaca and wrote for one of the local newspapers, but who now writes for Time magazine, says that the twelve women featured in this show “knew what to do with the business end of a paintbrush.”
This got me thinking back to 1965, when I did a screen print with Elaine de Kooning. At that time we were close friends and she was one of the first to work with me in my print shop. I recently found some photographs of her in my studio, Chiron Press. That’s me with the beard in the photo above. The picture was taken by a photographer friend of mine at the time, Eddie Johnson. Eddie was also a sculptor and a film maker. We collaborated on a movie called “The Bird Film”, which was widely shown back then at places like The Bridge Cinema in NYC and the Yale Film Festival. I have previously written about the film for this column (http://ragazine.cc/2015/02/poleskie-v11n2/). Elaine de Kooning was an associate producer, and many of the movie’s scenes were shot on her farm at Livingston Manor in upstate New York. Eddie also took the photographs that appeared in Life magazine when Elaine painted her famous, or infamous, portrait of President John F. Kennedy.
Elaine’s screen print, which she is looking at on the floor in the photo above, was done from her “bulls” series. It was printed in six colors, and Elaine made all the stencils herself, with my help and supervision, using the tusche and glue technique. This process is quite time consuming, and few of the artists I worked with back then were willing to put in the effort required to make a print this way. Elaine and I made a lot of test prints and pulled proofs in many different color combinations. Elaine was a true painter at heart.
Most of the print shops that came after me didn’t have their artists work directly on the stretched fabric, but paint on clear acetate with India ink and then they transferred the images photographically to the screen. I refused to do this, feeling that artists who worked with “touch” in their paintings should respond to the texture of the silk, or nylon, which was the medium, not the slick feel of the acetate. I also felt that using photography to transfer an image made the work a kind of reproduction. I tried to keep a certain hand-made quality to the prints Chiron Press produced. This became difficult though, as my shop quickly became quite popular, and developed a long waiting list of galleries wanting their artists to make screen prints as these things had become a fad and were selling well. Chiron Press was the first fine art print workshop in New York City devoted exclusively to screen printing, and many art historians credit me with starting the craze for screen prints that became popular in the mid to late 1960s.
Looking back at the above photograph I can see that the Chiron Press facility was still in its early stages. There is none of the fancy mechanical equipment which I acquired later. I was still printing on a handmade wooden table, without a vacuum frame to hold the paper in place while the squeegee was passed over the screen. I still have this table, although I do not use it for printing. If I turn around from where I am writing this I can touch this table, and still think about some of the now famous prints made on its surface; including the original Robert Indiana “Love” poster, Andy Warhol’s “ticket,” and the Paris Review poster series.
The space in the photo was a third floor walk-up loft at 76 Jefferson Street on the Lower East Side. This was the real Lower East Side down by the Manhattan Bridge not what would later become the “East Village”. Chiron Press had already moved twice, once from the storefront at 614 East 11th Street where I had pulled the first editions, a four print suite by Alfred Jensen, and then from the back half of my loft on the floor above in the same building. At that time I pushed the squeegee myself, as I had not yet hired any printers. Brice Marden who was still learning the craft worked as my assistant. Some of the artists that had done prints in my studio “upstairs” included Richard Anuszkiewicz, Helen Frankenthaler, Malcolm Morley, Larry Rivers, Nick Krushenick, Roy Lichtenstein, Trova and several British pop-artists like Alan Jones, Peter Phillips, and Gerald Laing.
I was glad to move the printing shop downstairs when that space became available, and I could afford it, as previously I had to sleep, and eat, in my corner of the studio with the fumes of prints drying on clotheslines. I didn’t have drying racks then, and the only ventilation was the windows, which rarely got opened in the winter. You can see the clotheslines in the back of the photo. Alex Katz was also working on a print at this time. This building, 76 Jefferson Street, now torn down to make room for a housing project, would become such a popular home for artists that in 1972 the Museum of Modern Art made an exhibition including all the major artists that had studios there along with the prints from Chiron Press.
Chiron Press would move one more time, to 840 Broadway, at the corner of 13th Street, this relocation to an elevator building so we didn’t have to lug the huge boxes of paper up the stairs and later the printed editions down. But, the joy had gone out of it for me. Chiron Press had become a business that just ground out prints for the art market. Few of the artists I worked with were actually interested in “printmaking,” oftentimes merely sending around an assistant with a line drawing and some color swatches to match. Some now very high-priced prints were even made over the telephone; with their authors giving instructions on how to make the drawing: “Go down two inches from the top and then make a five-inch square block touching the one-inch border. “ Such were the wonders of working with “hard edge” painters at the time. And this was long before today’s con artists like Jeff Koons. As I said, Elaine de Kooning was one of the few artists that actually got her hands dirty making a print.
Chiron was so busy that I myself, rarely had time to work on my own prints, let alone my paintings. Brice Marden had left me to go to work for Robert Rauschenberg, and I employed industrial printers who needed constant supervision. My time was spent mostly dealing with the commercial end of the operation, what galleries had not paid their bills, and the graft and corruption that is endemic in New York City. In 1968, was invited to teach at Cornell University. Tired of it all, I sold Chiron Press and moved to Ithaca, NY.
Elaine de Kooning was only 70 years old when she passed away in 1989 in Southampton, Long Island. I hadn’t seen her in quite some time. We had fallen out of touch after I moved out of the city. The last time I saw Eddie Johnson he was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, his hometown, and working as a house painter, but that was in 1976, when I was passing through on my way back from teaching in California. He said that our movie had been shown on public television there several times. However, I hadn’t heard from him since then, and only recently learned that he died in December of 2012.
I am glad to see that Elaine de Kooning’s work is getting noticed again. Last year she had a major show of her portraits at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. And to quote again from the article in The Week about the Denver Museum exhibition: “It’s not every day that massive canvases by Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, and Jay DeFo are shown together. The collective force of their work makes a mockery of critics who once seemed to consider every woman too delicate to stand toe to toe with macho Ab Ex stars like Elaine de Kooning’s husband Willem, and Krasner’s husband Jackson Pollock. Elaine’s wall-size Bullfight, from 1959, even elbows into Picasso’s turf and hits like a ‘mighty thunderbolt.’”
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Photo Caption: Elaine de Kooning and Steve Poleskie at Chiron Press ca. 1965
Photo credit: Eddie Johnson