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|Tyler Graphics to Close Print Workshop
by Deborah Ripley
|On Jan. 24, the print world received stunning news. Ken Tyler, considered by many to be the most accomplished master printer in contemporary American art, and something of an institution for the past 37 years, announced his plans to retire from printing. In a bittersweet letter sent only to special clients and friends, Tyler admitted that it was a "difficult decision, made all the more complicated because it affects the lives of so many people I care so much about."
Shutting down his printing operation will not be easy. Tyler's state-of-the-art printing atelier in Mount Kisco, N.Y., a treasure trove of specialized equipment with a highly trained staff, is in the middle of production on several of the mammoth, complicated prints he is famous for.
Working with such art world legends as Frank Stella, David Hockney and the late Roy Lichtenstein, Tyler made a point of creating editions that were technically challenging, time-consuming and extremely labor-intensive to produce. The artists loved him for his determination to favor artistry over cost analysis. But like over-budgeted Hollywood movies, Tyler's prints often required box office home-runs to justify their existence.
Tyler conceded in a phone interview to Artnet.com that in the 1990s, collectors and dealers are not willing to spend like they were in the '80s. The last few years have been difficult, and when asked about being able to continue his massive operation he admitted in his typical dead-pan manner, "I'm fresh out of alternatives."
As part of his swan song, Tyler plans to raise funds by selling a selection from his personal art collection -- including paintings and sculpture in addition to prints produced by Tyler Graphics -- at Sotheby's this May. The auction house has agreed to publish a special catalogue, which will include an essay by Pat Gilmour, author of a monograph on Tyler for the Australian National Gallery in 1986. Tyler said that this catalogue will include a glossary of terminology to describe his many print innovations.
Print dealers reacted to the news with surprise. "Congratulations on his retirement, and I hope he enjoys all the money he's made," said one dealer, who recalled that Tyler had sold his separate archive collections for millions to at least three different institutions, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the National Gallery of Australia. Kristen Hemming, director of Pace Prints, said it was hard to believe. "We will miss him," she said.
Barbara Krakow, a long-time Boston-based print dealer, said, "I was shocked to get the letter, and I thought perhaps he might be sick [Tyler, who is 69, is in good health]. But I can understand it. As we get older, time becomes more precious -- maybe he wants to do something else with the rest of his life." Joni Weyl, who is married to Sydney Felson, Tyler's former partner at Gemini G.E.L., said they had not received the letter, but that she could sympathize. "It is very physically demanding to be on the press day after day, and also to be running a business."
Tyler's contribution to printmaking has been nothing short of remarkable. He joined June Wayne's now famous fledgling Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles in 1963, became technical director in 1964 and stayed until 1965 when he established his own atelier, which he named Gemini Ltd. In 1966 that company was joined with Gemini G.E L. (Graphics Editions Limited), which was founded by Tyler, Sidney Felson and Stanley Grinstein. In February 1974 he moved to Bedford Village, N.Y., and within a few years his workshop was a veritable who's who of the art world.
Over the years Tyler has worked with everyone from Josef and Anni Albers to David Salle, from Helen Frankenthaler to Claes Oldenburg, from Joan Mitchell to Masami Teraoka. His technical genius enabled artists to push the medium of contemporary printmaking to a new level. In an interview with Pat Gilmour, he said, "I don't know if I've invented much, but I've certainly reinvented a bit."
During the '80s many people pointed to the retail cost of Tyler's prints -- $30,000 for the largest work in Stella's "Circuit" series, Pergusa Three Double -- as symptomatic of an art world that was carried away with high prices. At Sotheby's in November 1989, a David Hockney print produced by Tyler, Hotel Acatlan: Two Weeks Later, fetched $154,000. (More recently, the print has sold at auction for $35,000.) At the time Tyler commented prophetically to Pat Gilmour, "this thing is going to blow itself up eventually. We're not going to be making $30,000 Stellas every day…I think we have to return to a little smaller scale."
But he continued to produce large works, despite a dwindling market. Barbara Krakow said that the lack of collectors for these complicated prints is symptomatic of a changing art world. "We used to have print collectors who were educated and interested in the process of printmaking. Now we have dealers who are not as interested in learning, and print buyers who only want to know how much something is worth."
Tyler anticipates that staff layoffs on the presses will be completed by the end of July, but even that could change. He currently has commitments to finish new editions with Frank Stella and Helen Frankenthaler, and the printer said that as far as following a time frame -- "With artists, you never know."
Always recognized as a maverick who pushed the envelope of technology, Tyler may still reinvent himself yet again. He and his wife Marabeth are busy creating an inventory website, and he plans to have a virtual Tyler Graphics in the future. Although the print operation is winding down, Tyler Graphics Ltd. will continue as a gallery and print distributor.
DEBORAH RIPLEY is Artnet.com's specialist in contemporary prints.
In the bookstore:
Tyler Graphics: Catalogue Raisonné, 1974-1985