The hands-on art of printmaking

For 37 years, the Jerusalem Print Workshop served Israeli artists in the traditions and methodology of printmaking.

January 12, 2012 18:33
Jerusalem Print Workshop

Jerusalem Print Workshop 521. (photo credit: Courtesy of Yuval Yairi)

The thought of visiting a printshop conjures up romantic images of old cast-iron printing presses, the smell of ink and paint, artisans in aprons assiduously practicing an age-old craft. Surprisingly, a visit to the Jerusalem Print Workshop only served to enhance that image and made me realize that the art of printmaking in Israel is very much alive and well.

Housed in a beautiful three-story building from the Ottoman period, the workshop is situated at a central junction in the Musrara neighborhood, on the seam of east and west Jerusalem. As it is not far from Mea She’arim, Damascus Gate and several Christian institutions and in close proximity to Jerusalem’s secular population, Arik Kilemnik, the workshop’s founder and director, jokes that if the building were removed, “there would be a war”! If not that, certainly the neighborhood would be very much the poorer.

Printmaking has a rich tradition. In its heyday, engravings by Albrecht Dürer or the etchings of Piranesi revealed a stunning richness of detail and draftsmanship. In the 19th century it was artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec who kept lithography in the public eye, while latter-day pop art kings Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein almost made the print “sexy.” Think of an image of Marilyn Monroe now, and chances are that Warhol’s lurid screen print will float across your mind’s eye.

These days, a print does not seem particularly sexy. More like something we did at school – dipping paint on potato halves and pressing it to paper or scratching white lines on a piece of black scraper board. And yet, time and again, great artists from every period have used this art form, attracted by its techniques and modes of expression.

For 37 years, the Jerusalem Print Workshop has maintained a somewhat low-key profile and has quietly gone about its business of serving Israeli artists in the traditions and methodology of printmaking.

With two floors of gallery space at its disposal, there are regular exhibitions and courses in printmaking for various levels. The workshop coordinates closely with artists in producing prints and artists’ books. It is these collaborations with Israeli artists that Kilemnik sees as the workshop’s raison d’etre.

Artists are invited to realize their works and are supplied with all the technical assistance necessary from the workshop staff. These invitations are extended for however long it takes. It somewhat resembles an informal artist-in-residence program.

Kilemnik says, “The relationship is based on a give-and-take dialogue. The artist must learn to verbalize his aesthetic intent, and the printer must translate the artist’s ideas and guide him in the execution of his work.”

Kilemnik is a modest and approachable man who has become part of Israel’s art-world aristocracy. A list of the artists he has worked with over the years would read like a veritable who’s who of the Israeli art world. Moshe Gershuni, Micha Ullman, Anna Ticho all created with the workshop’s master printers. As well as producing works on the premises, Larry Abramson has curated exhibitions, while Sharon Poliakine served as a master printer for almost 20 years.

Having studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in the 1950s, Kilemnik left for New York for further study at the Pratt Institute. It was there that he realized that one day he wanted to return to Israel and start a print workshop. The New York scene in the 1960s was a hive of activity, artistic and otherwise. Kilemnik soaked it up, produced and experimented with his own printing work and began teaching printmaking at the prestigious Cooper Union art college. Of particular influence on Kilemnik and New York artists at this time were the ideas of Tamarind, a lithography workshop based in Los Angeles. Working along the lines of a cooperative, Kilemnik says they “initiated a whole new approach to printmaking.”

As well as dealing with the technical and administrative aspects of running a workshop, Tamarind focused on the training of printers and a working process between artist and printer. Previously, printmaking had been a closed-shop affair, with techniques kept very much under wraps. Tamarind opened up this traditionally secretive world and, in the process, forged a new relationship between the master printer and the artist.

Kilemnik says that “without sharing, nothing will be revealed” and regardless of how idealistic it sounds, this communal spirit is part of the workshop’s ethos.

Armed with the blueprints for designing his own printing presses, he returned to Israel in 1971 with the firm intention of establishing a print workshop. It took three years, support from artists and printers, and negotiating no small amount of red tape for the workshop to begin operational activities. It was set up as a nonprofit, public institution with a charter and a board of directors, but funds and equipment were short at the beginning. They purchased the contents of a print workshop at a reduced price from a Dutchman on the Mount of Olives, and over time three printing presses were built based on the plans Kilemnik had brought back from New York. All three are still in the workshop.

Over the years, Kilemnik has amassed a small collection of presses, mostly from Israel, but also a rare press from Italy. As he tells it, there is a story to go with every press.

For Kilemnik, the enterprise is obviously a labor of love and one for which he expresses appreciation for the backing and support he has received over the years from the Jerusalem Foundation. Speaking with Kilemnik, one senses the genuine enthusiasm he has for printmaking. The slow, deliberate process can involve working on a plate for a month, then the inking, and finally the work is transferred onto the press itself.

“After this process, you still don’t know how your print will look, what sort of image will materialize.” Kilemnik refers to this moment as “magic.”

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