Maira Kalman

This post is part of an interview I did with the artist/illustrator Maira Kalman for Paulson Bott Press in Berkeley. She is more comfortable with an assignment and a deadline than the process that takes place at a fine art press like Paulson Bott. But she used her skill of observation to gather a series of images that work together in a kind of grand collage.


What’s been the process of determining what prints you are going forward with?

We took all of these images and snippets and staticky things and put them together in one sheet. And then we went from there to doing individual plates and then putting them together and then separating. Back and forth.

How is printmaking different from working at home? What does it feel like?

When you’re alone in the studio, you have to make your decisions, for better or for worse. Here, when there are people who can give you feedback, I find myself in a bit of a fog, but not in a bad fog—in a very, very good fog.

So at home you don’t have assistants?

No. I have negative assistants. I have resistance. I’m just in my studio wandering around.

Does this have chin-collé on it then? Is this a sheet of gampi?


That’s a whole new thing then. It’s a new effect, but it has luminosity.

Yes. I could paint on this. And I tried drawing some. This paper drives me crazy with happiness. I want like my whole life to be this.

Whose idea was it to print on cloth?
I wanted to print on cloth because I do a lot of embroidery stuff. And I thought, okay, it’s cloth, and then we’ll draw, and maybe try some embroidery. But the embroidery that I’ve tried feels unnecessary.

Mostly, 2012  A portfolio of 27 sugarlift aquatints and hardground etchings printed on linen.  Edition of 15
Mostly, 2012 A portfolio of 27 sugarlift aquatints and hardground etchings printed on linen. Edition of 15
I love the use of the fabric.

For me that’s part of the process—that we went to a nearby fabric store and saw what they had—and they had wonderful things.

Can you talk about some of these images you brought with you to use for reference?
This is an airplane. It’s like the early airplanes.

Like Kitty Hawk?
Exactly, but it may be upside down. I’m not sure. And this was a dancer from New York. I cut out a lot of photographs, so this is a woman that performed a few years ago. Half the time I don’t know where I cut out the images from anymore, but she’s a dancer, and this is also a dance troupe. So the movements of people making it through the day, both intentionally as dancers, and then just how we move around really fascinates me a lot. There’s a man behind her in the photo, holding his hands on her shoulders. But she’s a little bit awkward.

There’s a stiffness, yes.

I’m always watching how people are walking, and following them and photographing how people walk and really struggle—a lot of yearning to be okay, and dignity, and being brave. Basically I think everybody’s very brave for getting up in the morning and continuing through the day. Sometimes people walking, people sitting and eating, are just heartbreaking. I love Diane Arbus when she went to visit the people in the home and the Halloween images of those people. That’s also a Lartigue, but the photo is of a woman looking up at this ball, and then it became something else. It became a woman holding a stick. And then there is the rollercoaster after Hurricane Sandy.

With these images, are you drawing into the copper plate?

I’m always drawing into the plate, either the hard ground or the sugar lift. It only took me four days to remember those four words—hard ground, sugar lift.

And now you’ve got chin-collé and gampi too!

It’s like a nice poem.

I was going to ask you, does it feel a little bit like poetry—these scattered images or fragments that you’re tying together?

Yes. I think that the problem is, putting the word “poetry” on it—it depends what kind of mood you’re in: poetry can be a wonderful thing to say about something, and then, as a critic once said about me, “unnecessarily poetic.”

It’s a very different poem here in this arrangement than it might be in that arrangement.

Yes. I don’t want to forget the idea of a sense of humor along with the yearning and the sadness. There’s a lightness balancing the heaviness. And so poetry would imply one thing, and then just saying “I don’t know” would be the other.

Have you worked with poets?

No. But a lot of the things that I write or things in the books are poems. The dog says, okay, I’m going to write a poem now. I’m going to close my eyes and think of three things and then make a poem out of that. So there’s a lot of poetry and there’s a lot of songwriting in the children’s books. But I am collaborating with Gertrude Stein [in the set designs for the Mark Morris Dance Group’s production of Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts]. So yes, I’m collaborating with a poet whom I never met.

She won’t get in the way.

I hope that if she were alive she’d go, “Great,” as opposed to, “Don’t you dare.”

Where did your idea of illustrating Elements of Style come from?

I found a copy of the book one summer and thought, “Oh my God, this is a crazy great book, and I need to illustrate it.” It’s the randomness of each sentence. The continuity comes from [Strunk and White’s] wit and the vivid cinematic images that they use. You don’t have to worry about a plot.

Do you want to come back to Paulson Bott Press and make more prints?

Of course I want to come back some time in the future when it all makes sense. I’ll go home and I’ll be able to moan and go, ugh, what was I thinking, or what was I not thinking? Really, it’s the beginning of a conversation.

You’ve been to Berkeley before?

I’ve been to Berkeley some other times, and I spent time in San Francisco installing the show at SFMOMA [about her late husband Tibor Kalman]. And then I came here to this gallery, and I said, “This is an amazing space. I love being here.”

Have you been able to explore a bit?

Well, I walk from my bed-and-breakfast in the morning. It’s over a mile. But that’s also the graph of the day—that sometimes you’re just sitting there like a stunned animal, not knowing what’s going on. We are animals that sort of freeze, and then—well I guess it’s like a possum, but a possum plays dead for something else. But I feel like sometimes I’m an animal that all of a sudden is dead. And then all of a sudden I come back to life.

So much of your work depends on observation. What do you see on your walks?

One of the things I did in Rome was go watch people pray, because I was trying to say, “What exactly are you doing? What are you doing on your knees? What do you think is going to happen here?” The intensity of people publically displaying their emotions and their grief and their hope, it’s incredible. Plus in Naples there were a lot of places where people are in confession and the priest is just sitting up, kneeling opposite them, not in a little contained cubicle, just open.

I think the concept of prayer is so interesting, because it’s one idea that can’t be defined, because each individual completely changes it.

The thing is that if you’re in the formal construct of a church or a synagogue and you’re praying to a deity, as opposed to praying for the strength to deal with whatever tragedy might befall you, and you are looking for a deity to save you, that feels delusional.  I say “Oh my god” a thousand times a day.  Then I say, “But I don’t believe in God.”  And i am really not sure which statement is true.

15 Years: Part 2

When two people start a business they don’t often think about the historic perspective. That would seem a little grand. So it’s counter intuitive that two women as modest as Pam Paulson and Renee Bott would think about their work in this perspective from the outset. However, they both knew that the work they would produce at their press, the collaboration between master printers and renowned artists would be of interest to curators, collectors, historians, and artists at some point in the future. 

In this interview we asked founders Pam and Renee and Gallery Director Rhea Fontaine’s perspective on the press at fifteen.

-Kenneth Caldwell

Pam, Rhea and Renee in the gallery, 2006

Q: Now that you have been in existence for fifteen years, there must be a substantial archive.


Renee Bott:

That’s true. We consider every print that we rip up or keep to be a record of what we’re doing. Along with that, we document the projects. We have a time capsule that plots our history. We started that from the very first day. We understood that if we created something, we wanted it to have a legacy as we move forward.

Paulson Bott Press showroom

Q:    How does the idea of the archive, with all of its evidence and documentation, influence your process?


Pam Paulson:

Perhaps it helps us to be even more careful about whom we choose to work with. When there is catalog raisonné of the work we want to be able to look back and see a strong vision.


Q:   How have the projects changed over the last few years? How has your thinking changed?



When we consider whom to invite now, we start by asking ourselves the question, where does this artist fit into our overall program as it moves forward?


Rhea Fontaine:

We are interested in a broad platform with a mix of artists. We don’t want to be predictable, and we are very focused on artists who add to the conversation in the realm of the work that they are doing, not just what we are doing.

Pam and Renee with Ross Bleckner


It’s very difficult to invite someone to come and spend two weeks with us and then work hard, long hours every day if it’s someone whose work you’re not totally excited about.


Q:     Let’s talk more about the process in the studio. When an artist comes here, one of you is assigned to them?



Renee and I take turns being in charge of a project.



There is always a master printer in charge to streamline decision-making and communication. When you are building a print, it is like building a house. You don’t want a carpenter doing plumbing before it’s ready.



It’s like one chef in the kitchen and a bunch of sous chefs. Things get delegated throughout the project. I may do the color; Renee’s making the decisions about the plate-making. You always find the strongest person or the person that’s right for the job.



For example, a younger printer might end up working in the acid room, allowing the master printer to be with the artist. Critical communication happens right after you’ve pulled a print. Decisions are made: What are we going to do next? How are we going to do it? Especially with an artist who has never made prints before, it’s a teaching process. So you want to introduce concepts and ideas in a way that they can see how it’s going to help them get to where they want to go.



It’s a really tough thing, because we’re trying to keep the artist busy and engaged, but there’s a lot of technical work to be done. So the printers are really juggling. It demands a lot of energy.


Q:      I want to know more about the collaboration with the artist.



Often we visit their studio and discuss what ideas they have.



When they come here, we ask them what size print they’d like to make and narrow it down to a few images or ideas. Then we cut a piece of copper and stick it in front of them and say, go at it, one-way, or the other.



Most artists have done some thinking before they come here. It’s not like they walk in with a completely blank slate, because that’s not usually comfortable for them.

Radcliffe Bailey

Q:  But that idea could utterly change?






And sometimes their ideas are so fixed, it takes a few days to work through to something that works with the etching process.



There is a moment when they’re actually looking at the proof you pulled, rather than the idea that’s in their head. And they start responding, and that’s when the process really starts moving.



When Pam and I go to their studio and see what’s up on their wall and start talking to them about it, that’s when a lot of things start to click.  It’s pretty rare that people come in and we have no idea what they’re going to do. And yet, in this last project with Tauba Auerbach, she had a bunch of ideas that we had not discussed. Every day it was a different surprise.



We went through so many different ideas, and she’d test one for a day or two or occasionally three to see if we could get the results that were satisfying to her.


Q:      Other surprises?



Then there was also Radcliffe Bailey. We showed him sugarlift, and he took off his shoes. He stuck his foot in the sugarlift and walked across the print. We had never seen someone do that before. We were washing his feet trying to get the ink off—just like Jesus.



Chris Johanson came in and said, “I want to make the ugliest print I can make.” He did all these hard zigzaggy marks on five or six plates. Then when we put them all together, it was kind of a beautiful thing.


Chris Johanson

Q:  What about the future?



It is about staying true to our instincts.



We’ve learned to rely on good relationships.



And that means making time to communicate with people, all kinds of people.



There are two sides, the commerce and the artists. I feel very strongly about keeping the artists in your heart. We would not be here without them. You have to try and be humble



Christopher Brown at John Berggruen Gallery

Christopher Brown continues to be a distinctly American artist. He depicts large and small scenes of life as it is lived, or partially remembered, in this country. Yet his scenes are grounded in one specific moment. Brown uses paint to allow for ambiguity and distance. Despite his masterful use of color, his pieces often feel cool. His interpretation of the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination is at least one layer removed from the event and so no longer as horrific. There have been bucolic backyard scenes, toy logs and farm animals, trains, and soldiers that stir memory but not passion. The imagery is highly personal to the artist’s life, yet accessible to many viewers because of its familiarity. The reworking of the paint, the smearing, smudging, and scraping, allows each viewer to build his or her own narrative around the frozen moments. Most of his work is representational, but no more prescriptive than the work of abstract artists.

Christopher Brown, Blue Road, 2011; Oil on linen; 30″ x 40″; Courtesy of the artist and John Berggruen Gallery

Each new show promises an examination, or sometimes reexamination, of imagery that holds special resonance for Brown. In the current exhibit at John Berggruen Gallery (through March 17), most of the paintings depict the near-ubiquitous weekend cycling tournament up a mountain (feels like Marin to me), the horse race from the unlikely view of someone behind the dirt kicked up by the animal’s hoofs, and a few stray images of ancient red coat soldiers, sailboats, and family trips to the snow.

Christopher Brown, Peloton, 2011; Oil on linen; 48″ x 60″; Courtesy of the artist and John Berggruen Gallery

In the recent cycling series, dozens and dozens of thin circles merge into a near abstraction, like Monet’s water lilies. Amidst the hard and monotonous work of pedaling up a mountain are the bright jerseys of the riders and friends and hundreds of shades of green hills. One jersey was worked so beautifully I thought it resembled a miniature Rothko. Brown captures the tension between the vulnerability of the hard-pumping rider on a thin machine and the steep and dangerous curve. Half a redcoat soldier walking in the mud is not grotesque, but like a partial memory. When focusing on a ship’s great billowing sails, swaths of paint look like an angel’s wing. But I was most drawn to a smaller piece entitled “Blue Road,” in which a family or group of friends has stopped along the road to entertain themselves with a snow fight. Instead of resembling mounds of white, the drifts recall the eerie blue of gigantic glaciers. Brown’s paintings can take you anywhere, even back to the ice age, but more likely to your own past.

Tauba Auerbach Embossment Paintings

Tauba Auerbach in the Paulson Bott Press studio

Tauba Auerbach does not accept the obvious.  She likes to experiment, even to invert. During her recent visit to the press, she created a series of monoprints in which she focused on what the press does, on its power, rather than on how it fuses ink with paper.  Her goal with the monoprints, as with much of her work, is to capture evidence of process.

Tauba began by embossing paper.  She wasn’t trying to mimic her fold paintings or any other work. She visited a hardware store and purchased a number of ordinary items, including a wire grid, a rubber mat, textured plexiglass, and chicken wire. She then ran sheets of paper through the press over these objects to create grids, parallel lines and patterns.

The raking color seen in the prints is the result of using an airbrush at an oblique angle against the ridges created by the embossment. She would spray a few layers of paint, wait for them to dry, and then proceed. In some cases when the paper got wet, it began to undulate. Auerbach wanted to record that change, which resulted in a topological record.

Eventually the paper was gently flattened.  Similar to her fold paintings, the undulations disappear as physical forms and remain recorded in the paint.

Tauba Auerbach, Embossment Paintings, 2011

As she commented in the interview in OKTP, she often destroys a large number of pieces before finding one that works. In the case of these monoprints, she kept only 14 of 30.

In these new works, Auerbach is not trying to exert control over certain elements. The joy is in the experiment. She is comfortable with the idea of the piece, and she either accepts or rejects the finished work. The absence contributes to those that remain.