Written by John Held, Jr.
There are many aspects accounting for the successful career and life of Kathan Brown. I don’t think luck is one of them. Her title sells herself short, which becomes the modest person she is. She has been blessed, as many have, with a good life, one free of poverty, extreme ill health, family turmoil…but she has constructed a life of her own making upon this foundation. It has nothing to do with luck. It has to do with appreciation of her family’s background, an excellent education (including a stint with Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka in Salzburg, Austria), a passion for what she does, and a hard earned craft honed over years of diligent practice. With a personality and a skill set attracting the finest artists of her generation, Kathan Brown, the force behind Crown Point Press, needn’t rely on luck. She has herself to draw from.
Kathan Brown is now seventy-six, which surprises me, having known her, but not her age. Likewise her husband, Conceptual artist Tom Marioni. They both seem ageless, operating outside of a timeframe. They just go on with what they are doing, as Kathan advises, “put one foot in front of the other”, and time rolls off them. Beginning in 1962, Kathan has now run Crown Point Press as a small business for fifty years. As a master printer, she has worked with Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, Sol Lewitt, Chuck Close, Ed Ruscha…and perhaps notably, if only because she recruited him as a visual artist…John Cage. Crown Point Press has published periodicals (Vision, View), books (some eight by Kathan alone), and of course, fine art prints (intaglio), which are on standing order and archived by both the National Gallery of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Kathan’s is a life well spent, but knowing her, I don’t believe it’s anywhere near completion. These memoirs, while well earned and timely, still seem premature.
But she does have a story to tell, and it’s told very well. Kathan frames it as a business success story. I don’t think businessperson defines her – she is after all, a master printer, who has worked in common with renowned artists, but the business seems to be the hinge upon which she lays the tale. It starts with her grandmother, who was a successful businessperson despite the rigors of the Depression, who married one of the great political minds of the era, Owen D. Young, Chairman of General Electric, who became Time’s Man of the Year in 1929 (he helped negotiate German reparations). Spending time at her grandfather’s knee (the image of her selling oranges with her grandfather at a roadside stand in Florida is indelible) was a lucky upbringing, but it was her acceptance of an elder’s wisdom, not his lucky presence, that shaped her.
She was fortunate to be offered a printing press for free while she was a student in England travelling to Scotland before her departure for the United States, but it was determination to change her travel plans and accompany the press on a two-month cruise through the Panama Canal on a freighter, which enabled her to get it back to Oakland, and begin the print business. Crown Point Press grew to twenty-two persons at its height in 1988, with various ebbs and flows over the years, which Kathan ascribes to political and economic climates of the various decades. She names Peter Drucker her business management guru, and does a fairly good job explaining Keynesian economic theory. The memoir could be useful as a guide to successful business practices, especially to younger women, many correctly viewing Kathan as a role model for aspiring female entrepreneurs.
The book works on many levels, but the business practices of the Press, is not the one that captivated me. It’s the creative relationship she had with her artists, and the intimate stories of working in tandem with such giants as John Cage, Richard Diebenkorn, Sol Lewitt. Each of these artists have chapters devoted to them, along with Wayne Thiebaud, Pat Steir, Agnes Martin, Tom Marioni, Robert Bechtle and Ed Ruscha. The twenty chapters are ascribed zen koans as subtitles – wisdoms learned along the path. “Know That You Are Lucky,” is one of them. Others include “Hold on Lightly,” “Go as Far as You Can See,” “Construct a Life,” “Attempt What is Not Certain,” “No Pretentions,” “Escape Now and Again,” “Search for Something Else,” and “Keep Searching for What You Need to Know.” The book concludes with the chapter on Sol Lewitt, who she began working with in 1971 (before meeting her Conceptual Art husband), “Leap to Conclusions that Logic Cannot Reach.”
I was especially interested in the details of her life with Tom Marioni, who Kathan married in 1977 and has creatively partnered with since. Before meeting Kathan, Tom had a successful art career as curator of the Richmond Art Center, and Director of his own Museum of Conceptual Art. As such, he presented some of the earliest performance art on the West Coast. Kathan was a master printer and businessperson with a keen eye before meeting Marioni, working with Sol Lewitt, but Marioni fleshed out her acceptance of various challenging artists, imparting his thinking that Conceptual artists could apply themselves in many directions, always bringing their individual style to the project. This thinking resulted in the recruitment of such artists as John Cage, Brice Marden, Daniel Buren, Vito Acconci, John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha.
The layout of the work must be mentioned, for it reflects the design skill of the Press itself and the book’s designer, Laura Lovett. Photographs are scattered throughout the text documenting the many facets of the author’s life from family, printmaking equipment and facilities, the prints themselves, the artists who produce them, the staff that helps form and distribute them, and travelogues of adventures at home and abroad, but mostly abroad, as Kathan is an inveterate traveller. Forty-eight prints mentioned in the text, are reproduced in color, adding to the documentary allure of the work.
Special mention should be made of the 1980 joint Crown Point Press and Museum of Conceptual Art sponsored trip to the South Sea Island of Ponape, with thirty-five artists including Marina Abramovic, Laurie Anderson, Chris Burden, Daniel Buren, John Cage, Joan Jones, Marioni, Brice Marden, Robert Kushner, Pat Steir and William Wiley, to discuss art and enjoy each others company. It was the first year Crown Point Press made a profit, and this was the way Kathan wished to celebrate. It alone highlights that the company of artists is one of Kathan’s primary reasons for continuing the press over so many years. It’s a lifestyle, not an occupation.
Kathan’s instinctual taste runs more conservatively than her husband’s, drawn to artists with a strong bent for craftsmanship. Diebenkorn, Thiebaud, Bechtle, William Bailey and Chuck Close fit this mold. Each would return again and again to Crown Point to work with Master Printers, who helped shape their vision. Diebenkorn (1922-1993) is especially dear to Kathan. He was the first artist subject to a Crown Point published book, “41 Etchings Drypoints,” printed in 1966. The back of the current book’s dust jacket has a photograph of a chair Diebenkorn left in a previous studio, which, unbeknown years later, Crown Point moved into, the artist claiming provenience years later. Coincidence? Sign? Luck?
In 2012, Crown Point Press celebrated fifty years of artistic and business practice with a series of historic shows. Diebenkorn was one of the artists featured, other subjects explored being “John Cage” (February 3-March 31), “Tom Marioni and Pat Steir (April 5-May 19) “Crossing into the Eighties” (May 31-June 30), “The New Century,” including works by twenty-two artists (September 5-October 20). The concluding historical show, “Richard Diebenkorn: Prints and Proofs, opened November 7 and closed January 5, 2012.
The Diebenkorn exhibition provided a unique opportunity to view rarely-if-ever-exhibited working proofs as they related to several completed works, including the artist’s most celebrated print, “Green,” (1986). Crown Point’s press release of the exhibition describes the artist’s working method, innovative in approach (collage) and sensibility (the fragility and imperfections of the self).
“Diebenkorn’s rigorous involvement with process is evident in the rarely seen working proofs that are on view. He developed his print images mainly by using collage. He pasted and pinned shapes onto proofs or drew and painted on them to help him decide how to move forward. Diebenkorn also liked to keep traces of decisions in the completed prints and his residual marks of changes and corrections posses a vulnerability and lyrical beauty.”
In her memoir, Brown delves further into the process of collaboration with the artist, providing valuable insights into Diebenkorn’s personal working method.
“We made steady progress on ‘Green’ in the last part of the second week. We were always working with Dick’s collage elements. Sometimes we would painstakingly measure and trace the exact location of a new line or color area, then mark the location of the plate for him to work over with acid or a drawing tool. At the other times he would look at the proof and say something like, “I’ll just wing it here,” and begin drawing on the plate without any guidelines. Once we etched a triangle shape that came out three inches from where it was intended. Dick liked it, so it stayed.”
Diebenkorn’s flexible yet diligent creative process is a personal hallmark about to be celebrated in a retrospective examination of his formative years at the De Young Museum in the exhibition, “Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–1966,” running from
June 22, 2013–September 29, 2013. A leader of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, over one hundred paintings and drawings will reveal the artist’s shift from abstraction to figuration marking the artist’s and the region’s turn from increasingly formalized East Coast Centric Greenbergian Abstract Expressionism. The De Young’s publicity for the upcoming exhibition notes, “The character of this transformation-and the artist’s oscillations between the two styles-has long been seen as one of the most interesting chapter in post-war American art.”
The “Crown Point Press at 50,” exhibition in the De Young’s Anderson Gallery of Graphic Art is a surprisingly modest affair given its grandiose title. Acquiring the Press’s archives in 1991, the De Young has over 1,500 published prints and proofs to draw from, but for the current show selected just fifteen artists, just fifteen artists, all represented by work done since 1998. Still, the works by Wayne Thiebaud, Kiki Smith, Richard Tuttle, Sol Lewitt, Tom Marioni, Ed Ruscha, Robert Bechtle,Julie Mehretu, Chris Ofili, John Chiara, Mamma Andersson, Jockum Nordström, Katsura Funakoshi, Tomma Abts and Darren Almond do not disappoint. One only wishes for a more penetrating retrospective. Earlier Crown Point Press produced works by Dorothea Rockburne (1972-1975), Anish Kapoor (1991) and Brice Marden (1973) are on display in the De Young’s Morgan and Betty Flagg Gallery, given over to Minimalism, hinting at the true depth, breath and complexity of the entire Crown Point Press oeuvre.
Depth, breath and complexity also describe the rich life lead by Kathan Brown. Her many achievements (she holds honorary doctorates from both the San Francisco Art Institute and the California College of the Arts) have little to do with luck. Skilled persistence is its own reward.