This past weekend I received the new issue of the JAB, The Journal of Artists’ Books. The current issue, # 25, focuses on “high-speed rotary offset printing and the various ways artists have used offset in the creation of their work.” I have yet to give it a thorough read, but one thing that caught my eye/mind was the following phrase, “coined” by Phillip Zimmermann:

“Production NOT Reproduction.”

(Which reminds me of a printmaking t-shirt, made by students at the University of Iowa (I believe?), that reads: “Printmaking, like sex, has never been solely about reproduction.”)

What does this mean for or to the artist/printer? Especially the artist/printer who is using industrial printing processes? An offset press is not a copy machine. It does not automatically reproduce a book or magazine already set into physical form—offset is, most often, the process that locks those texts and images into a definitive physical form for the first time. (Before printing, text and image are manuscripts, dummies, films, separations, etc.—physical but intermediary.) Is there a way to print that puts printing before the construction of the matrix? Probably. But many artist/printers, including a few discussed and discussing in this issue of JAB, allow both components of the construction of the printed object, the matrix and printing process, to affect each other. Here is Phillip Zimmermann’s advice, from the “Foreword” of his book Options for Color Separation: An Artist’s Handbook (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1980):

The techniques described herein are on the whole interpretive rather than reproductive. They have a life of their own and their beauty lies in their own specific qualities rather than in the qualities of an original art work or the precise reproduction of reality “out there.”

This is essentially the high modernist principle of letting, making, the medium speak of its own inherent qualities. Yet somehow it remains radical. Is it because of the fact that it is attached to a process that is the industrial process for the mass production of printed items? Or is the foundational tenet of high modernism more complicated, more pernicious than many “postmodernists,” myself among them, would like to admit? Does such a principle, of letting the medium do its thing, and only its thing, become extraordinarily complicated when the medium is meant for industrial, mass-cultural use? When the medium is considered in a larger social field, instead of a purely physical/optical one?

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