“All I do here is a series of repetitive, boring tasks,” master printmaker Jacob Samuel says with a shrug as he stands in his Santa Monica studio, red apron over a white T-shirt.
This modest remark comes from a man who has published the work of some of the world’s most prominent artists, including more than 43 portfolios and 550 individual prints that were jointly acquired this year by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at the Hammer Museum. His publications are now the subject of an exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum titled “Outside the Box: Edition Jacob Samuel, 1988-2010.”
The show includes prints by the likes of Marina Abramovic, John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Rebecca Horn, Anish Kapoor, Barry McGee, Ed Moses, Gabriel Orozco, Nancy Rubins, Ed Ruscha and Robert Therrien, among many others. Samuel specializes in making etchings, often in series, and although some of the works are produced in Samuel’s studio, others are made in the artists’ own workspaces, to accommodate their work processes.
“It was important to us to keep Jacob Samuel’s archive in Los Angeles,” said Leslie Jones, associate curator of prints and drawings at LACMA, particularly as other world-famous L.A.-based printmakers, including Gemini G.E.L. and Ruscha, sent their archives to museums in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, respectively. Moreover, she said, Los Angeles “is known as a lithography town,” whereas Samuel established himself in the 1970s and 1980s as one of the few printmakers who specializes in etchings in Los Angeles.
The show reflects Samuel’s sacred definition of an artist, and that despite dedicating his life to producing art and being around artists, he lays no claim to being one: “I do not think like an artist,” he said. “I do not have creative thoughts. I have technical thoughts.”
What Samuel does admit to doing is polishing the plates over and over, and to compulsively scrutinizing his prints: “Is everything 90 degrees?” he asks himself. “Are the tonal values consistent? Are there any broken lines?”
Story continues after the break.
“But it suits my temperament,” he said. “I like repetitive tasks.” And so he has made his point — this being the third time he has said “I like repetitive tasks” in the course of an interview.
He cites a favorite quote: “What a person tries to do in their life is come up with what the perfect day is,” and he goes on to describe his own perfect day as including a bowl of Corn Flakes; surfing; printmaking; dinner with his wife, Yael; and reading. Then he twirls his finger with reference to re-creating this perfect day over and over — with maybe a few exceptions when he travels to work with an artist.
However, on this particular Tuesday morning, one of his most valuable pieces of printmaking equipment has broken down. He’d bought the hefty old blue metal box that he uses for electroplating — called a DC rectifier — 30 years ago in downtown Los Angeles from a manufacturer that is no longer in business. It sits at the back of the studio on a shelf under a bath of ammonium chloride, accessorized with a magnet from a 1966 Grateful Dead concert. Samuel scours the Yellow Pages, calls electricians and finally recruits his neighbor to unscrew the box’s lid, then clean and reconnect the wiring. He is anxious to resuscitate this old friend and carry on with his work.
Samuel was born in 1951, a first-generation American Jew — his mother emigrated from Germany, his father from Wales. He grew up in West Hollywood and Malibu, and attended Santa Monica High School — less than half a mile from where his Main Street studio is now. After attending California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland (now California College of the Arts), he was offered a job at a commercial etching company in Santa Monica in 1974.
In 1976, painter and printmaker Sam Francis hired Samuel, and they worked together for the next 14 years. After a year and a half with Francis, Samuel says he became a master printmaker, learning how to translate Francis’ work using lift-ground. He also learned from Francis that artists are more comfortable in their own studios — honoring their process just as much, if not more, than their product — and he wondered how he might be able to take printmaking on the road to work with other artists to forge his own business with an international reputation.
In 1994, he designed a portable aquatint box, using the bellows from 8x10 view cameras, so that he could work with performance artist Marina Abramovic directly in her Amsterdam studio.
After that, he began working with Rebecca Horn, one of the early milestones in his career as a traveling printmaker. “Rebecca Horn helped him gain access to other European artists,” such as Giuseppe Penone and Jannis Kounellis, Jones said.
Samuel refers to what he has done as “serial imagery,” making images in sequence, which he derived from conceptual art of the 1970s. “I always liked relational images, sequencing, narrative and even abstract narrative,” he reflected.
On a separate day, Samuel led a tour on a walk-through of the first gallery in the show, during which he told the story of flying to Paris to meet Horn.
“I hate prints,” Horn told Samuel upon first being introduced.
“OK. Why?” he asked.
“Because the imprint is backward, and I don’t want my images to be reversed,” she said.
Samuel quickly proposed that they use transparent paper, even though at the time he didn’t even know if such a thing existed.
As it turned out, through Hiromi Paper Inc., whose retail store is at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, Samuel was able to get transparent paper from Japan. So he traveled back to Horn’s studio in Paris with the paper, and this time he brought along his portable aquatint box.
“I was in her studio, according to her rules,” Samuel recalled. Horn instructed Samuel to put away his tools, and she began to inscribe the plates using twigs, fruit stems and lychee nuts. The result is a series of images about open-heart surgery, using ink the color of blood and paper the color of her skin.
“The artist gets exactly what they want,” Samuel told the visitors to his exhibition. Even if what they want requires Samuel to fly back to Paris again so that Horn could add a few dots and marks that Samuel refers to as “the face,” or even for a third trip, so that Horn could add two faintly crisscrossed lines to the top corner of another image.
A visitor asked Samuel about his budget.
“There’s no budget,” he responded.
“Who covers the costs?” he’s asked.
“I’m the publisher. I cover the costs,” he replied. “It’s my job to just show up and be open to the artists.”
For Samuel, it’s the end result that makes it all worthwhile. “There’s nothing arbitrary about what’s going on in these prints,” he said, as explanation for his commitment to fly to Paris to work with Horn, or Buenos Aires to work with Guillermo Kuitca, or to FedEx shrink-wrapped wet plates back and forth between an artist and himself 33 times.
Back in his studio, Samuel replaces the lid on the DC rectifier, crouches down to slide the Grateful Dead magnet safely aside and cautiously turns the dial. He flicks his finger against the pane of the voltage meter.
“No, no. Nothing.”
He flicks his finger against the pane of the voltage meter again. After a moment’s hesitation, the meter bounces up.
“Whoa! It worked!” he exclaims. “Oh man! It worked! It worked! It worked!” He stands to give both his neighbor and his assistant high fives with both hands.
“It worked! We’re plating! Oh man! Let’s do this thing!”
John Zorn, Jim White and Bill Frisell blast from the stereo, and the plating continues.