A Visit to Tandem Press – A Wisconsin Gem

Year of the Dog #8 by Judy Pfaff
Year of the Dog #8 by Judy PfaffPhoto courtesy of Tandem Press

I was in Wisconsin for the holidays and visited Tandem Press on the day after Christmas, in their temporary home on Commercial Avenue in Madison. It was not fully staffed that day, but indeed I felt lucky to find anyone there, given my timing. I had just dropped two of my children off with my Mom, and I headed over with my sleeping two-year-old in tow. I was greeted by Shel from the office who shared the loft area and print racks with me. As we meandered into the storage area, I saw ten or so small Judy Pfaff prints framed and laid out on a table. They were about 10×15″ and featured a layer of translucent paper in red-orange tones, the top punctuated with many scattered small holes, which revealed a bright yellow layer underneath. It was a wonderful effect, like stars or fireflies, something poetic or magical. Noticing the edition size of 40, I marveled at how one would edition those many scattered hole punches. (These were from a series of nine untitled pieces.)

Untitled #1 by Judy Pfaff
Untitled #1 by Judy Pfaff – Photo courtesy of Tandem Press

We walked into the back storage area. I didn’t want to leave! Just to be in the presence of those works, I felt I was at home, and would like nothing better than to spend the rest of the day there examining the richness and tactile qualities of the works so neatly tucked away. I caught a glimpse of  a corner of something very colorful printed on thick, rough, pillowy handmade paper. “Is the paper handmade for the projects I asked?” Shel affirmed that it sometimes was.

We proceeded down the back staircase where we met up with Andy Rubin, who began to show me around the printing area. Now I felt doubly lucky that it was a quiet day, or perhaps it would have been too busy for me to spend much time there! We talked of solar plates and the differences between how individual artists approach the editioning process. I remarked about the hole punches on the Judy Pfaff prints upstairs. Andy explained that while some artists plan the placement of everything precisely and there is very little variation between the prints in the edition, with other artists, such as Pfaff, it is more the method and motion of making the mark that is repeated, rather than the mark itself. For example, with the hole punches, the paper is folded thus, and punched in this way that the artist has specified. Or in another instance, the ink is dripped down from these specific points – yet how that drip spreads into the paper is a matter of chance. I found this fascinating. The printers are editioning the action rather than the mark.

Interior: Zebra with Two Chairs and Funky Fur by Mickalene Thomas
Interior: Zebra with Two Chairs and Funky Fur by Mickalene Thomas – Photo courtesy of Tandem Press

Andy was working on printing a distinctive rough grain from a block of wood for a large Mickalene Thomas piece that hung on the wall (Zebra with Two Chairs and Funky Fur). This piece featured collaged cutouts of wood monoprints, veneers, lithographs, and digital prints. In this one, everything was precisely mapped and would be cut and assembled in an exacting manner.

Before saying goodbye, I got to see one last treat. Andy lead me into a side room where a large Judy Pfaff piece was laid out for “fluffing up” (Year of the Dog #8). I’ve always enjoyed Pfaff’s work but to study it on such intimate terms is breathtaking. As I was taking in the beautiful effect of the layers, Andy was pointing out how the same plate would be inked intaglio (like an etching,) and then relief  (like a woodcut) and then repeated again on paper that was then shellacked in a way that gave yet another very different feel.

I saw a catalog that displayed an image of the same piece. In the photograph, a dominant white shape appeared to have been cut out of the print, revealing a layer of empty paper beneath it, but in person I could see this element was a top layer, cut out and painted stark white. (Their website image actually shows this pretty clearly, but it’s a different photograph from the one I saw). Although the work is on paper, it is sculptural, the layers and cutaways giving a sense of much greater depth than would seem possible in the quarter inch or so of actual depth that the layers of paper possessed. I asked many questions and got a sense of the incredible teams of people and amount of work required to edition such a large (32.5×86.5″) and multifaceted piece.

Several times on our visit the conversation brushed on Tandem Press’s old, cramped quarters, this temporary space, and the intended move onto the UW campus. They are fundraising right now. They need to raise 6 million dollars – a daunting task. This brochure from their web site explains the intended move in detail. I do hope the funding comes together for them. They are an asset to Madison, to the campus, and the students. Please consider lending them a hand. Thank you for reading!

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