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Pressing Matters

The Jerusalem Print Workshop, providing free workspace for artists, revives an artistic tradition in an ancient city struggling with changing demographics and religious tensions.

Toby Perl Freilich
July 01, 2011
Andi Arnovitz's Pages From a Sketchbook, etchings with watercolor, made at the Jerusalem Print Workshop.(All images courtesy of Jerusalem Print Workshop)
Andi Arnovitz's Pages From a Sketchbook, etchings with watercolor, made at the Jerusalem Print Workshop.(All images courtesy of Jerusalem Print Workshop)

In 1576, Rabbi Eliezer Ben-Yitzchak Ashkenazi, a printer of religious texts driven from Prague by anti-Semitic edicts, arrived in the Holy Land by way of Lublin, Vienna, Constantinople, Rhodes, Sidon, and Damascus. Hauling his printing presses by horse cart, mule, and ship, Rabbi Eliezer finally settled, exhausted and nearly bankrupt, in Safed, in the Galilee. Though his shop was known to have printed only six books, it marked the birth of Hebrew printing in the Holy Land.

Through the centuries, printing in Palestine remained a skill largely and almost exclusively associated with sacred books and, later, with the emerging Hebrew news press. Israeli artists who wanted to work in print, like Nahum Gutman or Anna Ticho, were forced to travel abroad or find a printer with a home press.

But when the Jerusalem Print Workshop opened its doors in 1974, Israeli artists finally had a full-service graphics studio to work in.

A nonprofit art collective dedicated to the advancement of printmaking in Israel, the Workshop offers visitors thoughtfully curated exhibits and provides artists with a first-rate print studio. Thanks to a recent $2 million grant from the Jerusalem Foundation, the Workshop has just tripled its exhibit space, and it is hoping to enlarge its footprint on Israel’s cultural scene.

Considered primo by artists in the know—Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Liechtenstein, Alexander Calder, and Jim Dine all worked here—and beloved by its resident artists, the Workshop nevertheless remains “one of Jerusalem’s best kept secrets,” according to Israeli painter Michael Kovner.

That’s partly due to the nature of printmaking, a low-key, exacting craft that is to painting what jazz is as compared to rock: a cool, clubby ensemble act with a passionate set of devotees.

“Printmaking is a shared activity, an alternative to the romantic image of the isolated artist in a garret,” said Israeli artist Larry Abramson. He cut his teeth at the Workshop and credits the institution for teaching him “the alchemy of turning materials and processes into ideas and emotions.”

The medieval metaphor is well chosen. “Printing presses,” noted Workshop artist Andi Arnovitz, “are like violins—you don’t need the latest model.” Charming as that notion may be, it contributes to the perception of printmaking as an outmoded art form in the digital age. Kovner calls it “the stepchild of the arts,” a status that complicates fundraising efforts crucial to the Workshop’s survival.

With eight salaried employees and an annual budget just shy of $400,000—a portion of which is publicly financed, but over 60 percent of which must be raised privately or earned through art sales, courses, lectures, and a private printmaking operation—the Workshop sometimes strains to make ends meet and is forced to “borrow” money from loyal donors to make up for end-of-year shortfalls.

But thanks to its modest enterprise and impressive frugality, the Workshop manages not only to stay afloat, but to maintain consistently high standards. The U.S. Library of Congress recently purchased all 40 of its signature artists’ books, publications matching graphic artists with poets in a creative conversation.

In a recent interview, Arnovitz marveled at the resourcefulness of the Workshop’s master printers, who, for instance, have improvised iron-plated photo-etching presses rather than work with the standard, and far costlier, zinc, copper, and brass. “This place,” she said, “runs on pixie dust.”

If it does, then the Workshop’s fairy godfather is its graying but ebullient founder and director, Arik Kilemnik. An indomitable visionary and master craftsman, Arik radiates enthusiasm. Though he is the father of Israeli printmaking, he avoids the spotlight and prefers to devote himself to his calling: Serving Israel’s artists in promoting the art of printmaking.

His sense of mission is unwavering. “I never wanted to be commissar of art here,” he said, “sitting on panels in judgment of the people I serve in my workshop.” He won’t even bring his own projects to the studio, lest he be accused of running the place for selfish motives.

Arik and his team regularly scour Israel’s galleries, from the tony to the obscure, looking for talent. Even sculptors and photographers whose work lends itself to graphic adaptation are considered. These select artists are invited to the Workshop to complete their projects; whether it takes them a week or a year, the Workshop will be their home–all at no charge. Arik considers these fellowships and the exhibits they spawn to be the heart of the Workshop’s mission.

Located in the capital’s quirky Musrara neighborhood and housed in a storied 19th-century Ottoman building, the Workshop is an anchor at a multicultural crossroads. In 1976, when Kilemnik first moved into the building, the area was a no-man’s-land at the gates of ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim, a block from the dividing line between east and west Jerusalem.

The location, said Abramson, was “the epicenter of the earthquake that is Jerusalem,” along the fault line between Jew and Arab, religious and secular, and, as the birthplace of Israel’s Black Panther movement, between Ashkenazi and Sephardi.

The sunny ground floor consists of a web of interconnected, high-domed studios with arched windows. Scattered about are ink-stained, hand-worked presses, many of 19th-century vintage scavenged from cellars and attics, others broken and waiting for repair. Tanks of etching acid, over-sized sinks, wooden tables, and all the other appurtenances of an active print shop complete the scene.

In its upstairs gallery and the newly expanded lower level, the Workshop offers regular exhibits of the work produced on its premises. Organized by its chief curator, the London-trained Irena Gordon, hand-published catalogs are produced for each show. A quick glance at two concurrent exhibits is revealing.

The warren of downstairs rooms features artist Dov Heller, child survivor of the Holocaust and kibbutznik, telling the story of his life in two- and three-dimensional pieces. The upstairs gallery, located under the exposed wooden beams of the old building, hosts a more theoretical exhibit that examines the tension between figurative and abstract art. This blend of history, ideology, narrative, and art theory is deliberate, reflecting what Arik regards as the essence of print: the marriage of poetry, literature, and art.

A graduate of Israel’s prestigious Bezalel Academy of arts, Arik credits his years in 1960s New York for his formative education. Studying at the Art Students League, teaching at Cooper Union, and mopping the stairs as a janitor at Pratt allowed for a serendipitous encounter that sparked his life’s work.

One day, he recalled, he watched as Salvador Dalí executed a flawless self-portrait on a specially prepared copper plate. “It took my breath away,” he said.

The New York art scene proved a perfect incubator for Arik, providing just the right mix of anti-establishment fever, artistic experimentation, and access to technical know-how. Unlike European master printers who believed they were part of a secret guild, New York’s printmakers were refreshingly candid about their craft. Moved by the generosity of his mentors, Arik was later to make the passing on of technical expertise and the free exchange of ideas central to his Workshop’s mission.

Another New York inspiration was the new print studio system. Again, in contrast to Europe, where most specialized print artists had their own home presses, artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg began coming to studios and working with its printmakers to help realize their final works.

These artists were taking advantage of the revolutionary impact that June Wayne’s Tamarind Lithography Workshop had had in the United States. Established in Los Angeles in 1960 with a Ford Foundation grant, Tamarind trained printers, awarded scholarships, and established artistic standards. It also shrewdly cultivated the business aspect of printmaking, helping to set standards of pricing and distribution that would allow artists to become self-supporting.

Tamarind’s full-service approach had a profound influence on Arik, as did its business smarts. Today, the Jerusalem Print Workshop prides itself on its ability to preserve quality while making sure the artist receives a far more generous share of profits than is customary in traditional galleries.

Another inspiration was Tatyana Grosman’s Long Island kitchen collective, uniting artists, writers, and master printers in good food, lively conversation, and a shared creative endeavor. Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Jasper Johns were influenced by the spirit and technique of Grosman’s print cooperative. Museum curators began making pilgrimages to these new art hothouses.

Inspired by these forerunners and determined to establish printmaking in Israel as a respected art form, Arik began collecting the odd printing press while still in New York, schlepping his treasures back to Israel in 1971. Undaunted by a lack of resources—paper was still unavailable, ink expensive, equipment rudimentary—and endless bureaucratic snafus, he established the Jerusalem Print Workshop in 1974 as a public institution. “Cervantes must have once built a print shop,“ he recollected with good-natured exasperation, “because it was like a war against the windmills.”

Another uphill battle has to do with Jerusalem’s changing demographics: A holdover from a more secular era, the Workshop is now one of a select number of cultural institutions trying to maintain a temporal beachhead in an increasingly ultra-Orthodox city. Arik estimates he gets two offers a week from ultra-Orthodox real estate agents offering to buy his building, but he’s not budging.

On a recent visit, while the studio’s staff was busy working on a definitive catalog of their artists, a young Hasidic man from the neighborhood was seen wandering about the premises.

“That’s Shimshon,” Arik said. “Every morning, he takes each of his seven children to school, drives his wife to work, signs in at the yeshiva, and then comes here to hang out and talk to the artists.” As we said our good-byes, Arik, true to his sense of service, turned to Shimshon and politely called out, “I’ll be right with you.”

Toby Perl Freilich is a freelance filmmaker in New York and Jerusalem currently completing a documentary about Israel’s kibbutz movement.

Toby Perl Freilich’s most recent documentary isInventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment. She is currently co-directing a film about the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.