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Flatbed keeps old art traditions alive

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

The smell of ink pleasantly permeates the former warehouse in East Austin that Flatbed Press calls home. But that now-anachronistic aroma serves as a reminder that in our Internet age, Flatbed remains a place where a centuries-old art-making process still goes on a workshop from which come original prints that land in the collections of noted institutions such as New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

There's no romantic scent of ink at the Austin Museum of Art, where "Advancing Tradition: Twenty Years of Printmaking at Flatbed Press" is on view through Feb. 13.

Yet the evidence of the singular — and often little-known — collaboration between artist and printmaker emerges in the more than 50 prints on display.

If you consider the prints closely, that is.

Fine art printmaking is arguably one of the more misunderstood art mediums, increasingly more so in the digital era, when people have the means to capture, reproduce and alter images, often with just a cell phone.

For starters, prints from workshops such as Flatbed are not reproductions or copies of, say, a painting. Each is handmade together by the artist and printmaker, using either a lithographic stone, a copper plate or a wood block. Each is signed and numbered by the artist.

And though Flatbed Press is one of the most esteemed studios of its kind in the United States and well known to art world professionals and insiders — and though it staked out one of the first artists' hives in East Austin — it flies relatively under the radar.

"Fairly frequently, people will still discover us," says Mark L. Smith with a bemused smile. Smith co-founded Flatbed Press along with Katherine Brimberry in 1990.

"Yeah, we just had someone the other day come over here after they saw the exhibit at AMOA who said they had never heard of us before," adds Brimberry with a gentle laugh.

Brimberry and Smith, both 63, share the lightly musical twang of similar Texas Panhandle upbringings, though both came to printmaking from completely different routes.

Brimberry is the master printmaker, an artist in her own right with much teaching experience, the patient collaborator who guides sometimes-antsy artists through the painstaking process of matching their vision with the parameters of a printing press.

Smith is the art history scholar, a former associate dean of the College of Fine Arts at University of Texas, a one-time corporate art adviser and over the years, Flatbed's marketing and business conduit.

Austin had a much smaller art scene 20 years ago when Brimberry and Smith decided to go into the fine art printmaking business together. UT's art department had an already well-funded guest-artist-in-printmaking program, and its museum was well on its way in developing a noted print collection. Austin artists already were fairly print-savvy, interested in the collaborative medium that allowed for creative risk-taking. ("One of the reasons artists like to make print is to freshen up their artistic aesthetic, to re-energize their creative juices," suggests Smith.)

Downtown Austin at the time had affordable warehouse space. Brimberry and Smith set up business — as an independent for-profit concern — in a now-demolished building where the Spring condominium stands.

Brimberry and Smith settled on the name "Flatbed" for their new venture, a reference to what art historian Leo Steinberg referred to as the horizontal plane on which a print is made — vastly different from how paintings are typically painted on a vertically oriented easel. (In more Austin fine art print synergy, the Blanton Museum of Art now owns Steinberg's own massive print collection.)

And though it's a business like any other, the profits remain slim. Flatbed takes on the up-front financial burden of the printmaking venture, dividing the editioned prints with the artist (editions generally run to 20) and selling the remainder to individual and corporate collectors. Generally, prints start at about $500 and above, with prints by top-collected artists — Julie Speed, Michael Ray Charles, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Katie van Scherpenberg — selling for as much as $5,000.

"We were close to the ground starting out and without a whole a lot of money," says Smith. "We still don't make a lot of money, but it helps that we're very stubborn."

By the time the business partners moved their operation to the sprawling facility in East Austin in 2000, Brimberry and Smith had a roster of regional, national and international artists with whom they had created prints and were well-known to art scholars and collectors — and well-respected as creative collaborators.

"I like to look at how an artist draws," says Brimberry of her role as printmaker. "I like to get a sense of how an artist makes a line, and then I can understand how they might approach a (printing plate)."

Julie Speed, whose enigmatic, meticulously crafted oil paintings, have long been sought after by collectors and museums, says her years of printmaking with Flatbed have been deeply rewarding.

"Printmaking is an extremely complicated, labor-intensive discipline that takes a separate lifetime to master," says Speed in an e-mail from Marfa, where she lives. "There are hundreds of choices to be made with each new plate and the only way to work your way through them is with a master printer as your guide. (I'll) never know as much as they know."

The move in 2000 to the former Payless ShoeSource warehouse on East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard translated into a much larger studio space for Flatbed's equipment — particularly the extraordinary 8-foot long "Texas-sized" press the shop specializes in. Subletting about two-thirds of the 18,000-square-foot building to artists (many are UT art faculty) and running a small rental gallery means Flatbed's home is a busy place. Works from two decades of Flatbed art-making line the wide, long hallways. (The Flatbed building is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.)

And of course, there's that smell of ink.

For the AMOA exhibition, Smith worked with museum staff to cull works from the permanent collection that could be paired with a Flatbed print by the same artist — a way to illuminate the connection between, say, one of James Surls' sinewy sculptures and his oversized prints that bear the same vigorous, sensuous lines.

AMOA and Flatbed organized "Advancing Tradition" under the auspices of nonprofit exhibit promoter ExhibitsUSA as a means to make the show easy to bring to other venues. There has been interest from other Texas museums.

"It'd be nice to get all the work we've done out around for more people to see," Smith says. "But in the meantime, we'll just enjoy the Austin show and keep on doing what we've always been doing. Making prints."

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699