Last year, printmaker and print collector Adam Werth identified a Picasso lithograph from the "Portraits Imaginaires" portfolio at an estate sale in Pittsford. The print wasn't getting much attention, and the people running the sale didn't have any information, so Werth snapped a photo and went home to do some quick research. He rushed back to the sale to buy the print for $400.
"I verified the work through a gallery in D.C. that specializes in this work, and was offered double what I paid," he says. But Werth went further and had the print estimated by Swann Auction Galleries, which valued it at $3,000 to $4,000. Werth says he plans to sell the work at auction and buy something for his personal collection.
Werth, who is 35 years old, is the Print Club of Rochester board's young, new president. He took over leadership of the club at the beginning of 2015 — the Print Club's 85th year — and is currently busy engaging new collectors of works-on-paper.
The Print Club of Rochester, founded in 1930, is one of the longest continuously-running print clubs in the U.S. The members of the club work to educate others on what is considered a "fine art print," and attempt to reach new audiences by expressing the investment value of collecting.
The not-for-profit organization was established by 22 local print-lovers. Its current membership comprises about 77 individuals, including 65 "full" members, who each receive an annual fine art "presentation print" — a limited edition work created by an artist who is commissioned by the club each year — in exchange for their support.
The club's current membership roster reads like a who's who in Rochester's print culture of prominent artists and educators: Nick Ruth, Tarrant Clements, Sue Leopard, Kristine Bouyoucos, Edythe B. Shedden-Cowgill, Tom Lightfoot, and Alan Singer are just a few.
Devoted to stimulating interest in and encouraging education about traditional and contemporary methods of printmaking, the club offers annual educational demonstrations, workshops, and lectures for Rochester audiences. Members are invited to participate in an annual juried Members Exhibition.
In addition, an annual print exchange is held among the printmaker members, says Hal Marrett, a print collector and longtime Print Club member. This works like a cookie exchange, but with prints. Those who want to participate make a limited-edition print, enough for the number of artists who sign up.
"One of the largest challenges facing the club is better educating the general public and prospective members about what a print is and why there is real value in them," Werth says. This misunderstanding of what a print is — the basic idea that a fine art print is more than something you can buy at a poster shop or at the mall — has traditionally been a problem with understanding printmaking, and print collecting.
Put simply, printmaking is the production of images in multiples. An "original print" is an image produced from a matrix, which could be a plate, stone, wood block, linoleum, or silkscreen. The matrix is typically covered in ink and pressed onto paper, so the image is transferred this way one or more times, depending on edition size (or number of prints created from one plate).
Photography and, in some cases, letterpress are also considered to be fine art prints. Because of the variety of techniques, there is a vast range in the aesthetics of prints, from graphic to painterly; from stark and simple to layered, complex worlds.
Compounding the education issue is the contention over including digital artwork in the consideration of fine-art prints. Digital art has been identified as a valuable tool for image making, and not just a way to make multiples, Werth says. The Print Club's definition of fine art prints now includes digital artwork which is printed with a high-quality inkjet printer.
Just as photography has seen massive technological shifts throughout its history, many artists working in more traditional media have embraced digital art. Werth cites painters and printmakers Chuck Close, John Baldessari, Robert Rauschenberg, and Anish Kapoor as part of the long list of prominent artists who have incorporated digital art into their work.
Print Club member Kurt Feuerherm, a 90-year-old artist and retired educator, used to make etchings, but now happily creates limited-edition inkjet prints from his digital art. "The quality I get with inkjet is almost as good as a silkscreen," he says.
But there are purist printmakers and collectors who resisted the change.
Ron Netsky, a printmaker, Nazareth College art professor, and writer, left the Print Club because they allowed digital prints in their shows. He felt he was in a minority of people who disagreed with this move.
"I have nothing against digital prints, but because of the technology used to create them, I don't think they belong in shows with hand-pulled prints," Netsky says. He added he knows of original digital prints by artists who do amazing things using software.
"Digital seems like a different animal. I still recommend the club to students and occasionally invite them to the Nazareth College print studio when they have a demonstration involving equipment that we have," he says.
Werth says he recognizes the hand-done element is missing for some, "But once you get past that, if we look at contemporary artists who have been working with print, and different approaches to print, it's been happening for quite a long time."
Others don't trust that edition sizes can be truly limited with digital art if an artist could simply print an unlimited amount of prints. Traditionally, an artist such as Rembrandt would "cancel" the plate by making a gash down the middle, and printing once more with the ruined block to show the plate has been retired, before destroying the block altogether.
The expansion in the definition of a print over the years is similar to the expansion in the concept of what constitutes a book, Werth says. "What is a book? Does it have to be something you can open up and read it, left to right? Now we have Kindles. Is that a digital book? What about audio books?"
The relationships between all kinds of visual expression have been and are being blurred. "There is no true definition of one thing anymore. Which, in my opinion, allows us to focus more on content," he says.
Werth was originally invited to join the Print Club in 2013 by former board president, Bernice Cross, and asked to help engage newer and younger membership. After graduating with a master's in printmaking from Rochester Institute of Technology, Werth moved to Barbados for seven years, where he worked as head of the printmaking department and chair of the BFA program at Barbados Community College.
One of Werth's main goals for 2015 is to increase membership, particularly within the target age group of 25 to 45. He plans to accomplish this through engaging with specific artists and arts organizations in cross-promotion.
A major advantage of being a Print Club member is that for the beginner or entry level collector, the board makes highly considered and informed decisions about the commissioned presentation prints.
Every year since 1934, the Print Club has commissioned a prominent artist — many of national and international status — to create a limited-edition presentation print for the full membership. The print is commissioned from the pooled $80 annual membership fee for full members. The more members the club has, the more money the club can invest in the commission.
On the other hand, the smaller the edition size in a series, the more value each print has. In order to keep the presentation print edition size fairly low, membership of the Print Club is capped at 120 members. Werth says the club is shooting to reach 95 to 100 in the coming year, and toward this end, are running a membership benefit special. New members who sign up for two years received both the 2015 and 2016 presentation print, with a bonus of either the 2014 print, or a $50 credit toward a print in the club's archive.
Feuerherm — who has been a Print Club member off and on since the 1960's — says if someone wants to collect an artist's work, but can't afford a painting, buying a print is a more accessible way to own an original work of art.
"And a lot of artists create prints, because they know they can reach a larger audience that way," he says. Feuerherm counts the presentation prints made by James Havens, J.J. Lankes, and Robert Marx as some of his favorites.
The club has 84 years of archives of presentation prints, which showcases a wide variety of printmaking techniques and aesthetic approaches to image making. "We strive to maintain a well-rounded collection and make selections from highly considered criteria," Werth says.
Notable artists commissioned to make the presentation print have included Clare Leighton ("Cotton Pickers," 1941), Rockwell Kent ("Adirondack Cabin," 1946), Charles Wells ("Frederick Douglass," 1986), and Jerome Witkin ("Mr. Ribb," 1990). The full scope of the 84 years is available for perusal in the archives on the club's website.
The 2014 presentation print, "Down the Rabbit Hole," was a linoleum cut created by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, and the club is in the process of selecting the 2015 artist. In 2013, the club commissioned the delightfully irreverent Tom Huck of The Outlaw Printmakers. Huck's print, "Bait," was created from a more traditional technique (woodcut), while it contains contemporary imagery. The Outlaw Printmakers are a loose group of contemporary printmakers who are enthusiastically using traditional printing techniques, such as woodcut and silkscreen, and bringing a fresh feeling to the medium.
Aside from increasing membership, Werth is also interested in expanding community engagement with the Print Club. "Traditionally, it has just been a club that has really focused on a couple of artist demos throughout the year, and the presentation print is one of the main attractions to the Print Club," he says. "But I'd really like to expand on that through providing services to work with artists."
In the coming year, Werth says he will bring a proposal to the board for the club to gain a community-based print space. He envisions a hub where artists, school groups, or just people who are interested in printmaking can come see prints being made, pay a small fee for studio time, and where the club can hold exhibitions. The space would also provide a permanent home for the 84 years of archives, which are currently housed by Phillips Fine Art Framing in The Hunderford Building. Each time the prints are moved, there is chance they can be lost or damaged.
"I think that there has been a paradigm shift, and that 'printmaking' is more than ever another 'tool' artists use to strengthen the language of visual communication," Werth says. "Anytime an artist engages with a new or different medium the dialogue that is initiated between the artist, concept and process yields a new or different perspective. It changes the way that we see things. This is the real value of blurred lines in relation to contemporary methods of expression."
Werth says the Print Club helps young Rochesterians interested in art learn more about accessible ways to invest in artwork. "I think so often, if you buy a print from IKEA...the probability of that print being worth anything in 15 or 20 years is pretty small," he says. "If you pay $80 to be part of the Print Club, you get a presentation print, and the chances of the value of that work of art being more than $80 in 20 years is 100 percent."
For example, the club commissioned Nebraska-based Karen Kunc to create the 2012 presentation print. Only two years later, the resultant work, "Glacial Movement," is currently offered through a Nebraska gallery, Constellation Studios, for $500. Most of the presentation prints have at least doubled in value; many are valued in the thousands. That 1946 Rockwell Kent print retails today for more than $1,250.
"There is real value and importance for people to collect original artwork," Werth says. "It sustains the art community, it indicates a deeper understanding of the importance and cultural significance of the arts, it makes a great conversation piece, and it can be a real investment asset."
For more information on the club, visit printclubofrochester.org.
Editor's note: Nazareth professor and artist Ron Netsky is a routine freelancer for this newspaper. He did not participate in the initiation or execution of this article.