Donald Saff's studio puts flesh on bones of artists' ideas THE GRAPHIC DETAILS


Oxford -- For Nancy Graves, they put the belly of the Venus de Milo in a frame.

For Roy Lichtenstein, they rubbed patterns of tiny swirls onto stainless-steel sheets.

For James Rosenquist, they attached a three-dimensional hourglass filled with plastic beads to a lithograph.

And for Robert Rauschenberg, they added a sonar system to a work of art in the form of a windmill; when you approach the windmill, it starts to turn.

These aren't the kinds of jobs one expects from a graphics studio, but Donald Saff and his staff have never been content with the expected.

Most people think of graphics studios as places that specialize in making two-dimensional prints on paper. Saff's studio, located on the Eastern Shore, has produced its share of those. But over the past 27 years it has become most widely recognized for its innovations: It has developed new printing techniques, produced furniture and sculpture, collaborated with artists in the creation of everything up to and including a cello sitting in a washtub.

"I want to destroy every conceivable pigeonhole," says Saff, recognized as one of the country's leading graphics studio directors because of his willingness to try the unprecedented. "We are willing to put our resources behind the development of an idea we think is a viable one. The end justifies the means, and I don't know anywhere else that the end justifies the means except in art."

Nancy Graves, known for her complex and allusive many-part sculptures, appreciates Saff's creativity and collaborative nature.

"I said, 'Can you put the belly of the Venus de Milo in a frame?' Which is just what we did," remembers Graves. "He found a way to make it as a cast form, found the best foundry possible for the casting of some of my forms and introduced me to a new work ethic in bronze. I thought I knew something about bronze, but I found out he knew even more than I did."

In another case, he collaborated on "absolutely the perfect clock" for one of her sculptures. Its mechanism involved parts in the shape of the head of Venus, the head of Laocoon and a horseshoe crab. "The sculpture forms were in perfect balance," Graves says, and the work led to a whole series, called "Timepieces," shown earlier this year at Brenau University in Georgia.

Probably the main reason why Saff is so open to experimentation is that he started out as an artist and came to collaboration from the artist's point of view.

Now 57, he's a native New Yorker who has four degrees in art and art history, including a doctorate from Columbia University. In 1964 he got a Fulbright grant and went to work in Urbino, Italy. It was a turning point.

"I went to a print school, and they wouldn't let me work there, because I was working on Masonite, and they were doing copper engravings," he recalls. "But there was a professor there who was interested in my work and allowed me to have a shop with assistants. And there I learned the nature of collaboration. You could change your mind. You didn't have to do everything yourself. It's aggregate thinking; you can do things you'd never do if left to your own devices."

Another lesson was to ignore the preconceived notions of how prints ought to be made. This approach is the essence of Saff's method, says world-renowned artist James Rosenquist.

"I've worked with quite a number of graphics studios, and the difference is that some printers make all sorts of suggestions to your aesthetic, like, 'Why don't you do it upside down?' " says Rosenquist, who has worked with Saff repeatedly.

"Don doesn't do that," he continues. "The beginnings of an aesthetic are very delicate, and Don never interferes with that. He will take your idea and do something with it but not try to steamroll over it. That's why I like him."

When Roy Lichtenstein was hatching the idea of a series of prints on the subject of water lilies, inspired by Monet's famous paintings, he asked Saff a question. "He said, 'Did you ever see those swirly patterns on the --boards of antique cars?' " remembers Saff.

"So I went to the Smithsonian, to the Air and Space Museum, because I remembered that kind of thing was on the cowling of the Spirit of St. Louis [Charles Lindbergh's plane]. I bought a book, ripped the image of the Spirit of St. Louis out of it, put it in an envelope with a question mark on it and sent it to him. I got back the answer, 'Yes.' "

Saff's studio worked out a method for achieving the same effect, using a piece of shoe rubber attached to a drill press suspended from the ceiling and run by means of a bicycle chain and a foot pedal. Then they tried the process on several materials until they got the look Lichtenstein wanted -- on stainless steel.

Another aspect of Saff's unique relationship with artists is his willingness to work where the artist wants to work. Lichtenstein prefers to send drawings and collages from his New York studio, which Saff and his staff work from. They take the work back to the artist at every step. "With him, we're constantly on the road," says Saff.

"With [Robert] Rauschenberg, we take everything to him -- people, equipment, trucks -- and work there. Nancy Graves worked here with us, and then at a foundry in Walla Walla, Wash. We try to accommodate the artist in every way conceivable."

Part of this accommodation is to be a discreet partner. "I never wanted the shop to have a look," he says. "The identity is the artist's and not the shop's."

Among the other eminent artists Saff has worked with over the years are Vito Acconci, Chuck Close, Edward Ruscha, Richard Anuszkiewicz and Sandro Chia.

Saff first opened a graphics studio, called Graphicstudio, in 1968 at the University of South Florida, where he was chairman of the visual arts department. The studio became known for developing new processes, including the heliorelief, a photomechanical process of creating a woodblock; and waxtype, a process of printing with colored beeswax rather than with printing ink. (More recently, in addition to printing with wax, the studio developed a process of printing on wax.)

In 1986, the National Gallery in Washington announced it would create an archive for all the work of Graphicstudio, a great tribute to Saff's accomplishment. Five years later, the gallery presented a major exhibition of the work. In the accompanying catalog, then-National Gallery director J. Carter Brown termed Graphicstudio "an exemplary collaborative workshop," which had created a body of works that "greatly enrich this national collection's representation of the far-reaching art of our time."

It was in 1991 that Saff relocated his studio, now called Saff Tech Arts, to two nondescript buildings just off the quiet road from Easton to Oxford, in Talbot County.

"A friend of mine, Ernest Cox, had a house at Bozman, outside of St. Michaels. He told me, 'The Eastern Shore is 10 minutes from the Washington airport.' Well, two hours later -- and I get carsick -- I saw deer in the field and thought: 'What a great place for people to work. No fighting traffic. A great setting for artists to come to.' "

The people he finds to assist him in the studio are as unexpected as its location. "I didn't want artisans who knew what a print should be," he says. "I wanted artists who didn't know what a print should be. I avoided people who knew what technique was appropriate to a project and how it should be done. You can't have a definition for something that's dynamic."

So he works with a team of four artists, skilled in disciplines from sculpture and ceramics to photography and computers.

The move to the Eastern Shore involved getting a warehouse in Baltimore to store the art produced by Saff Tech. Saff not only helps artists to create their work -- he also markets it, arranging for shows in this and other countries.

He has also written two books on printmaking, one of which, "Printmaking: History and Technique," has been used as a text at more than 300 schools and universities. "A novice could make a print by reading his book," says Rosenquist. "Don is such a kaleidoscopic person."

In addition, Rosenquist says, "He's one of my candidates for the 10 nicest people in the world."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad