Unlike most other traditional printmaking technologies, the invention of lithography can be traced to a specific person and time. Like most artists before and since, German actor and playwright Johann Alois Senefelder was often broke and needed a cheap way to reproduce his works. In the 1790s, he began experimenting with water-resistant inks applied to smooth Solnhofen Limestone, initiating a slow but enduring revolution in print production. Offset lithography, an adaptation which was first developed over a century ago, remains the dominant commercial printmaking method to this day.
Ironically, for decades, stone lithography was mostly dismissed by fine artists as a commercial medium unfit for their highest expressions. Today, this style of lithography has only nominal commercial application and has become the almost exclusive preserve of fine artists, aided in most instances by highly trained specialist technicians. On the verge of extinction by the middle of the techno-future and mass-production-obsessed twentieth century, a few key institutions in Europe and the Americas worked diligently to preserve and develop traditional lithography’s diverse practices and techniques. Tamarind Institute at the University of New Mexico, which was founded as the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles in 1960 and moved to Albuquerque in 1970, was one of them, and it continues to promote and evolve the medium into the twenty-first century.
“We can’t help but concentrate on solving the many technical problems we must confront. Artists and technicians together share knowledge, the equipment, the techniques, the excitement, and the obstacles.” —Valpuri Remling
Valpuri Remling is Tamarind’s current master printer and workshop manager, totally dedicated to integrating the best of lithography’s European and American traditions and attitudes. Born and educated in Finland (with college stints in Prague and Estonia), Remling completed Tamarind’s rigorous apprenticeship program a decade ago, evidencing one of the Institute’s core missions: training master lithographers. Moving back to Finland, she met her soon-to-be husband, Sacha, a Swedish bar owner and restaurateur living in Helsinki. She dragged him along when she was lured back to Tamarind in 2015 (the pair recently relocated from central Albuquerque to more rural Placitas). As the de facto technical director, she follows in the illustrious footsteps of a series of groundbreaking printmakers, including Tamarind co-founder Garo Antreasian, who passed away in 2018, aged ninety-six. Remling is the third woman to hold the position and, typical for arts organizations today, she is part of a predominantly female leadership staff. I asked her if this mattered to her and if she thought it significant. “I’m not a believer in stereotypical gender roles. I have no energy for such discussions, really. The disposition of a printer is a recognition that it’s not about us as individual personalities. One of the first rules is that it’s just about the work. Anyway, we all wear aprons!”
The work is physically demanding, indicated by her strong handshake and frank manner—qualities that might seem at odds with a brief modeling career in her youth (“It was a lifetime ago. It was just a good chance to travel a bit,” was all she had to say on that subject). Quick to smile, her blue eyes appraise things (and people) warmly but matter-of-factly. She doesn’t stand on ceremony. There are jobs to be done, and she is clearly passionate about the work. “I worked an eighteen-hour day, Friday. Then we went for beers!” She and a host of apprentices from around the world often collaborate with the biggest names in contemporary art, along with the lesser known and up-and-coming, helping them translate their sensibilities (rarely inherently print-focused) into the lithographic medium.
As we continued talking in the studio after a nearby lunch of enchiladas (she is vegan), Remling laid out a series of variously hued blue inks for a new print by feminist icon Judy Chicago, probably one of the most prolific artist lithographers of the last fifty years. I couldn’t help but ask if working with the renowned artists Tamarind attracts, who are often notoriously “single-minded” (read: difficult), was ever an issue. “You know, I find I never get locked into interpersonal problems with the artists. They are here for such short stints, and as I say, we are forced to focus on the project. Our whole attitude here is that we know this is challenging for everyone coming in. It’s stressful, so during the one or two weeks we have with them, we work to make the artists feel as comfortable as possible. We can’t help but concentrate on solving the many technical problems we must confront. Artists and technicians together share knowledge, the equipment, the techniques, the excitement, and the obstacles.”
On a nearby table, apprentices worked on the final stages of a protracted project with Colombian artist José Antonio Suárez Londoño that has spanned half a decade. Remling expressed particular excitement about a recent collaboration with thirty-something New York figurative painter Danielle Orchard, whom she has personally invited to work on some lithographs after seeing an exhibition by the artist in the Big Apple. I can’t imagine many artists declining such an opportunity, and Remling reported they got on especially well, despite being motivated by different aesthetic impulses. Orchard’s prints feature feminine faces in close-up, subjected to gentle Picasso-esque distortions. They are highly reminiscent of Neo-Expressionist trends that dominated the art world around the time of the artist’s birth. They speak to the kind of childlike, pastel-hued neo-modernism which currently provides the primary counterpoint to the activist propaganda which otherwise so often dominates much of art and discourse today. In a subtle irony, one of Orchard’s prints is being used to promote an upcoming Tamarind conference focused on printmaking and “the women’s movement.”
I asked Remling if she had an idea of how long she planned to remain in the U.S., saying that I’ve always had the sense that she and Sacha were ex-pats on an adventure, not immigrants. She concurred. “Yes, that’s it. It is an adventure. I don’t really know or have a plan. I love this work, and living here continues to have that sense of discovery and excitement.” The vital, infectious sense of adventurous collaboration at Tamarind is palpable, clearly in no small part due to Remling’s capable-yet-cosmopolitan management at the heart of their operation—its very reason for being, in fact: the exceptional production of meaningful, accessible, cutting-edge art.