You must have printers’ ink in your blood,” the printer yelled across the noisy press. I chuckled to myself, knowing that it was more than slightly true. Many years before, my uncle Milt, the swing shift foreman at a fine arts print shop in New York, invited my cousins and me to visit his plant. It was exciting to see those giant machines scoop up blank paper, one sheet at a time, before imbuing it with color and meaning. It felt like magic.
I got another drop of printers’ ink in my blood when I worked on the Daily Cal, UC Berkeley’s student newspaper. That’s where I met David (55 years and counting). One of our tasks was to go to the print shop late at night where union typographers turned our copy into lead type on vintage linotype machines. We had to proofread the galleys before the ancient flatbed press starting clanking out the paper to be delivered before morning classes.
Years later, when that printer teased me about my interest in the presses in his modern offset shop, I was on a press check for an annual report with the graphic designer who laid it out. Our task was to make sure everything lined up correctly and that the color was exactly the color we specified. Press checks were always scary. It was our last chance to make sure our job was done to perfection.
So when Eddie Soloway and Ita Gelada, leaders of our trip to Oaxaca in January, 2022, invited our photo group to La Máquina Taller (workshop) de Gráfica (graphics), I was intrigued. David and I had walked right past the shop, across the street from the famed Templo de Santo Domingo in central Oaxaca, without even noticing it.
After climbing a couple of intimidating steps to the workshop floor, we were face to face with a behemoth of a machine, its top open like a rapacious jaw, its precision gears splattered with colorful ink. We were greeted warmly by Mariana González, at that time the communications and sales rep for the workshop.
Introducing La Máquina
Sitting smack in the center of the room, La Máquina—the machine—commanded our attention. An electric lithography press, La Máquina was manufactured from nine tons of steel, cast iron and bronze by J. Voirin in Paris in 1909, making it a genuine antique. No modern do-it-yourself wonder, the press requires three skilled people to operate it properly. At first glance, the colossus reminded me of 19th-century machine-age industrial artifacts on exhibit at the Smithsonian or fanciful steampunk contraptions lionized by hipster Brooklynites.
Those comparisons weren’t far off the mark. La Maquina was built just after the turn of the 20th century when Europe enjoyed a period of technological optimism, peace and prosperity the French called La Belle Époque (1871-1914). The Eiffel Tower is perhaps our most iconic memento of the period, but that’s also when the Paris Métro was built and automobiles, electricity and motion pictures were introduced to the world.
When new, the press was the latest in color illustration technology. Originally it was used commercially for publicity posters, labels, magazines and so on. Within a few years, the machine was acquired by Atelier Clot, Bramsen & Georges, the innovative lithographic workshop founded by August Clot. Some of the artists who frequented Clot’s workshop included Edgar Degas, Auguste Rodin, Alfred Sisley, Eduard Munch and Alexander Calder.
Somehow La Máquina survived World War I, when similar machines were melted down for weapons. Its use continued past the invention of offset printing in 1927, which rendered older presses obsolete; and it avoided being drafted into World War II, when so many old European machines were transformed into tanks.
Saving La Máquina
Fast forward through the post-war period. Over the decades new generations of innovative printers joined Clot, Bramsen & Georges. Well known for its small print runs and impeccable preparation, the atelier attracted artists from around the world, including Mexico. The renowned Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, among many others, printed there in the 1960s.
Decades later, one of the others was artist, sculptor and engraver Francisco Limón, a native of Toluca, Mexico. Like many Mexican artists, he studied in Europe followed by stints as an apprentice fine arts printer in esteemed Parisian workshops, including Clot, Bramsen & Georges. There he befriended Christian Bramsen, son of partner Peter Bramsen, who offered him the opportunity to work as an assistant on the big press in the basement. In exchange, Limón could create his own work on the machine.
Their friendship proved to be the salvation of the antique press. Once again the machine was on the precipice of being exiled to the foundry. It was old and clunky, big and heavy. When Clot, Bramsen & George planned a move to a new space, the company was ready to let the behemoth go. But where? And how? Was it finally destined for the scrap heap? Apparently not. Christian Bramsen wasn’t going to let that happen.
On a trip back to Paris after teaching graphic arts in Thailand and settling in Oaxaca, Limón returned to the workshop for a visit. That’s when Bramsen suggested that Limón take the press to Mexico and open a fine arts lithography studio in Oaxaca.
It wasn’t a totally crazy idea. Limón is an accomplished artist, and Oaxaca just oozes art. All around town, the city’s walls burst with color and dynamic graphics, drawing on native Zapotec culture, myths and legends, as well as magical realism and political provocation.
I was curious to learn more about printmaking in Oaxaca, but Limón is famously reluctant to give interviews. So I reached out to my cousin Susan Whyne, who taught art at the University of Texas and spent some time teaching in Oaxaca with Darin Forehand, her friend from Texas A & M in Kingsville. Now a fine arts printer, Forehand taught printmaking during a few summers in Oaxaca. He delighted in telling me about his experience at Taller de Artes Plásticas, the art center founded in 1974 by the beloved Oaxacan artist Rufino Tamayo.
“The arts in Oaxaca are front and center. It’s a wonderful port of call for the arts,” said Forehand, the owner of Forehand Press in Houston. The Oaxacan studio where he taught used American, French and German presses, many of which carried a lineage, a pedigree, as they passed from workshop to workshop. He was pretty much describing Limón’s situation.
As the next link in another historic chain, all Limón had to do was find and convince financial partners to raise the funds needed to ship nine tons of metal from Le Havre to Veracruz, then overland to Oaxaca. He took on the challenge and ultimately succeeded.
Once Limón raised the funds, it took three months for La Máquina to arrive in Oaxaca, and then a couple of moves before it was settled into its own workshop in the center of town. Christian Bramsen flew to Mexico to fine tune the press and train a new generation of fine arts printers in its use.
The workshop is located in an auspicious neighborhood, just blocks from the Instituto de Artes Gráficas (IAGO), established in 1988 by Francisco Toledo. The institute hosts a collection of 124,000 graphic artworks, 80,000 photographs, and a library of 22,000 art books. It is free, open to the public and well worth a visit when in Oaxaca.
The bonus press
When Limón finally raised the funds to bring La Maquina to Oaxaca, Bramsen offered him another historic press. The beautiful starwheel press from 1830 is a manual machine that prints one sheet at a time. It was exciting to realize that the hands of Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne and many other Impressionists had touched this venerable machine at Atelier Clot in Paris.
Art from a stone: the lure of lithography
Given all the effort to save and transport La Máquina to Oaxaca, what’s so special about lithography? Why go to so much trouble?
Lithography uses the surface of a limestone block as a base for fine art, as opposed to etching or engraving on a metal or other type of plate. During our visit, Mariana explained the process and how it produces such vivid art.
“The artists draw directly on the limestone with a special crayon made from animal grease,” she said. Going deep into the details, she added that the ink from the press only gets into the areas with the grease. Before the stone goes on the press, a mixture of gum Arabic and acid is applied, creating a layer that absorbs water and repels ink. That’s the magic that creates the color separations the artist desires.
“The artist only paints once on the limestone. Then in the machine the printmakers apply different color inks, the artist doesn’t have to do it,” Mariana elaborated. The limestones at La Máquina are hundreds of years old with embedded fossils that are probably millions of years old. The workshop has around 22 stones of different sizes that have been used to print lithographs for more than 126 years.
“The natural imperfections in the stones add distinctive textures to the finished pieces, which draw artists to the workshop,” adds Mariana. “They also like lithography because they can print all the pieces they want so they can have more art to sell at lower prices than original oil paintings.”
While we were there, Mariana showed us works by Mexican printers who used the legendary press. We were enchanted by a small fanciful piece by artist Damián Lescas, which we bought.
“It is so exciting for me to draw on a material that seems to be alive,” wrote Lescas in a recent email. “The lithograph stones represent thousands of compacted years, and that made sense for my work, which is always associated with the past time. I love it when my art can trap the entire time of history in one expression, just like those millions of calcite particles concentrated in a one single stone.”
Lescas is also excited by the persistence of the historic press. “The machine is amazing, it’s permanence through time. I like machines and tools as a result of the mind-hand extension.”
According to both the artist (Lescas), and the printer (Forehand), completing the work is a precision dance between the artist, the machine and the master pressmen. “The master printer is a kind of advisor, a specialist in his discipline helping the artist rediscover his own work in another medium. I love and I’m so grateful for the printer’s complicity,” Lescas told me.
Looking at the process from the printer’s perspective, Darin Forehand sums up how it feels from his side of the press. “I’m a printer, a publisher, not an artist. The discovery of putting something on a matrix, inking it up and running it through the press and then finding that wonderful surprise when you pull the paper is what excites me.” He also loves the mechanical nature of the press—the gears, the push, the pull. “As a printer, that marriage between yourself and that machine is just magical.”
Credits and thanks
La Máquina Taller de Gráfica is located at 5 de Mayo #413, Centro Historico, Oaxaca.