Contemporary printers: breaking all the rules

Printmaking – especially letterpress printing – is a precise art with a long tradition and a lot of rules.

In fact, says the Minnesota Center for Book Arts’ executive director Jeff Rathermel, letterpress printers on the whole are a little bit anal.

For instance, the print should “kiss” the surface of the paper; embossing or indenting the page is considered “bad printing,” because it will show up on the other side of the page.

Rathermel continues to rattle off a number of other rules involving page size and design, colors and fonts. Indeed, there are a lot of rules.


Macy Chadwick

“Connect the Dots”

But Rathermel says there is letterpress as a fine art tradition, and then there’s the letterpress of the contemporary artist, which is constantly testing the boundaries of the form.

And that’s why the MCBA is currently presenting an exhibition of letterpress artists who know all the rules, and have chosen to ignore them.

And they’re not just breaking the rules in order to be mavericks -they’re doing it in service to the art. Everything about an artist book is in service to the content- you’re breaking rules because it’s helping you to tell the story. It’s adding another element to the text. It’s adding a visual component, a texture, a layer to the story. Whereas if you’re going by the traditional rules, you have a very straightforward approach to telling the story.

The exhibition is called “Fine & Dirty: Contemporary Letterpress Art.”


Simon Redington


The show comes at a time when book artists are enjoying newfound respect in the art world. According to Rathermel, just twenty-five years ago, letterpress printing was oft dismissed as irrelevant.

Rathermel co-curated “Fine and Dirty” with book arts scholar Betty Bright. Bright is the author of No Longer Innocent: Book Art in America, 1960 to 1980, the first comprehensive history of the book art movement in America. Bright says what’s changed in the world of book arts in the past 25 years is, well, pretty much everything.

When I walk through the gallery, I am struck by the rampant diversity on show. Pattern and scale, text and image, structure and material – the letterpress printed book continues to absorb and transform every conceivable artistic element into a cohesive art work that you can touch and hold, page through, then pass along to the next reader.


Karen Kunc

“Air, Water, Oil”

Bright says contemporary artists are not only working with new media, but are using their voices to speak out on all manner of issues and ideas. And, she says, they are exploring and playing with the physicality of the book.

I believe that a larger cultural influence driving the interest in book art is a reaction against the overwhelming screen-based media stream that all of us live within. We don’t live in our bodies as we used to, and we reach out to a medium that reconnects us with all of our senses. Don’t get me wrong: I do not ascribe to a simplistic Luddite attitude, quite the contrary. Computer technology has played the hero’s role in the revitalization of book art and of letterpress in particular. What I mean, is that the hours spent in front of a screen fosters an equal desire in humans for the sensual, for touch, for contact.

This show, according to Jeff Rathermel, features “the best of the best” in contemporary letterpress, with more than 40 artists from several countries. It also includes work by local artists Chip Schilling, Regula Russelle and Paulette Myers-Rich, among others.

Betty Bright says, by all art world standards, the field is healthy and growing.

Over the last twenty-five years book art has grown in every conceivable category. Every major U.S. city boasts a strong collection of artists’ books, along with a place to study, either at a community-based or at a higher educational institution. Collections of artists’ books exist at colleges and universities, in book art centers and museums (where they are often dispersed among print and photography departments). I cannot keep up with the organizational and educational vitality: it appears to be in a constant growth pattern.

Fine & Dirty: Contemporary Letterpress Art” runs through October 16 at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.