Dan Flavin is an artist best known for his geometric installations of fluorescent light tubes that emit both monochromatic and multi-colored light. Beginning in 1986, through the year of his death in 1996, Flavin produced five series of vivid relief aquatints printed on Twinrocker paper that expanded on his exploration of light and color relationships. In order to translate the experience of pure color in his light works, Flavin turned to handmade paper and nontraditional printmaking processes to achieve sculptural forms and vibrant colors in his prints.
Each of the prints is either printed as a single color on one side of the sheet or double-sided, with a second color filling the reverse side of the sheet. There is no image or design, rather the entire sheet, including the deckled edge, is filled with a field of color (with the exception of untitled (Triptych) where a band of unprinted paper remains at the left edge).
The choice of print process used in these works—relief aquatint—is an unusual one. The richness and saturation of the colors have led to a mischaracterization of these prints as mezzotints—a process that produces velvety tones by roughening the surface of a copper plate with a toothed rocker. An aquatint, in contrast, is made by sprinkling a fine coating of rosin over the surface of a copper plate, heating the rosin to melt and fuse the tiny particles to the metal, and etching the plate to erode the exposed portion of the plate around the dots of rosin. The aquatint grain that is etched into the plate provides a tooth for the ink to adhere to. Aquatint is conventionally an intaglio printing technique, which means the image is printed from the etched, lower areas of the printing plate. An intaglio aquatint is printed by applying ink over the entire surface of the plate with a card or dauber, and then, using a tarlatan or stiff cloth, carefully wiping the plate to remove the ink from the top surface. The ink that remains in the lower areas of the plate is transferred to the paper when paper and plate are run through the printing press.
These series of Flavin prints are unusual: rather than being inked and wiped as a traditional intaglio aquatint, the ink was unconventionally applied with a roller over the surface of the copper plate, and these aquatints were printed as relief prints.1 This inking method produced a highly saturated and uniform field of ink, similar in appearance to the richness of a mezzotint.2 The intaglio aquatint technique traps ink in isolated pools, and when the print is viewed closely or under magnification, individual islands of ink are visible. The larger and closer together the islands of ink, the darker the tone of the aquatint. The relief aquatint technique only uses the aquatint grain as a textured top surface where ink can cling—both to the copper plate and to itself—creating this uniform field of ink. Even when the relief aquatint print is viewed under high magnification, the aquatint grain is obscured, and no veins of white paper are left between the contours of the islands.
To compare the results of the two inking methods for aquatints, I created mockup samples as shown in the photograph below. At right is a sample of a traditional intaglio aquatint, with two different levels of color saturation based on the duration of the etch. When comparing this to the relief aquatint sample, printed from the same plate with the same ink, at left, it is evident that the latter technique produces a saturation of color that is unrivaled by the intaglio aquatint process.
In June 1986, Flavin collaborated with printer Ken Farley at Gemini G.E.L. to produce his first series of prints using the relief aquatint technique: (for Gina and DeWain) 1 and 2. Gemini has an extensive collection of papers and Flavin was struck by the quality of the handmade papers;3 he selected Twinrocker papers with the exaggerated feather deckles for these series of aquatints. The copper printing plate was larger than the paper, so when printed through the etching press, ink covered the entire sheet, including the deckled edges.4 Where the deckles taper at the very edges, ink is visible from the reverse side.
In 1992, Flavin returned to this body of work, pushing it further with two series of aquatints: untitled (Paper Discs) and untitled (Paper Rolls). These prints were published by the Guggenheim Museum in New York in celebration of the Museum’s reopening, and they were offered for sale as a limited edition. These prints complemented Flavin’s untitled (to Tracy, to celebrate the love of a lifetime), an installation of fluorescent light tubes that filled the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda of the Guggenheim with colored light.5 Flavin began to challenge the nature of conventional prints with untitled (Paper Discs). He selected a circular sheet of handmade paper, and then printed on both sides of the sheet, each side in a different, contrasting color. Printing double-sided placed equal importance on both sides of the paper, which is a clear departure from standard printmaking practices. Flavin experimented further with his untitled (Paper Rolls), by rolling the circular sheet and allowing the prints to take on sculptural three-dimensional forms. Flavin repeated the rolling operation two years later, in 1994, in another series of aquatints, untitled (Paper Rolls Large), published by Schellmann Editions. These series of aquatints make the connection between his prints and light works even more explicit.
The circular sheets Flavin used for these works were made by Twinrocker and each bears their distinctive symmetrical watermark of back-to-back rocking chairs. Twinrocker is a hand paper mill in Indiana that combines traditional papermaking techniques, such as processing only high-quality cotton fibers for their pulps, with new and innovative designs. Flavin’s papers have a white fiber composition, are heavy weight, with a moderate surface texture. Twinrocker offers papers in three different surface textures: rough, cold-pressed, and hot-pressed. In comparison to samples of Twinrocker paper, the surface of Flavin’s circular disc prints appears closest to the cold-pressed samples on one side of the sheet, and hot-pressed samples on the other. It is not uncommon for different sides of Twinrocker papers to have different surface textures.
Twinrocker offers a wide variety of paper shapes, including circular sheets in 12-inch diameter, 18-inch diameter, and custom sizes.6 These sheets are formed using a Western paper mould with a circular deckle insert.7 The circular deckle is what determines the size and shape of the paper and gives the paper its natural deckle edge. The deckle insert is placed over the rectangular mould and when dipped into the vat of pulp, water drains through the circular opening and begins to form the sheet. Once the water is drained, the deckle insert is removed, and the circular paper is couched onto the felts to be pressed and dried. The exaggerated feather deckle that Flavin was so drawn to is formed during this process and is one of the trademarks of handmade paper from Twinrocker.
Flavin’s three series of prints on circular paper were printed by Catherine Mosley in her Manhattan studio. Mosley printed one side, then allowed the ink to dry completely, and weeks later she printed the second color on the opposite side. After printing and drying, Mosley rolled both untitled (Paper Rolls) and untitled (Paper Rolls Large) by hand and stitched a single stitch through the paper with thread, matching the color to the exterior color of the print, which allowed the stitch to visually fade away.8 The prints were then attached individually onto panels covered with white paper and mounted into acrylic vitrines that were designed and approved by Flavin.9 These sculptural prints were displayed either vertically on the wall or horizontally on a pedestal. The rolling allows the viewer to experience the colors on either side of the prints at once. This contrast of vibrant colors in combination with the exaggerated deckled edges, parallels the experience of looking at one of Flavin’s fluorescent light tube installations.
Flavin approached these five series of prints from a different medium, which gave him the freedom to experiment with unusual processes and materials. For many artists making prints, the paper choice is often secondary to the printed image; the paper is simply a vehicle to showcase the image. Flavin’s interest in color and form independent of imagery placed a greater importance on the paper, and for these series of prints, the handmade paper plays an equally important role to the vivid and saturated printed color. Not only did Flavin explore the light and color relationships that interested him throughout his career, but he also challenged standard printmaking practices. Once he discovered this combination of printing monochromatic relief aquatints on handmade deckle-edged papers, he expanded on the technique to create a series of prints unlike anything that had been made before, or since.
Author’s Acknowledgements: This research benefited critically from observations shared by colleagues in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums, especially Penley Knipe, and from thoughtful conversations and input from Rachel Vogel, Elizabeth Rudy, and Jerry Cohn. Special thanks also to Chris Wallace, who helped create and print the samples. Additional thanks to Rachel Selekman at the Dan Flavin Estate, Nanke Schellmann at Schellmann Art, Sara McAuliffe at Gemini G.E.L., Jeffrey Warda and Tali Han at the Guggenheim Museum, and Travis Becker at Twinrocker. For generously sharing their memories of working with Dan Flavin, thanks go to the printers, Jim Reid, Diana Kinsley, and Catherine Mosley.
1. For a diagram illustrating the difference between inking an intaglio plate versus a relief aquatint plate, go to Hand Papermaking’s web-only content webpage: https://handpapermaking.net/magazine/web-only/.
2. Christina Taylor. “Art Talk: Dan Flavin’s Relief Aquatint Technique,” Index Magazine (Online), July 1, 2020. https://www.harvardartmuseums
.org/article/art-talk-dan-flavin-s-relief-aquatint-technique (accessed on August 11, 2020).
3. Jim Reid, phone interview by the author, February 27, 2020.
4. Catherine Mosley, phone interview by the author, January 15–16, 2020.
5. Juliet Nations-Powell, typed message to Hank Hine, January 26, 1993. Guggenheim Archives.
6. For more on Twinrocker paper, go to their website, twinrocker.com.
7. Travis Becker, email message to the author, January 16, 2020.
8. Catherine Mosley, phone interview by the author, January 15–16, 2020.
9. Juliet Nations-Powell, typed message to Hank Hine, January 26, 1993. Guggenheim Archives.