RECENT MONOTYPE PRINTS
After a break of 14 years, Michael Hafftka is back at the press!
When I remarked that his prints look like the work of a painter – in that they are very painterly – Hafftka attributed that to not being fussy about the plate or process like a traditional printermaker would be. Where printmakers focus on the process of producing the perfect print which begins with the treatment of the plate through to the pulling of the print, Hafftka is absorbed by the tactile and expressive possibilities offered by the application of the printer’s ink to the plate.
Hafftka’s approach to printmaking is akin to action painting where ink is smeared, scratched, scraped and smudged onto the plate without premeditation. This process of addition and subtraction of pigment in a manner not dissimilar to the way he moves paint around his canvas.
Chance plays a significant role in Hafftka’s creative process. He describes it as “a sentient connection to what’s happening in the moment”. The actual printmaking process is therefore subservient to being in the ‘now’ and responding to creative possibilities as they arise.
In the seven monotype series presented here, Hafftka focuses on a favourite theme: the human face. “Natalia”, “Jessica”, “Viktor” and “Cameron” are portraits of people he knows well. The portraits reflect an emotional rendering of his subject as he responds to impressions and memories of their personalities and pysches. It would be wrong, however, to read the portraits as character assessments: “I’m not judgemental. I love everyone I paint.”
The remaining three series are imaginary people, which offers Hafftka a chance to experiment and completely surrender to serendipity. From the base fictional image, he is guided by his finely honed intuition in the inking of the plate. Absolved of any responsibility to a sitter, it becomes an intimate and exclusive communication between the artist and his materials.
Each copper plate begins with an etched drawing, which forms the foundation of the series. This first image is pulled (printed), and the subsequent prints are altered by the addition or subtraction of inks. Hafftka says that with each print, there remains “the ghost of what you did before, which can give a hint of where to go next.” It is a process of discovering new aspects of the plate; sometimes the plate is cleaned between prints, sometimes not.
Hafftka likens his approach to that of Fransico Goya’s minatures on ivory. Between 1824-25, Goya improvised with blackening ivory with carbon and then adding a drop of water to remove part of the black. He would then manipulate the tones and scratch into the surface in order to create a recognisable image.
But where Goya sometimes wiped the image off the ivory before starting again, Hafftka transfers each improvisation to paper in order to leave a permanent trace. As the series progresses, the viewer is able to track Hafftka’s creative process up to the point where he abandons a plate; he persists with the plate until he feels that he has explored its pictorial limits.
While Hafftka is working on a series, “the plate becomes the whole world”. The transparency of the ink is a large part of the creative process, and he describes as “magical” the feeling of the press flattening the ink. In this final act, the press is the alchemical catalyst that magically turns base art materials into artworks, the proof of the artist’s value. Only once the plate and paper have emerged from the other side of the press, will Hafftka know whether his print is successful.
Hafftka is adamant that he is not just the creator of the plate design, but is also the printer. Pulling the print is a critical part of his process. Few artists print their own plates nowadays, preferring to hand them over to a master printmaker who can guarantee a perfect edition. However, the perfection of printmaking’s techniques are a secondary concern for Hafftka; his primary goal – as with painting – is to convey authentic emotion.
Every medium has its particular qualities, and monotypes allow Hafftka to extend his voice beyond the limits of painting. The images he creates from ink on metal pressed into paper, are impossible to achieve with paint, or with even drawing and ink on paper. The softness and purity of the paper against the graphic forthrightness of the printed image is electrifying.
That Hafftka is able to move so effortlessly and convincingly between mediums is proof of his formidable talent.
- Karen Zadra, 2019
In standard limited edition printing, the plate is inked in exactly the same way each time it is printed so that every printed image is identical to the others in the edition (some minor variation of print tone is permissable). For example, if the edition is limited to 10, the aim is to have ten prints that look identical.
Monotype takes the process further by creating a unique image every time the plate is passed through the press. Like with standard printing, monotype prints often start with a design created with drypoint (using a hard needle to scratch the metal plate) or etching (the design is etched into the plate using acid). The unique image is usually achieved by the hand application of printing inks, which are smeared, smudged, scraped, scratched or otherwise manipulated onto the plate before it is passed through the press. Watercolour can also be applied after printing, as seen in some of the “Viktor” prints.
The monotype method is often highly experimental. The series is identified by the base design of the plate; the number of prints pulled from that design limits the series. Hafftka’s monotype series are typically between 8 – 11 prints.
About Michael Hafftka
Born in Manhattan in 1953 and raised in the Bronx, Michael Hafftka has been a practicing artist for 45 years. During this time he has ignored the vagaries of the art world; instead, he has resolutely and unfailingly followed his own path.
Along the way, Hafftka has met artists, musicians and intellectuals who have helped shaped his practice, but it is perhaps the art historian Meyer Schapiro whose influence on Hafftka determined his approach into the future. Schapiro’s mentoring of Hafftka in aesthetics lead the young artist to dispense with unnecessary details from his works. The bare backgrounds become like a Brechtian stage where the intense emotions and tensions engulfing his subjects draw the viewer into a state of deep self-reflection; the locus of the emotional experience migrates from the viewed to the viewer.
Whatever the subject matter, Hafftka’s artworks are internal visions, not literal representations of a person, event or idea.
Hafftka is well represented in major museums in the United States. In December 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art added several prints to its existing holdings of Hafftka.
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Brooklyn Museum, New York
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
New York Public Library Collection, New York
Museum of Fine Arts Houston, TX
The Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, TX
Housatonic Museum of Art, Bridgeport, CT
Art Museum of S. Texas, Corpus Christi, TX
Old Jail Art Center, Albany, TX
Arizona State University Art Museum
University Museum at Texas State University, Houston
Yeshiva University Museum, New York, NY
Central High School, Philadelphia, PA
Chapman University Permanent Art Collection, Orange, CA