How an LA Printmaking Workshop Advanced the Career of Women Artists

When she founded the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles in 1960, artist June Wayne was unequivocal in her ambition. “A handful of people is all that is needed for a renaissance in an art,” she wrote in her 1959 Ford Foundation grant application. “Such a renaissance is the purpose of this project.” During the decade that Tamarind operated in Los Angeles, between 1960 and 1970, Wayne did indeed helm a lithographic revolution. The workshop revived the waning practice of lithography in the United States, became the standard-bearer for this type of print production, and trained a generation of emerging artists and master printers.

The exhibition Experiments on Stone: Four Women Artists from the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, currently on view via the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s online platform, MCASD: Digital, presents work produced by Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, Gego, and Louise Nevelson during their respective residencies at Tamarind between 1963 and 1966. It also offers an opportunity to consider Wayne’s lasting influence on the transformation of the postwar art scene in Los Angeles.

June Wayne, founding director of the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, standing over a print (ca. 1960) (Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico)

At the core of Wayne’s legacy is her unrelenting drive to empower artists, which she achieved through collaboration, training, and mentorship at Tamarind, and later as an outspoken voice in the feminist art movement. Wayne’s professional guidance came at a crucial time in the cultural history of Los Angeles, and her advocacy enabled a cohort of young artists to build careers in the city. During the 1960s, Tamarind formed part of a constellation of nascent arts organizations — galleries, publications, museums, and art schools — that brought unprecedented attention to Los Angeles and triggered a national reassessment of its artistic potential. Tamarind was not only an atelier where artists could hone their skills, it was a nonprofit that supported artists by paying stipends and allowed them to keep the bulk of the editions they produced. It also spawned a generation of master printers in and outside of Los Angeles, but those who remained in the city helped to reshape its creative future. Among these were Kenneth Tyler, who co-founded Gemini G.E.L. in 1966, and Jean Milant, who established Cirrus Editions in 1970. Both remain among the longest-running art spaces in the city.

Gego with Tamarind staff (1966), photographer unknown (Fundación Gego Archives, © Fundación Gego)

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego received an extensive gift of Tamarind prints from local collectors, which recently drew the attention of curator Alana Hernandez. She noted that none of the artists in Experiments on Stone had had significant experience with lithography prior to arriving at Tamarind, and the exhibition illustrates how the medium became a dynamic departure for each. In “Line Involvement I” (1964), Anni Albers, best known for her weaving and textile work, releases yarn from the rigidity of the loom, yielding a printed image of a single thread loosely woven over itself into a looping tangle of structured fluidity. These lithographic experiments were a turning point for Albers, as Hernandez explains in the accompanying essay. After leaving Tamarind, Albers shifted her focus away from the loom to concentrate on printmaking.  

Anni Albers, “Line Involvement I” from the Line Involvements Suite (1964), color lithograph, 19 3/4 x 14 1/2 inches (Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Martin L. Gleich, San Diego, © 2021 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Ruth Asawa produced more than 50 lithographs while at Tamarind, ranging from tender family portraits to abstract interpretations of local flora. The relationship between Asawa’s works on paper and her ethereal looped wire sculptures is clearly visible in “Desert Plant” (1965). Rings of spindly plant fibers radiate out from a central burnt-orange core, reiterating the spherical dimensionality that often characterizes her sculpture. Asawa’s bold use of color — a spectrum of pinks and oranges against a rich yellow background — is indicative of her experimentation while at Tamarind.

Ruth Asawa at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, Los Angeles (photo by Hank Baum © Estate of Ruth Asawa)

Seeing this exhibition online echoes one of printmaking’s most democratic attributes: its relative ease of dissemination (in this case, to anyone with a reliable internet connection). It also allows for unhurried interaction with archival correspondence between Wayne and the four artists. A letter from 1969 points to an ongoing creative exchange between Wayne and Albers. “Loved hearing from you,” writes Wayne. “These days I have been making macquettes [sic] for tapestries I would like to have made … I hope my excursion will be as successful as yours into printmaking. After all, why not? An artist is an artist and the medium is only the vehicle.”

Ruth Asawa, “Desert Plant” (1965), color lithograph, 18 1/2 × 18 1/2 inches (collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Martin L. Gleich, San Diego, © 2021 Estate of Ruth Asawa / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

A focus on the women of Tamarind’s early years invites us to consider Wayne’s lithographic renaissance and feminist activism as intertwined. Following Tamarind’s relocation to the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque in 1970, Wayne shifted her focus to the advancement of women artists. In 1971, she, along with Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and others, co-founded the Los Angeles Council of Women Artists (LACWA), which confronted the art world’s gender biases head-on and situated Los Angeles as an important center of the feminist art movement. In addition to protesting the lack of diversity in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)’s 1971 Art and Technology exhibition, LACWA published a scathing assessment of gender inequity at the museum, accompanied by a list of demands that ultimately resulted in the 1976 exhibition Women Artists: 1550-1950, curated by Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris. In 1972, Wayne co-authored the 132-page report, “Sex Differentials in Art Exhibition Review: A Statistical Study,” published by Tamarind, which addressed the national art media’s bias against women artists. That same year, Wayne began her hugely influential seminar series, “Joan of Art,” which empowered women to manage the business of their art careers as they navigated an inequitable art world. After completing the course, Wayne’s students were asked to become instructors, charging them with the responsibility to educate and support the next generation of women artists in Los Angeles.

Wayne continued her own art and activism into her 90s, always unflinching in the face of new challenges. “I think I run on indignation,” Wayne told the Los Angeles Times in 2008, just three years before she died. The umbrage that fueled her led to a life of so many accomplishments that it was often difficult not to let any one of her achievements outweigh the next.

Experiments on Stone: Four Women Artists from the Tamarind Lithography Workshop is viewable online at MCASD Digital via the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.


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Author: Jordan Karney Chaim