“Paper Trails, Douglass Howell, and how paper won its way into western art”

by Andrea Swanson Honoré

In the words of Laurence Barker, “papermaking is a two thousand year old craft on the one hand and a relatively recent activity in the world of art on the other.” While both ends of this statement are of interest – paper’s history and importance as a craft and its multifaceted role in recent art activity – what is of greatest interest to this discussion is the larger transition of papermaking from “craft” to “art” that is implicit in Barker’s comment. The four artists featured in this exhibition – Laurence Barker, Golda Lewis, Clinton Hill and Walter Hamady – all played a central role in the emergence and integration of handmade paper into American artmaking over the past forty years. This exhibition is also fortunate enough to include a selection of works by Douglass Morse Howell (1906-1994) – who has been universally acknowledged as the father of the American reinvention of hand papermaking as an art form.

Papermaking first came about in China, around 105 B.C., when a (probable) combination of intuition and pragmatism led someone to macerate plant fibers from tree bark, sieve the residue onto a screen and let it dry in the sunshine till it formed thin sheets. It is hard to underestimate the importance of paper to Chinese culture, as this one cheap, transportable substance can be tied to the establishment of a common written language, to the unified governance of a far-flung nation and to the longest continuous record of a nation’s history. By the 12th century, trade with the Orient introduced papermaking to Europe, where cotton and linen rags replaced mulberry bark as the ‘stuff’ of Oriental papers. Western paper didn’t come into widespread use until the 1450s, following the popularization of Gutenberg’s cast metal type and printing press. Paper has always been allied to printing in the West, and as such, has been the primary vehicle for the recording and transmission of our history and culture. After 1800, the invention and gradual refinement of the Fourdrinier cylinder-type paper machine enabled the speedy manufacture of wide and continuous rolls of paper – developments which spelled the death of the craft guilds that had been producing individual sheets by hand, and ultimately spurred the invention of a high-speed rotary press for printing . Increased production of paper in turn drove the search for cheaper materials. Although experiments with wood pulp in papermaking date back to the 18th century, it is not until the 1870s that wood pulp paper had entirely replaced cotton rag paper in American newspapers. Needless to say, the industrial manufacture of paper has proceeded at such a pace as to make it one of the most ubiquitous substances on earth.

Before about 1960, artistic interest in paper was entirely as a surface upon which to print or draw. The industrially manufactured, wood pulp paper that is so commonplace in our daily lives, is not at all, however, suitable as a substrate for fine printing or for art. (The image of a newspaper yellowing after a few days on the breakfast table is enough to establish that point.) In Europe, there was enough of an industry in fine printing to warrant a market in better papers. In America, however, late 19th and early 20th-century printmakers reacted to the dearth of suitable art papers by tearing blank sheets out of old bibles (Childe Hassam), by contracting with German mills for custom rag paper (Gustave Baumann), or by ordering Eastern mulberry papers from dealers such as Harrison Elliot’s Japan Paper Company in New York. Dard Hunter, in the midst of his researches on the history and science of papermaking, connected artists such as Baumann, with European paper mills for their art-appropriate papers. Yet even in Europe, production of quality cotton rag papers decreased markedly after World War II. In her 1963-4 report to the Ford Foundation, June Wayne (the founder of Tamarind Institute and Lithography Workshop) wrote that “the supply of handmade, all rag paper, is choking to a trickle.” Wayne’s comments were made on the cusp of “the handmade paper revolution” in America, but like all revolutions, the seeds were sown well in advance.

The incredible “revolution,” or more accurately, “sudden intense interest” in hand papermaking by American artists, finds its beginnings in the career of one man, Douglass Morse Howell (1906-1994). Howell had stumbled into papermaking while seeking better paper for his own wood engravings in the 1930s. He encountered the writings of paper historian Dard Hunter in the New York Public Library. Howell set up his first papermill in a cold-water flat on Grand Street in New York City, and in 1950, set up a paper studio on Long Island in New York. Howell began by producing paper for his own limited edition books, but his endeavor was not particularly well-received in conservative book arts circles, where he was accused of “making baby blankets, not paper.” Howell’s papers, made from pure linen or home-grown flax and local spring water, were indeed of an entirely different and original texture, color, and weight than anything else being produced at the time. Artists, including Joan Mirò, Stanley William Hayter, Jasper Johns, Anne Ryan, and most notably, Jackson Pollock, delighted in this beautiful and novel substrate for printing, collage, drawing and watercolor. In the words of his student and chronicler, Alexandra Soteriou, Howell “emancipated paper from its role as printing surface alone. He focused instead on the nature, aesthetics, and creative possibilities of paper itself.”

Howell himself began creating paper art, or papetries, with inclusions of fiber, fabric and subtly placed filaments within the paper itself. He made his first pulp paintings by ‘stopping out’ a design with wooden stencils and reimmersing the mould in different batches of colored pulp. Howell also experimented with three-dimensional paperworks on wire molds. His papetries were exhibited at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1955, and a retrospective exhibition of his papers was held at the American Craft Museum in 1982, and the New York Public Library in 1987. In addition to his historical and scientific researches on paper, Howell lectured and wrote articles on paper properties and the use of paper in fine bookmaking and artistic printmaking. While it is not at all clear that the artistic elevation of hand papermaking was the primary aim of Howell’s various writings and researches, he happens to have attracted students whose work and teachings were critical to that change of status. Laurence Barker and Golda Lewis were among his very first students; the ever-widening tree of hand papermakers and artists working in paper who can be connected to Howell’s teaching is the subject of Susan Gosin’s essay in this catalogue.

With or without his approval, Howell lived to see the craft of papermaking pass irrevocably into the realm of art. Walter Hamady claimed “the movement began in the sixties at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, sparked by Laurence Barker…(and) the timing was right. The boom in printmaking was on, prints are printed on paper, the paper was/is part of the expression, a larger vocabulary was needed and American ingenuity filled the need.” The amazing surface, or texture, that distinguishes handmade paper from commercially milled papers, is undoubtedly one aspect of the ‘vocabulary’ to which Hamady is referring. Handmade papers that incorporated fibers or contained dyed pulp added another layer of interest to prints, at the very moment when artists were drawn to printmaking precisely because of its different layers and applications of meaning on the surface. Ken Tyler, printer extraordinaire and one of the major figures in the “American paper revolution,” said that he was initially drawn to handmade paper and pulp as a medium because he was “so bored” with the smooth surface of the prints being made.
Collaboration – between artists and professional printers in print workshops – was another important aspect in the printmaking boom of the 1960s that provided a working format for papermaking/ papermakers in the arts. Many cite as the critical step over the craft-art threshold for paper, as Robert Rauschenberg’s 1973 collaboration with the Richard de Bas Papermill in France and printer Ken Tyler on his achingly beautiful Pages and Fuses projects. The attention drawn by Rauschenberg’s project encouraged artists as well as university art departments and professional print workshops to move into hand papermaking.

Other larger and longer developments in 20th-century art proved auspicious (in hindsight) for the reception of papermaking into the artistic fold. In 1978, artist Kenneth Noland commented that, “In modern art, there’s been a gradual elimination of using drawing to make images. As that has been withdrawn by some artists, a different kind of emphasis has taken place in drawing. It has more to do with tactile relations in handling stuff. I am referring to the interest in collages as an example – taking things and pasting and sticking them instead of having to depict things by drawing. This new interest in papermaking gives artists access to the stuff.” Two important elements emerge from Noland’s comments: the direct handling of materials by artists and the concept of collage. Taking the long view, these two elements have been of enormous importance to Western artists ranging from Picasso and Braque, to Schwitters, Duchamp, and of course, Rauschenberg. In the microcosm of this exhibition, these are also precisely the elements which motivated Clinton Hill, Golda Lewis and scores of other artists to begin (and to continue) their work in paper. The use of ‘excerpted’ materials in a collage format is a leading theme of Walter Hamady’s art as well.

However it is that one chooses to construct the forces of personality, innovation and history as explication, papermaking arrived. The 1970s witnessed the establishment of a score of small-scale art and book-oriented American papermills. A plethora of conferences, exhibitions and publications – with names like “Paper Now,” “New Ways with Paper” and “the Paper Explosion”- documented as well as nourished artistic participation in all forms of handmade paper activity (see Annotated Bibliography at end of catalogue). This surge of interest in paper was so marked in the late 1970s that in 1979, The Print Collector’s Newsletter published an issue which queried leading papermakers as to whether the “boom” would last, and attempted to flush out some predictions on the future of papermaking in America. Responses ranged from cynical to evangelical, but largely the respondents acknowledged that the versatility of the medium would allow it to outlive its “faddishness.”

To quote one unnamed paper artist, “the housewives making paper from their kitchen blenders finished paper in New York. No one wanted to show it after a while.” Indeed, the craze begun by professional artists and printmakers did extend out to suburban craft groups and art centers. Clinton Hill also recalls speaking to some of these groups and seeing paper made from all manner of foodstuff and vegetation without regard to the archival properties of the paper. In the aforementioned article in Print Collector’s Newsletter, Douglass Howell was asked about the increased number of artists making their own paper, and quipped, “…they lack the skill in preparation of stuff for papermaking.” Beyond basic technical or archival qualities, much of this material (sadly) presented papermaking as an end in itself, rather than as a means to effect an artistic idea. One of the more insightful comments about the role of papermaking in the arts came from John Koller, of HMP Papers in Connecticut. Koller wrote, “perhaps most noteworthy of paper’s qualities is what might be called its humility – in the sense of quiet service. This quality seems in some danger of being swallowed up in the current rush. While I sympathize with the desire to better understand and use paper and the papermaking process, the urge to isolate and pedestalize this material may be a disservice to it.”

Despite the taint of “faddishness” that it witnessed in the early 1980s, today, the use and manufacture of handmade papers is completely fixed in the landscape of fine arts and fine printing in America. With a nod to Koller’s insight, papermaking has prevailed because of its ‘servitude’ to various types of expression. The four living artists featured in this exhibition effectively represent four of the major avenues by which papermaking has entered the fine arts in America – printmaking, sculpture or dimensional work, collaborative work in paper as a self-standing medium, and fine printing or bookmaking (see also individual artist’s biographies elsewhere in this catalogue). Laurence Barker established the first college-level program in papermaking in America as an aspect of the printmaking program at Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Barker himself prints upon his own handmade paper and has collaborated as a papermaker on print projects with Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Mirò, and Jasper Johns among others. Golda Lewis exhibited artworks made from paper as early as 1963 and has since explored the dimensionality of paper by attaching pulp to canvas and in any number of relief, embedded and collaged pieces. Clinton Hill created works in paper as a self-standing medium in collaboration with papermaker, John Koller (a Laurence Barker student). Hill’s works in paper utilize watermarks, inclusions, and colored pulp applied by hand and with stencils. In 1964, Walter Hamady ( a Laurence Barker student) established his own papermill, Shadwell Papermill, in the service of his own press, The Perishable Press, Limited, which has now published over 125 small editions of handmade books. Hamady’s books constantly challenge the parameters of bookmaking in their exquisite craftmanship and printing, in their use of original literature, and in their innovative and often irreverent design and conception.

All four of these artists have been pioneers in the sense that they entered an arena of artistic activity that could only be called a movement, or legitimately art, a decade or so later. The chain of knowledge from Douglass Howell is quite direct in the case of all four artists. So it seems appropriate to rely on the eloquence of Howell’s first student, Laurence Barker, in closing:
“When Howell began to make paper forty years ago, many of the people now engaged in it were not yet born….The camaraderie and mutual support that a craft activity can engender among its practitioners was something Howell did not experience until relatively late in life. Perhaps this is what it means to be a pioneer….whatever we have accomplished as artists in the field of paper has been but an extension of Douglass Howell’s beach-head.”