A prince among printmakers
February 11, 2004
Craig O’Brien has that rarest and most important quality a printmaker can have: a complete lack of artistic ambition.
Which is not to say that O’Brien is uninterested in producing great art. But O’Brien is a printer first and last – not a painter or photographer or collagist – and as such, his focus remains entirely on helping the artist he is working with achieve his vision. And that makes O’Brien, who opened the Aspen branch of O’Brien Graphics in 1995, a rarity among his kind
The roster of artists he has worked with since the late ’60s is a list of virtually every big name in American art: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Ivan Chermayeff. In fact, after several minutes, O’Brien can come up with just two names of people he would have liked to work with, and hasn’t: Richard Diebenkorn, who is deceased, and Cy Twombley. (“Because Cy’s a painter. A lot of artists are artists, but he’s a painter,” said O’Brien.) O’Brien has managed to make it as a printmaker in Aspen, far from the center of the art world, because there are enough artists willing to travel here to work with him.
O’Brien’s classic understatement – “I’m just competent at what I do” – seems to go hand in hand with the rest of him. His success, he says, comes from simply working very hard to be very good at what he does. He doesn’t have an artists’ sense of self-reflection; ask O’Brien a question about himself or his history – like his political leanings as a college student in the late `60s – and coming up with an answer takes some hard thinking. Self-examination is not among his habits. He looks and dresses more like a construction worker than an artist. To help fulfill his creative needs, the 52-year-old O’Brien has taken up playing the piano, but it’s almost impossible to picture him on a piano bench. O’Brien has some aspects of the artist’s temperament – by his own account, he likes to argue, and he can be greatly opinionated – but without the drama or theatrics.
While O’Brien has zero ambitions to make his own art – he doesn’t make any art on the side – he can be a significant collaborator. In fact, he has earned a reputation not for just making high-quality prints, but for contributing to the prints of the artists he works with. He often makes suggestions, pushing the artists to do something new or different in a print that they wouldn’t do in a painting.
A recurring current in Craig O’Brien’s life has been the lack of planning. He can’t, for instance, pinpoint how he decided on Aspen as a place for his home and studio.
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And so it is for his career as a printmaker. A native of Mankato, Minn., O’Brien entered Mankato State University with the intention of becoming a dentist. Quickly he realized he didn’t want to study dentistry, and he wandered into an art major.
“I picked art because I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do,” said O’Brien, who eventually transferred to the University of Minnesota. “I had some friends in the art school. I took up painting and art history, but had no interest in either one. School was more of a place to hang out – that’s where everybody my age was.”
School wasn’t a place for O’Brien to learn what would eventually become his profession. “I happened to take a couple of printing classes in college. I got an F in one and no credit in the other,” he said. Those lowly achievements, however, belied his interest in the art of printmaking. “I enjoyed printmaking. I liked the process. It was intriguing and I wanted to learn it.
“I didn’t care about grades or classes. One of the instructors I had – I went and told him I saw some other printer, who lectured about a better, easier way of doing things. He said, this is my class, do it my way. I told him no, this way works better. So I got an F. But I got out of it what I wanted.”
O’Brien got most of his education outside the confines of the classroom. He did prints for the artists he knew in college, who introduced him to other artists who would hire O’Brien. While still in school, thanks to two Brooklynites he roomed with, O’Brien was making regular trips to New York to do print work there.
A defining point came with the introduction to Zigmonds Prede, a Long Island, N.Y.-based printer doing groundbreaking work in the field in the mid-20th century. In Europe, where printmaking had a long history, printmakers were stuck in the traditional techniques which had been handed down from the late-19th century. Prede, part of the burgeoning American art movement, was into experimenting.
“He was doing printmaking long before anybody else was even thinking about it,” said O’Brien. “He came up with a lot of the modern-day principles and materials, just by experimenting. When printing got going in America, none of the artists wanted to do it by the book. They wanted to find new ways of doing things.”
Having earned the approval of Prede, O’Brien was hired by New York’s Steyria Studios in 1973. With O’Brien, who quickly became a partner, aboard, Steyria earned a major reputation as a print shop.
“It was a great place,” said O’Brien. “We did Warhol, Rauschenberg, de Kooning, Lichtenstein. You name it, we did all the pop artists. We did incredible, big projects, and I’d come up with ways to do them so they weren’t like prints, they were more like drawings.”
O’Brien thrived creatively at Steyria, with its big budgets and notable artists. “Before, I was doing basic printing. I did a little experimenting with fabric and photographs,” he said. “But the real education started there. These people – Warhol and Rauschenberg – they were well-known, everybody wanted their prints because they couldn’t afford their paintings. The budgets were huge. It allowed me a lot of freedom to learn
By the late ’80s, O’Brien had grown sick of his partner at Steyria. He opened O’Brien Graphics in lower Manhattan in 1988. A few years and one “terrible” divorce later, O’Brien sought to escape New York and, after thinking about Florida, Connecticut and upstate New York, he settled on Aspen, where he had come often to make prints at Anderson Ranch.