Donald Saff's studio puts flesh on bones of artists' ideas THE GRAPHIC DETAILS

April 16, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Oxford -- For Nancy Graves, they put the belly of the Venus de Milo in a frame.

For Roy Lichtenstein, they rubbed patterns of tiny swirls onto stainless-steel sheets.

For James Rosenquist, they attached a three-dimensional hourglass filled with plastic beads to a lithograph.

And for Robert Rauschenberg, they added a sonar system to a work of art in the form of a windmill; when you approach the windmill, it starts to turn.

These aren't the kinds of jobs one expects from a graphics studio, but Donald Saff and his staff have never been content with the expected.

Most people think of graphics studios as places that specialize in making two-dimensional prints on paper. Saff's studio, located on the Eastern Shore, has produced its share of those. But over the past 27 years it has become most widely recognized for its innovations: It has developed new printing techniques, produced furniture and sculpture, collaborated with artists in the creation of everything up to and including a cello sitting in a washtub.

"I want to destroy every conceivable pigeonhole," says Saff, recognized as one of the country's leading graphics studio directors because of his willingness to try the unprecedented. "We are willing to put our resources behind the development of an idea we think is a viable one. The end justifies the means, and I don't know anywhere else that the end justifies the means except in art."

Nancy Graves, known for her complex and allusive many-part sculptures, appreciates Saff's creativity and collaborative nature.

"I said, 'Can you put the belly of the Venus de Milo in a frame?' Which is just what we did," remembers Graves. "He found a way to make it as a cast form, found the best foundry possible for the casting of some of my forms and introduced me to a new work ethic in bronze. I thought I knew something about bronze, but I found out he knew even more than I did."

In another case, he collaborated on "absolutely the perfect clock" for one of her sculptures. Its mechanism involved parts in the shape of the head of Venus, the head of Laocoon and a horseshoe crab. "The sculpture forms were in perfect balance," Graves says, and the work led to a whole series, called "Timepieces," shown earlier this year at Brenau University in Georgia.

Probably the main reason why Saff is so open to experimentation is that he started out as an artist and came to collaboration from the artist's point of view.

Now 57, he's a native New Yorker who has four degrees in art and art history, including a doctorate from Columbia University. In 1964 he got a Fulbright grant and went to work in Urbino, Italy. It was a turning point.

"I went to a print school, and they wouldn't let me work there, because I was working on Masonite, and they were doing copper engravings," he recalls. "But there was a professor there who was interested in my work and allowed me to have a shop with assistants. And there I learned the nature of collaboration. You could change your mind. You didn't have to do everything yourself. It's aggregate thinking; you can do things you'd never do if left to your own devices."

Another lesson was to ignore the preconceived notions of how prints ought to be made. This approach is the essence of Saff's method, says world-renowned artist James Rosenquist.

"I've worked with quite a number of graphics studios, and the difference is that some printers make all sorts of suggestions to your aesthetic, like, 'Why don't you do it upside down?' " says Rosenquist, who has worked with Saff repeatedly.

"Don doesn't do that," he continues. "The beginnings of an aesthetic are very delicate, and Don never interferes with that. He will take your idea and do something with it but not try to steamroll over it. That's why I like him."

When Roy Lichtenstein was hatching the idea of a series of prints on the subject of water lilies, inspired by Monet's famous paintings, he asked Saff a question. "He said, 'Did you ever see those swirly patterns on the --boards of antique cars?' " remembers Saff.

"So I went to the Smithsonian, to the Air and Space Museum, because I remembered that kind of thing was on the cowling of the Spirit of St. Louis [Charles Lindbergh's plane]. I bought a book, ripped the image of the Spirit of St. Louis out of it, put it in an envelope with a question mark on it and sent it to him. I got back the answer, 'Yes.' "

Saff's studio worked out a method for achieving the same effect, using a piece of shoe rubber attached to a drill press suspended from the ceiling and run by means of a bicycle chain and a foot pedal. Then they tried the process on several materials until they got the look Lichtenstein wanted -- on stainless steel.

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