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Warhol Didn’t Invent Screenprinting (duh)

By Abby St. Jean

Art has historically been an extremely effective way of communicating ideas or opinions during times of political unrest, war, or social justice issues. Printmaking in particular, has long been used in activism as a way to quickly mass produce original artwork protesting for a cause. We see a large-scale example of this throughout the 1960s when Civil Rights protesting was widespread and primarily led by lower income populations who didn’t have access to the exclusivity of the art world. In order to make art to make change, these artists used mediums that were easily accessible, such as Printmaking and assemblage/yard show art. The reason printmaking is so easily accessible is because all of the supplies can either be made on your own (making screens for screen prints, or carving blocks of any material for relief prints), or locally sourced. 

While screenprinting in the 60s was made popular in the mainstream by artists like Andy Warhol, it was certainly not invented by him. In fact, working class individuals were often the ones physically printing the pieces of art for major artists and were the ones making it accessible to the public. 

Chicano artists in the late 1960s were a huge contributor to the rise in screenprinting. An exhibition a few years ago at the Smithsonian, ¡Printing the Revolution!, highlighted the revolutionary works of Mexican Americans who used screenprinting as a method of protest, advertising social justice issues, and drawing attention to problems across North America. These activists were revolutionary in using screenprint as protest, and should be highlighted and honored before Warhol’s name is even mentioned. Some of my favorites from this era are Juan Fuentes, Rupert Garcia, and Ester Gernandez.  

Margaret Lowengrund is another name everyone should know. I recently went to an exhibition at the Print Center New York where they featured artists that she made popular through her work with middle-class art in the mid 1900s. Her entire mission was to make printmaking, a media that was seen as less than in the art world (due to how much the field was dominated by lower class individuals and activists), a higher-class art form while also keeping it low-cost. She started an initiative that capped art prices for prints, allowing middle-class art collectors to expand their collections. These efforts were revolutionary in the art world, and much of the work that Lowengrund did across New York is the reason why artists such as Warhol were able to make a name for themselves through screenprinting. Modern-day screenprinting is often credited to Warhol, so knowledge of its history in activism and origins in lower-class artists is important.

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