Tampa has long been celebrated for its cigars and buccaneers. In fine art circles, however, Tampa also has a reputation as a source of museum-quality works from some of the world’s top artists.
So how, exactly, has the Big Guava evolved from swaggering to suave?
The large exhibition opening Saturday at the Tampa Museum of Art contains the answer. “Graphicstudio: Uncommon Practice at USF” is a grand sweep of more than 110 works by 45 of the 108 artists who have been coming to the University of South Florida’s campus since 1969.
Several generations of art world celebrities such as Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Louise Bourgeois, Trisha Brown, Chuck Close, Graciela Iturbide, Kiki Smith and Christian Marclay have made their imprint at the Tampa printmaking studio.
“Tampa has been a hotbed of artistic production,” said Tampa Museum director Todd Smith. “The exhibition will give a better understanding of what Graphicstudio has been able to do. It’s done so much more than just making two-dimensional prints.”
This show and its catalog is a result of a partnership between the museum and USF’s Institute for Research in Art, which includes the Contemporary Art Museum and Graphicstudio.
“Much of what we produce at Graphicstudio is not shown locally,” said Margaret Miller, director of the Institute for Research in Art. “The Tampa Museum’s new galleries and downtown site seemed like a great opportunity to show not only the history of Graphicstudio but to profile current interests and a new generation of artists.”
“It’s the biggest collaboration in both our histories,” Smith said.
Graphicstudio was started in 1968 when Donald Saff, then chairman of USF’s department of visual arts, had the idea to create on campus a state-of-the-art printmaking workshop for visiting artists.
Aided by expert artisans, the artists would be free to experiment with all kinds of materials and techniques. They would be able to publish limited edition two-dimensional lithographs, screenprints, woodcuts and photography as well as sculptural works.
Attracting the world’s most prominent artists, Graphicstudio thrived. It was funded by the university and grants as well as by Tampa collectors who subscribed to the limited edition artworks.
Except for a hiatus between 1976 and 1980 when it was closed down, the enterprise gathered steam, earning recognition in the art world.
In 1991, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., honored Graphicstudio with a major exhibition of its output. Today, the National Gallery of Art is only one of many important museums that collect artworks produced at Graphicstudio.
Jade Dellinger, the guest curator of the Tampa Museum exhibition, noted that by the time Saff left Graphicstudio in 1990 to start his own workshop, he left behind a fierce dedication to finding innovative production techniques.
“He was always trying to increase the complexity and the technology involved, such as (enabling the addition of) encaustic wax to the surface of a print,” said Dellinger.
As a result, the print would acquire a three-dimensional texture.
Deli Sacilotto, who was Graphicstudio’s director of research from 1997 to 2007, recalled the time when Roy Lichtenstein wanted to make limited edition chairs.
“We recruited a firm in Vermont that specialized in bent wood. We gave them the design for the chairs which involved 27 to 30 layers of hardwood. The wet wood was bent under pressure and done in sections, 4 to 5 layers at a time,” said Sacilotto. “Lichtenstein then painted them.”
Graphicstudio has been headed by three directors since Saff’s departure, each of them holding distinctive agendas. USF faculty member and sculptor Alan Eaker took over after Saff’s departure. Like Saff, he was focused on developing the technology to produce the artists’ ideas.
“Alan found a way to continue and invigorate the studio,” said Dellinger.
The third director, Hank Hine, who heads St. Petersburg’s Dali Museum, was a poet who brought to the enterprise an interest in making art books. He also brought in artists from Latin America.
The current director is Margaret Miller. “She continues to bring in a different generation of artists, the most important artists in the world,” Dellinger said.
Among them is Marclay, who represented the United States in the 2011 Venice Biennale and came away with the Golden Lion award for best artist in that prestigious art festival.
All this adds to Tampa’s reputation worldwide.
Art lovers in “Europe and in China have an understanding of Tampa from seeing works from Graphicstudio,” said Dellinger. “It’s celebrated all over the world, and it brings a steady influx of the world’s greatest artists.”