Screen printing is a process that involves using stencilling and meshes to press ink, dyes, and reactive substances onto any kind of surface by hand. It is fundamentally a simple process, though it can require a lot of skill and produce some very sophisticated and complex results. To this day, screen printing holds many advantages over other forms of printing. Many boutique clothing creators still use it for the quality of the finish, and artists appreciate the particular texture and elements of randomness it can allow.
Though it was invented over a thousand years ago in Asia, it was only introduced to the west in the 17th century. Even then it did not become the dominant form of printing, as it required silk which was quite expensive at the time. In the early 20th century, however, synthetic meshes were available, and new light-reaction compounds could be used to ‘stencil’ the mesh, making screen-printing more accessible.
Its quality and affordability made screen printing immensely popular at this time, despite the skill required to use it well. With two world wars and a depression, the early 20th century was a time of political upheaval, industrialisation, and grass roots engagement. Screen printing became dominant as subcultures, advertisers, and political parties used it for posters, flyers, adverts, covers, and packaging. It was here that its recognisable texture became associated with underground aesthetics.
Warhol learned about screen printing in 1962 – the year of his breakthrough – from master printer Michel Caza. In that same year, Warhol would exhibit his now-iconic Marilyn Diptych prints.
Undoubtedly, Warhol was responsible for bringing screen printing from the underground into the mainstream. It was an essential tool for his work, allowing him to create collaged walls of images bearing the distinctive randomness and properties of the medium. Though he was always interested in new artistic technologies – even appearing at the reveal of the Amiga 1000 computer to paint a portrait of Debbie Harry on stage (image below) – he would use screen printing for the vast majority of his work until his death. His later pieces, one of which you can now own a part of, are equally as steeped in the medium as his earliest.
After the invention of photography artists had to answer a question in their art: How to represent not what we see, but how we see. For the impressionists this was an emotional task – Van Gogh’s majestic, dizzying, night sky was far closer to the experience of the real thing than any photograph. For the cubists this was a psychological question. Picasso’s abstracted faces aren’t representations, but mimic the way our minds might remember people – eyes forward, nose in profile, a particular feature emphasised, another forgotten. All at once, jumbled up yet somehow making sense.
In screen printing, Warhol found his particular answer. The large blocks of colour mirrored the flickering neon of TV screens. The grainy textures and accidental streaks were in the same language as 35mm blockbusters and the poorly-printed newspaper photograph noise of the new mass media age. Now that we live in an era of 4k video and software-adjusted phone cameras, many of these references are gone, but anyone who has applied an Instagram filter knows the power of contrast, tinting, and texture, and is essentially doing the same thing Warhol did.
Warhol made screen printing his own, and ended up being as significant to the medium as the medium was to his work. Both, however, are still just as important and relevant today.
Now, with fractional ownership at Showpiece, you too have a rare opportunity to own part of the legendary artist’s work, without having to pay record-breaking prices.