A master of prints

A master of prints
One of the leading figures in the field of modern printmaking, Krishna Reddy turned 92 this July. The New York-based artist’s life story is awe-inspiring. Born to a family of agriculturists in Nandanoor, a small village near Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, his interest in making art began at a very young age. His earliest paintings were murals on temple walls.

Reddy was still in his teens when he was drawn to the country’s freedom struggle. Imprisoned by the colonial police for painting and pasting posters supporting the Quit India Movement, he fled to Santiniketan, West Bengal. He spent his formative years at Kala Bhavana training under masters such as Nandalal Bose, Ram Kinker Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee.

That heralded the beginning of Reddy’s long and meaningful journey in the world of art, which eventually took him to many places and earned him the friendship of many great artists. As a sculptor, he was fortunate to study under some of the best masters of the craft such as Ramkinker Baij (Santiniketan), Henry Moore (London), Ossip Zadkine (Paris) and Marino Marini (Italy).

It was in Paris that Reddy first came in contact with the British scientist and influential printmaker S W Hayter. A chemical engineer by training, Hayter had switched to being an artist after prospecting for oil in Iraq. He established Atelier 17 in 1927 in Paris; it was a workshop, an international hub for artists, where they could gather and work. Among other activities, Hayter and artists such as Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky published editions of prints to raise funds for the communist cause during the Spanish Civil War.

“My visit to Hayter’s Atelier 17 in 1951 was an eye-opening experience,” recalls Reddy in his book titled Intaglio Simultaneous Colour Printmaking (State University of New York Press/1988). “The Atelier was a place of great activity and experiment. Artists worked together, pooling their discoveries and achievements. In pursuit of direct expression, these artists sought to integrate and simplify the many elements in printmaking… In the free atmosphere of the Atelier, I was on my own and could take my own journeys.”

During his stint at Atelier 17, Reddy made path-breaking experiments and innovations, including the viscosity colour printing, even as he rubbed shoulders with leading modern artists of the time like Joan Miró, Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Juan Cardenas, Constantin Brancusi and Zarina Hashmi. With his background in sculpture, Krishna Reddy viewed the plate not merely as a tool or component for printmaking, but rather as a work of art in its own right. He went on to become the co-director at Atelier 17 (Paris) for more than a decade (1964-1976) and continued to rediscover existing printmaking materials, techniques and processes.

Even while he held that position, Reddy began making regular trips to teach colour viscosity in the United States. In 1976, he moved with his family to New York and became the director of the Department of Graphics at the New York University, where he established the Colour Print Atelier. He has been residing in NY since then, simultaneously practising his art and continuing his teaching.

Working an image

The philosophical and conceptual frameworks of Krishna Reddy’s work along with his mastery over materials and processes have inspired generations of artists across the world. He has always emphasised how handling materials is one of the great pleasures of printmaking; how one has to dig into materials in order to discover the image; and how the very process of working an image is always one of discovery.

Reddy has been hailed by critics for being an artist par excellence and a pioneer miles ahead of his time. “Every printmaker of any consequence in India has worked with Krishna or has been aware of his influence,” wrote art critic Richard Bartholomew, way back in 1974. “Krishna has been a splendid person as a teacher and a guide and a pathfinder. His prints radiate his personality.”

Bartholomew goes on to applaud the uniqueness of Reddy’s art. “His images manifest themselves in the form of embossed lines and impregnated colour, both of which are variegated and subtle. There is nothing esoteric about these images. They are universal. A fish, the wave, the meander of a river, an aerial view of the landscape, the charged fields of germination, the vibrations of a seated worshipper. But what is so distinctive about his work is that in our encounter these images appear to be inevitable and natural. A theme drawn from nature has been etched vividly and presented with all the nuances that the medium is capable of rendering and with much that was inspiring in the natural manifestation. The wealth of visual detail that is built in, and which is explicit, is amazing.”

Challenges he addressed

Reddy has received many honours, including the Padma Shri in 1972 and the Gagan Abani Puraskar of Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, in 1980. The Southern Graphics Council of America bestowed its highest honour on him — the Printmaker Emeritus Award 2000 — in recognition of his historic contribution in the field of graphic art and his involvement in art education for over half a century.

While his own innovations met with great success, Reddy was also aware of the changes and challenges of printmaking in an emerging context. In his 1988 book on colour printmaking, he warned about an increasingly complex atmosphere of growing technology in which the original sense of the medium was getting lost.

“Printmaking, as an original art form, has rapidly deteriorated into a process of reproduction. To practise printmaking under today’s circumstances requires a long apprenticeship and a host of materials and equipment. The expertise and competency required to work in this area have become distractions for the artist, turning him into a technician... In spite of great technological advances, printmaking is undergoing a profound crisis. The working artist finds himself far distanced from the creative potential of the medium. If he becomes preoccupied with product-oriented mechanical ways, he loses touch with the soul and spirit of the medium.”

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