Eugene Feldman


Ruth Fine
Suzanne Delehanty
Ed Colker
Aloisio Magalhães

Critique, Review & Discussion
of Eugene Feldman's work

Ruth Fine, Department of Graphic Arts,
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC 1981

Eugene Feldman was a pioneering force in the use of offset lithography as an expressive graphic medium. The copy camera, photo-sensitive aluminum printing plates, and power-driven offset press were his primary tools. They were so finely tuned and he was able to use them with such consummate sensitivity that the relationship between printer and equipment might be compared with that of a master violinist to his Stradivarius. No doubt, this in part was because Feldman, who began his career as a printer at the age of 13 with a small hand press, was the owner of two power driven machines before he had finished high school; and from that time until his death in 1975 at the age of 54, most of his time was spent in the print shop.

By day, Falcon Press (the name selected when the 13 year old printer started his business) was a job shop producing catalogues and books, posters and stationery, and various other printed ephemera. Feldman's perfectionism marked everything that he and his small staff (cameraman, stripper, pressman) produced. Taking pride in all of the work associated with the Falcon Press name, Gene Feldman came to he respected as one of the country's finest commercial printers.

By night, however, and on weekends, the Falcon Press became quite another place. It was staffed by Feldman usually working alone in his private laboratory, although on occasion he was joined by colleagues such as Aloisio Magalhães, the Brazilian designer with whom he collaborated on two of his experimental hooks (Doorway to Portuguese, 1957, and Doorway to Brazilian, 1959). In this more solitary circumstance, the experimental work seen in this exhibition was produced.

One must remember, however, that Eugene Feldman was not one to fracture or fragment the concerns of his work. "Business was my gateway to art and art is part of my business," he said. In fact, the prints and books which comprise Feldman's arc were rooted in his work as a commercial printer; the papers and the inks that he used for them more often than not were the materials that were rejected or left over from the commercial jobs in progress at Falcon Press; the techniques that he explored and developed as an artist stemmed from processes used in Feldman's daily work as a job printer. The key ingredient to Feldman's unique contribution to the graphic arts is not based in the materials and processes that he used alone, however, but rather from their use in combination with the innovative and improvisational approach that formed the nature of his own private muse. For if Feldman's relationship to his equipment (which is, after all, of a sort that one might consider cumbersome) was that of a violinist to a violin (a light and graceful instrument), Feldman's process is perhaps best compared to a jazz pianist, who, given a simple motif goes on to develop infinite variations. The ease and grace and love of Feldman's immersion in his materials combined with his unquestioning (or so it seems) commitment to an improvisational, non-fixed flow of visual ideas, brought into being his thousands of printed variations on his themes. The irony, of course, is that each of his images, printed with a technology developed to allow for maximum consistency, has an individual character which distinguishes it from others to which it is closely related.

Feldman worked in series. His images most often were photographic, and he was a master of what has come to he called altered photographic imagery. Starting with a 35 mm slide, making multiple separations and enlarging them several times, he used a single photographic image as the source for multiple printing elements to be combined in various ways. This is best demonstrated in the Tyler exhibition by eight impressions of the Girl from Brooklyn, n.d. One of a series which stemmed from an 8 mm movie film or the subject, Barbra Streisand, it is seen in several versions - printed from various numbers of negatives superimposed upon each other and thereby printed in various numbers of colors (with the colors themselves differing substantially from impression to impression). The papers, too, vary significantly, contributing in an important way to the visual impact of the images. The fluid character of the work is in part due to the fact that Feldman worked without the half-tone screen, considered by many as an essential component of offset printing. Feldman's tonalities, rather, are developed through his use of superimposed and varying negatives, a range of ink densities, and other equally subtly controlled means -such as adding packing beneath the blankets of the press to alter the printing pressure in particular areas or to produce collage-like effects.

Eugene Feldman was exceedingly prolific. He was a lithe man both his mind and his body moved in time with his power-driven offset presses. This speed combined with seemingly unbounded energy yielded an enormous body of work. Much of it Feldman discarded. To him this meant setting the work aside to be used in the evolution of some later project. Resulting from this process were the decorative papers that emerged as sheets that were repeatedly put through the press (one can almost sense Feldman musing, wondering what something would look like if... and then sending a sheet through for yet another layer of image and another layer of ink). For example, a major work like New York: West Side Skyline, 1965, was layered onto a plaid patterned paper, which can be discerned through the dense blacks.

Feldman's subjects were both personal (his surroundings: Cape May, Philadelphia’s West River Drive) and impersonal (people and places important to contemporary life: Jackie Kennedy, Brasilia). His conceptualization of these subjects balances aspects of the planned with aspects of the spontaneous; and the resulting images are of the twentieth century in their sensibility and process. They also are timeless in their contribution to a tradition of visual lyricism.

Suzanne Delehanty, Director
Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pensylvania

Eugene Feldman's books are microcosms. They reflect the endless curiosity and joy in experimentation and discovery that inspired those who knew Gene either directly or through his books and fine prints. The books are complex because problems in photography, design, and printing sparked Feldman both as an artist and as a technician. He could make the commercial offset press and the most sophisticated printing technology serve his creative intentions. The books also reflect Feldman's ability to collaborate with other artists and to manage every facet of the Falcon Press, his alter ego. From 1948 to 1975 Falcon Press was his studio, his business, and a hospitable meeting place for artists, students, and friends.

For Feldman, working with others meant the formation of lasting friendships. Ed Colker, who contributed to the catalogue text, is now on the faculty of the University of Illinois; he and Feldman were friends for nearly thirty years and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania where Feldman taught from 1962 until his death in 1975. Aloisio Magalhães, the distinguished Brazilian artist and graphic designer, was Gene's friend since they first collaborated on Doorway to Portuguese in 1957. Sarah Williams, who worked for Feldman at Falcon Press, contributed the catalogue entries and edited portions of her interview with Aloisio Magalhães. Her enthusiasm for every phase of the project is a tribute to Gene. The typesetting was contributed by Lynn Lewis, a highly regarded photocompositor. Gene taught Lynn about typesetting and she unraveled the computer's secrets for Gene; at the age of fifty, he was both a ready teacher and a willing student. The typeset pages of this catalogue were designed by Barbara Sosson. The catalogue printing is a gift from the staff of Falcon Press, where the traditions of fine printing established by Gene arc carried on.

Gene's friends have generously shared examples of his books with us: Benjamin Bernstein, Dr Gary Carpenter, Murray Dessner, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Egnal, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Evelev, David Feldman, Mrs. Eugene Feldman, the Fine Arts Library of the University of Pennsylvania, Downey Hoster, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Kornse, Kimball Kramer, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Neagle, Dr. and Mrs. Perry Ottenberg, Peter Paone, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mrs. Zelda Polatsek, Dr. and Mrs. David Sachs, Dr and Mrs. Marvin Sachs, Sarah Williams, Wittenborn and Company, Mr. and Mrs. Morris Wurman, and Richard Saul Wurman. Our special thanks to the Friends of the Library and to Lyman W. Riley and Dr. Neda M. Westlake of the Library's Special Collections. My warm thanks to John Taylor for assisting me with the installation.

The Institute gratefully acknowledges a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in support of the exhibition, which enabled us to share this aspect of Gene's work with the University and Philadelphia communities. My deepest appreciation to Rosina Feldman for allowing ICA to organize this exhibition of Gene's experimental books. She contributed to and shared in the joy that all of us experienced in renewing our understanding and our pleasure in the singular world of books by Eugene Feldman.

Ed Colker, Artist,
Chicago, August 1977

Eugene Feldman was an artist who did not fear technology. Indeed, his embrace of the "revelations" possible in computer imagery, "explosion" enlargements of small negatives, bits of film or slides, echoes of high-speed printing forms, and elements of modern typographic composition might, at first, mislead a newcomer into the false assumption that drawing and poetry were absent. However, this disguise was but part of Gene's great secret-a secret of caring-discovered, of course, by all who came to know and work with him. In the masterful pacing of the Brazil album, leading us into the jungle with contrasted shapings to the glorious open-spread of the state buildings in silver and orange (photographed, as you know, from the models!); in the powerful, awesome evocations of the Cuevas drawings for Kafka and, again, the subtle pace of scale, tension, and force with typography and imagery; in the loving elegance and total respect which inform the Kahn book-in all, we have Gene's "eye," his poetry, his wit, his refined intelligence.

As a teacher, the finest compliment should be paid: he neither trained opportunist imitators nor tyrannized insecure souls; rather, the student's self-definition and self-esteem (with a little help from Falcon Press, more often than not) were the goals.

We met almost thirty years ago; I think we cared for and influenced each other deeply. We both come from a people whose heritage is the book; or perhaps simply, as do all artists, we bind a piece of time in the vain attempt to defeat mortality.

I have shared these cherished books with hundreds of my students: I have not wished to present the work as slides. I have encouraged young artists to examine and touch and study and leaf through; my copies now show the wear and the marks of use and age, but I don't mind. Gene would have approved.

Aloisio Magalhães
New York, September 1977

Gene's books raise an interesting question: Why did Gene produce a few books only? In my view, the answer is based on a very interesting point in his creative process. To produce a book is to stop a moment. A book is a sort of support structure, a vehicle for something. It can hold words, it can hold images, it can hold any kind of idea. But the book itself is only the basic support. So in a certain way, you have to stop your creative process; only then do you produce a book. Now for Gene, this was a very difficult thing to do because he was always involved in the creative process.

For Gene, the Shop and the technological equipment of the Shop were the tools he used just as someone uses a pencil, or someone else uses a pen or a brush. Gene used the technological apparatus of graphics as a tool, directly, with no intermediary, and he always used it in a creative way. So for him, it was really very difficult to stop the usual flow of work at the Shop to produce something like a book. That is why he needed either a good pretext or someone else involved directly in a project in order for him to stop for a moment. And so he would stop, because he liked that person or because he liked the subject. He always liked to be teaching someone how his graphic process worked, but it was beyond his own work. His own process was a sort of interrupted thing.

Sometimes, as in my case, he was interested much more in making someone understand the printing process than in anything else. He wanted to give me a real introduction to the process of offset printing. To him that was much more important than the book itself, especially with the first one we did together, The Doorway to Portuguese. That first book was a sort of testament of the experience that was going on between Gene and me. And there always was in Gene a teacher, or sometimes more than a teacher, something like an older brother. My relation with Gene was always very much like being brothers, with him being the more experienced one, and always each would treat the other one very carefully. I think that with me there was something special behind the whole thing, something that cannot be explained. Maybe Gene had for me many of the qualities that I would like to touch and maybe I held out something for him. We made an exchange for the first time on the Portuguese book.

That book didn't start off being a book; we were just playing around with the offset process to see what could be done, We had no plan for the book and the pages were not really planned out first either. All we had was the idea of making something, so we kept on making experimental sheets. And from among all those sheets we took the ones that we found the most interesting in someway and the most intriguing for some technical reason or other, and we kept those aside for a possible page in a book. While we were discussing those pages and thinking about the images that could be assembled in some sort of a book, I had the idea of introducing little texts in Portuguese, based on the ABC principle, and this gave us a flexible way of working with the pages. So the ideas and the talk and the printing kept going on, and it was a fantastic experience really because it was completely free.

But sometimes I had to control Gene a little bit because of that fantastic thing with him that he treated the technology like a brush. He was never interested in the fact that the sheets would be reproduced many, many times. Instead he was always introducing new things. He was forever changing a plate or introducing a new element to the offset process right in the middle of a run, He treated a high, sophisticated technology with complete liberty, complete freedom. His use of the medium was paradoxical because he kept on making changes even to the point of going against the technology. He used the technology of offset reproduction as a tool for making unique images out of materials and methods that had nothing to do with the usual materials and methods of the technology. It is a very important aspect of Gene's mentality, of his approach to his technology.

This freedom of his, Gene used in order to make all different sorts of books. The concept of a book was for him something very open. For Gene a book was everything he made that was composed of more than one sheet put together. I think the most interesting books were exactly the ones that were the least like a book. Take the New York Skyline; that's a perfect example of Gene's making something that was way beyond the tradition of the book. Now, with the Doorway to Brazilia we had a completely free book. We had only one thing in mind. Let's use this event, we said, of a new capital's being built to see what we can take out of it and use in the technology of printing. There were no buyers, no programs, nothing pre-established. The only thing we decided was to take the photographs in Brazil and then to do something creative.

When Gene came to Brazil to start the book he was completely overwhelmed by the difference in life he found. He was deeply touched by certain aspects of the life-not many, but certain special things-the nature of the tropical life and plants, the colors. He was also very much attracted to the people of Brazil, especially the simple people, the workers, and they were beauties! He was very much impressed with a certain kind of individual freedom that he felt was there in those simple men and women. He tried to get close to them, to talk to them. He made a film of the workers in Brazilia and when he came back he planned to make a book of hats from all the pictures he took, but he never finished it.

Now I can understand very well why he never finished it, or why he never finished a series like the one of Barbra Streisand or the one of Nureyev. The thing he always kept in mind, even in series like these, was the process of printing. To him the process was such an important thing that by contrast, to accomplish the process later on was a thing which was not interesting at all. When you have finished a series by making it into a book it is something stopped. It has come to an end. For Gene printing was a continuous process. He might stop it for a moment to produce a book, as he did with me because he was interested in teaching me or in finding out for himself more about how it worked, but then he would get right back to his process, making prints, and then prints on top of prints, and more prints on top of those. It was an endless process, a process that with Gene went on forever.