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'0305-03', digital print by Harold Cohen, 2003. Museum no. E.263-2005

'0305-03', digital print by AARON, a computer program written by Harold Cohen, 2003. Museum no. E.263-2005. Given by Harold Cohen

For much of their history fine art prints have been a private art form, designed for connoisseurs and collectors, published in limited editions and hidden away in portfolios. The 20th century saw the development of a more public role for prints, with the adoption of affordable processes such as linocut, and editioned lithographs made for public display, such as those commissioned by J. Lyons & Co. for their restaurants, and the much-loved 'School Prints' in the 1940s and 50s. Even so print-making was rarely an artist's main focus. Instead it tended to be a peripheral activity, secondary to painting  or sculpture This changed in the 1960s and 70s with the rise of print studios such as Gemini GEL and ULAE in the USA, and Kelpra Studio in the UK. This development encouraged artists to explore the potential of printmaking and use it to produce works which represented major breakthroughs as creative statements, placing print, arguably for the first time, alongside sculpture and painting as a primary means of expression. Printmaking, silk-screening in particular, was also appropriated by artists such as Rauschenberg and Warhol for unique works on canvas, and 'combined' with painting and installation pieces.

The boundaries that once defined printmaking began to blur. From the cutting-edge experiments of the 1960s printmaking has developed in many new directions, and over the last 20 years prints have become more visible, accessible and affordable than ever before. No longer merely secondary, supplementary or reproductive, print is now a central part of many artists' activity, the equal of their output in other media, and conceived as integral or complementary to it.

'Case Studies', by Paul Coldwell, UK, 2002. Museum no. E.165-2003

'Case Studies', etching and blind embossing from a CAD by Paul Coldwell, printed and published by London Print Studio in an edition of 20, UK, 2002. Museum no. E.165-2003. Purchased through the Julie and Robert Breckman Print Fund

New technologies have been swiftly co-opted for fine art printmaking, and traditional techniques have been supplanted, modified (and sometimes facilitated) by the photocopier, the fax, and the inkjet printer attached to a PC. At the same time, some artists have continued to explore the untapped potential of more traditional methods, whether it be by printing on surfaces other than paper, by working on an unprecedented scale or simply by working in a way which expands the definitions of 'print'. The rise of new media, viewed by some as a threat to the future of printmaking, has simply extended the options available. Just as the invention of lithography did not render woodcut and engraving redundant, and photography did not spell the end for traditional graphic media, so digital technologies have not replaced other methods but rather extended choice and capacity.

Paul Coldwell heads a leading research programme at the University of the Arts, London, on the integration of computer technology into fine-art practice. His own works are frequently a combination of both digital and more traditional processes. The journey from original source material, repeatedly modified and re-formed, to final print, might be read as a metaphor for his imagery, which frequently reflects on the plight of refugees and migrants who are also constantly moving on and adapting to new circumstances.

In Case Studies Coldwell, with deliberate irony perhaps, works from an image that resembles a tourist postcard of mountains – the kind one might send to friends announcing the pleasures of being away from home. The pixels of the original image have been manipulated to create a pattern of dots through which the mountains are barely recognisable. Some of the dots have been enlarged and deep-etched after transfer to the etching plate and thus, as white and embossed stars, they appear to fall in front of rather than beyond the mountains. The floating, open, empty suitcase is a poignant constellation, invoking both the idea of travel and the idea of travelling with nothing. The inversion of stars and mountains creates a kind of 'inside-out nature', suggesting that landscape, and by association, homeland or distant sanctuary, is something beyond reach – less accessible even than the stars themselves.

'What is an American?', by Jaune Quick-to-see Smith, 2001. Museum no. E.3582-2004

'What is an American?', lithograph on 6 sheets of Japanese tableau paper, with chine collé, collage, hand painting and grommets, by Jaune Quick-to-see Smith, printed with and published by the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper, NJ, in an edition of 20, 2001. Museum no. E.3582-2004. Purchased through the Julie and Robert Breckman Print Fund

Printmaking is often a collaborative activity and workshops and studios have played a crucial role in the development of artists' ideas around print. The internationally renowned Fabric Workshop, Philadelphia and the community-based London Printworks Trust are just two of the organisations which have generated a range of imaginative print projects, collaborations, interventions and co-operative ventures. Both in their own ways have used print as a strategy for social and political engagement. This policy could almost be described as a mission statement for The London Print Studio, another important centre for printmaking which has education and accessibility at its core. In the USA, the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper, attached to a university, encourages artists from under-represented communities into an environment, where students can learn enormously from the new narratives these artists offer to the mainstream.

Jaune Quick-to-see Smith is a Native-American of mixed Salish, French, Cree and Shoshone descent. This print takes the form of an unfolded parflêche (literally 'parry arrow') a Native American carry-all, traditionally made from dried buffalo hide, a large sheet which is then folded, tied and decoratively painted. It has associations as a carrier of messages about history and origins, and suggests the 'carriage' of Native-American ideas and values into contemporary, Euro-centric culture.

Smith made this image in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda on American targets in 2001. The blood gushing from the hand is hand-painted in patriotic colours and suggests the suffering of the 'American people', but the deliberately ambiguous figure (it could be a fashionably dressed city girl, or a traditionally dressed Native American) also suggests that many 'Americans' may have ignored and forgotten the incredible suffering wrought on the people who lived on the land before the Europeans arrived.

Lithography can reproduce the formal qualities of many other processes too, such as charcoal drawing, watercolour, collage and photography. In this print many of these qualities have been drawn together with the addition of collage elements made of copied US postage stamps and other icons of American life. Smith was particularly appreciative of the skills of master printer Eileen Foti at the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper who worked with her on this print and came forward with many suggestions for realising the form of the image.

Printmaking, especially processes such as woodcut and lino-cut, which are cheap and relatively easy to produce and require little in the way of materials or studio facilities, has also been adopted in cultures and communities (such as Botswana, the Torres Strait Islands, and amongst Aboriginal artists in mainland Australia) where it was previously unknown. This has been welcomed as a means of preserving, or reviving, traditional imagery, and as a means of disseminating such imagery through the international (largely western) art world, and equally important, participating in its art markets.

'The Clans and Tartans of Scotland', Georgia Russell, 2002. Museum no. E.333-2003

'The Clans and Tartans of Scotland', Georgia Russell, 2002. Museum no. E.333-2003

The audience (and the market) for prints has shifted radically in recent years. The conoisseurial appreciation of editions, states, and proofs is still influential, but much contemporary printmaking operates outside this structure. On the one hand there are artists making one-off unique works, such as Lee Wagstaff's Shroud prints, or Ken McDonald's modified tramp's coat. On the other, the unlimited un-numbered edition, whether of an artist's wallpaper printed specifically for an exhibition, or of printed flyers, badges or carrier bags, is now commonplace. At the same time, with the adoption of print for site-specific projects and public art commissions such as the innovative Platform for Art scheme on the London Underground, the circumstances for viewing prints, and the definition of 'print' itself, have changed considerably. These developments, together with strategies such as self-publication, have taken prints outside the established critical context, the gallery system, and the art market.

Indeed prints may now be sold on market stalls, from vending machines or over the internet. Look carefully at your paper coffee cup, for it may be a public work of art. As stickers, magazine inserts, flyers and postcards, prints can be acquired at little or no cost. Even those visitors who were unable to afford anything on the walls of the 2003 Frieze Art Fair might have pocketed a copy of the re-issued London Underground map printed with Emma Kay's specially-designed target motif, and carried home a catalogue in a bag designed by Turner-Prize winner Jeremy Deller. There have also been opportunities to collaborate with an artist on-line, as in Peter Halley's project (on the web site of the Museum of Modern Art, New York) to produce a print from a series of image options which anyone can colour to their own specification, and print out at home.

Artists have increasingly turned to cheap everyday printed material to exploit the democratic potential of printmaking as a means of putting art into the public domain in an affordable and accessible form. The use of carrier bags as artworks in their own right, or as advertising for an event or exhibition has become a regular strategy. There are precedents for this, including Andy Warhol's paper carriers printed with his iconic soup-can image, and Barbara Kruger's ironic motto for today's' consumer-driven society 'I shop therefore I am' which has been co-opted by department stores, but Deller's bag is not a reproduction of an image or text from another context - it is an independent original work existing only as a bag. Much of his work involves a collaboration in the staging of public events, and an engagement with audiences outside the confines of a gallery. He has previously used print - in the form of images and slogans on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and small ads in newspapers - for subversive messages that would be seen by a wide public. He has described such interventions as being 'ephemeral and celebratory of (their) environment' in comparison to the embarrassed bombast of  'official' public art.

Untitled, line-block on plastic carrier bag, by Jeremy Deller, 2003. E. 3540-2004

Untitled, line-block on plastic carrier bag, by Jeremy Deller, 2003. Museum no. E. 3540-2004. Given by Gill Saunders

'Untitled. Moccasins', by Lynne Allen, 2000. Museum no. E.3584:1-2-2004

'Untitled. Moccasins', Lynne Allen, etching on handmade paper, cut and stitched to shape, 2000. Museum no. E.3584:1-2-2004. Purchased through the Julie and Robert Breckman Print Fund

The bag is one from a series of four commissioned by Frieze and designed to be given away free (usually with the purchase of a catalogue or guide) at the first Frieze Art Fair in London in 2003. The bag is thus an example of art sponsorship and a souvenir of a major art-world event, as well as a work of public art randomly disseminated by visitors to the Fair. It works as a simple but effective advertisement, not only for the product (the Fair) but also for the tastes and attitudes of the person carrying it. As a kind of status symbol, like a bag from a designer store, it is a tool for communication, a means of transmitting coded signals to other members of our 'tribe'. In this context the bag becomes an emblem, like a badge of belonging, which connects us to those who can read the signs. But at the same time it enforces a kind of exclusivity, because Deller's bags with their intriguing but opaque messages, act to tantalise or bemuse the un-initiated.

Labels for Beck's brewing company by Tim Head, Damien Hirst and Rebecca Horn. E. 311-2005; E.867-2003; E.219-2005

Labels designed for Beck's brewing company (L to R): screenprint by Tim Head, 1992, E. 311-2005. Given by Gill Saunders; offset lithograph by Damien Hirst, 1995, E.867-2003. Given by Edwina Sassoon through the Friends of the V&A; offset lithograph by Rebecca Horn, 1994, E.219-2005. Given by Riikka Kuittinen

The beer brewing company Beck's has been sponsoring contemporary art events since 1985 when they supported the German Art in the 20th Century exhibition at the Royal Academy. Since then Beck's has commemorated its major sponsorships and exhibition openings by inviting artists to create limited edition labels for the bottles of beer which are offered to guests at the private views. By doing this they aim to identify their brand image with the perceived attributes of contemporary art: cool, original, young, irreverent, controversial and talked-about. Each design offers us a snapshot of the artist's work within the limitations of a small label. Some are instantly recognisable, such as Damien Hirst's coloured dots, familiar from his spot paintings (one of two labels he designed in 1995), but others are a little less obvious. Tim Head's label shows several plastic coffee stirrers; his design connects with his interest in patterns and motifs derived from everyday throw-away materials. Rebecca Horn is best-known as the maker of wearable artworks, and kinetic sculptures which produce sounds or generate 'paintings' by mechanical gestures of pouring or spilling.

In every case, these artist-designed labels represent a fascinating synthesis of art and design, with popular culture, marketing and consumption, as well as embodying the youth-orientated character of Beck's sponsorship campaigns.

Another consequence of the many technical and conceptual developments is that printmaking is now disputed territory. The rise of artists' multiples and of print-marketing via the internet, has led some to dismiss such editions as mere 'reproductions'. There has been some debate about whether the prints produced by artists such as Damien Hirst and others, through the mediation of print publishers such as the Paragon Press, can be considered the equal of those prints which are not only conceived by the artist, but worked and printed by him/her too, but the argument may be thought parochial and has had little influence on sales, on critical opinion, or on museum acquisition policies. The tradition of artists working with and dependent on the technical skills of master printers and specialist print studios is centuries old, even if it only became more obvious as a means of production with the establishment of major lithographic studios in the USA from the late 1950s. 'Originality' is really only a matter of degree, evolving with the changing applications of traditional processes and the introduction of new ones. Similarly, new tools such as the computer, the inkjet printer and so on, may be regarded simply as the means to an end - chosen for their own particular qualities and their potential to deliver what the artist has in mind.

'Karokia', by Zakee Shariff, 2004. Museum no. E.2-2006

'Karokia', screenprint on handmade paper by Zakee Shariff, printed by London Printworks Trust, 2004. Museum no. E.2-2006. Given by the Artist

All these innovations prompt the question: what is a print? The term now encompasses everything from the stencilled guerrilla graphics of graffiti artists such as Banksy, to museum-sponsored billboards, appropriated or found material which is then modified, a cake iced with a laser-jet printed image, printed MDF floors, wallpapers and soft furnishings designed for installations. In recent years printmaking has co-opted painting and sculpture, dress and domestic furnishings, commerce and cyberspace. Dynamic and democratic, the world of printmaking now includes the billboard and the badge, the masterpiece and the multiple, the priceless and the give-away. Prints are a vital and vibrant link between the museum and the marketplace, the elite and the everyday.

Gill Saunders, Senior Curator (Prints)
Rosie Miles, Curator (Prints)

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