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Fine-Art Chameleon

Michel Caza’s 55 years as a leading fine-art serigrapher set him apart as a pioneer in screen printing.

Over the course of a remarkable, six-decade career, Michel Caza has done it all in specialty printing. Co-founder of FESPA (and a board member for 44 years); author of hundreds of technical articles and six books; winner of more than 350 SGIA and FESPA awards; lecturer who has taught advanced techniques to thousands of students around the globe; technology developer noted, among many achievements, as the pioneer of a continuous tone process that was decades ahead of its time – it is the CV of perhaps the world’s most famous printer.

Yet it was Caza’s work in fine-art serigraphy that drew him the most acclaim, and not just inside the industry. Between 1960 and 2015, Caza produced nearly 2400 projects including original serigraphs, reproductions, art posters, catalogs, and other unique works – every one of them screen printed. He worked with 720 artists in all, including some of the most celebrated of the modern era.  

In May, Caza celebrated this legacy with the release of a new book chronicling his many adventures in the fine arts. Michel Caza: The Chameleon of Contemporary Art traces the unlikely path that began in 1954 in Stockholm, where Caza was a jazz-obsessed university student intending to stay for a month – he stayed for 19 – while working on his sociology degree. The story takes us through jazz clubs where Caza did frescoes of famous musicians and later took the stage as a singer, then to the finest restaurants of Stockholm, where he would draw caricatures of the establishments’ best customers in exchange for his meals. Finally, and purely by chance, he discovered his true calling.

An early print demonstrating Caza’s innovative “halftone without dots” continuous tone process. As demand for such reproductions grew, Caza developed a technique of printing the images on a thin canvas that he then laminated to linen to enhance their appeal.

In 1965, a year after opening his first business, Caza’s fine-art career took off after he applied his new continuous-tone technique to a Renoir reproduction, leading to sizable demand for similar projects featuring the works of other masters. Soon, artists and publishers from around the world sought him out, not just for his exceptional quality but also his reputation for finding ingenious solutions to difficult projects.

How challenging? Imagine doing a reproduction of a painting that had been done entirely in cosmetics, which never dry. Or a print on ocher paper without the use of white ink. Or a dress designed by Paco Rabanne composed entirely of small aluminum panels that would be printed with famous monuments. Or a job that had already been gravure and offset printed – on lambskin – for one of the most famous artists in the world. All of these unique projects, and thousands more, are detailed in the richly illustrated volume.

 Johannes Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” 2002 reproduction: The Japanese client who commissioned this reproduction wanted the print to appear as though the 1665 masterpiece had just been painted. Caza spent 44 hours in Photoshop painstakingly removing the cracks from the original.

 

Along the way, Caza introduces us to some fascinating characters. Beyond the artists themselves, whose geniuses and eccentricities are detailed in equal measure, Caza crossed paths with heads of museums, heads of state (including a French president and two prime ministers), celebrity fashion designers, film producers, radicals, protesters, and (sadly) more than a few unscrupulous clients. 

Though he sold his business in 2005, Caza, at 83, remains an active force in the industry, continuing to speak, consult, and take on occasional art projects (including a recent commission from FESPA that involved reproducing two paintings done by his wife and business partner, Thérèse). In an interview conducted by e-mail, Caza discussed the new book, the current limited-edition art market, and highlights from his extraordinary career.

 

SP: You seem destined to have been in the arts – your father a caricaturist, your grandfather a noted post-impressionist, your uncle and brother also painters – yet you found screen printing accidentally. Why did it change your life?

July 26, 1954 was a crucial date in my life. One that would decide – without my knowing – my entire future. Life, work, marriage, new learning, fame, divorce, children… everything depended on a few minutes in Stockholm in a phone booth! In my book, I describe the phone conversation in detail and I won’t repeat it here, but it was the “key moment” that determined my life to come – and unbeknownst to me, my encounter with screen printing.

From this crucial day forward, everything was linked in a crazy but inexorable logic. These “accidents” brought with them others. I started to sing jazz and, on one occasion, I met a “fan,” Anita, who became my first wife. She worked in a famous screen printing workshop, BMJ, where I did a little work (under the table) in the evening. I found it much more fun and interesting than the psychosociology I was supposed to be writing a thesis on. I worked full time for six months at BMJ and learned all the basics of screen printing. I went back to France, did my required military service, and started screen printing at friends’ shops. Then came practice and research in graphic screen printing, with many inventions in the ‘50s and ‘60s. 

First one workshop, then a second, and a third, etc. They grew, and I started with POS displays and, of course, began art printing in 1960. 

 Salvador Dali, “The Alchemy of  Philosophers: The King and the Queen,” 1973 original print: Considered one of Dali’s greatest masterpieces, this oversized book featured 10 prints that combined gravure, lithography, and screen printing. Caza devised techniques for printing the unusual substrate: lambskin.

 

Your timing was impeccable. You entered printing just as the pop artists were creating new possibilities in the silk-screened poster. Did you realize what the developing limited-edition market could mean for printers with the ability to help artists realize their visions – an opportunity you and German printer Michael Domberger are often credited as being the first to see?

At that time, the pop artists, even if known in New York, were almost unknown in Europe. Poldi Domberger, his son Michael, and I – although not the only art screen printers in Europe – saw a particularly high potential in the art print market.

Between 1960 and 1973 (the first crisis), there was a wave of galleries selling lithographs, serigraphs, engravings, and art posters. The idea Michael and I developed was to provide the growing middle classes of France and Germany with affordable images to decorate their apartments, offices, and factories. With pictorial works and sculptures often too expensive, there was a niche market for both the “upscale” original print and more modest art poster. Additionally, we both wanted to fight the domination of the market by lithography and engraving.

Screen printing is often considered a minor art and believed to produce only “flat tones” or, as in the US, needing dozens of colors to bring a certain subtlety to the modulations of tones. This was something I totally rejected, and that is why I invented the “halftone without dots” in 1965 – allowing me to completely modulate the colors in all their possible variations, at competitive prices, without using the mechanical dots of traditional halftone that I reserved for posters and pure “reproduction” work. Many artists around the world loved my technique, including, later, “hyperrealists” who were delighted to use it. 

Leonor Fini, “Guardian of the Sources,” 1975 original print: Considered one of the most important female artists of the 20th century, Fini worked with Caza on more than 120 original prints over a 15-year period.

 

An amusing paradox also arrived at this time and throughout the ‘70s, as American, French, and German artists in “optical art” (for example, geometric abstraction, kinetic, etc.) needed beautiful flat tones! Michael Domberger, Wilfredo Arcay [the Cuban-born artist and printmaker], and I benefited a lot from this development.

 

This is a deeply personal book. At one point, you say: “I lost quite a personal part of my soul as an artist/collaborator.” It seems to get to the root of your theme that you were a “chameleon” in your art career.

I did not realize, at the beginning, that by being a substitute for artists, to be – with their active complicity, of course – their “chameleon,” that I would lose my personal style. I have worked with so many different artists practicing all the current art forms from naïve to lyrical abstraction and hyperrealism, often in the same week or the same day. It was necessary to adapt myself to everything, and to use my technique and my art to recreate the ideas, even the “tics,” of different artists. 

 

Fine-art printing is often considered a craft, yet it seems that some of your most important technological advancements, such as your continuous-tone technique, emerged from your art business. Did innovation from your advertising business drive the creativity of your art collaborations, and vice versa?

I never wanted to create a separation between art and industrial screen printing techniques that I developed, perfected, and even invented. It was the same for the members of my team. Whether in technical or advertising printing or in art, they participated in all of the work with the artists and it was a “win-win.” The artists helped them to refine their knowledge of the color and effects, and they gave to the artists the resources of their technical expertise to help them in their “re-creations” in serigraphy. 

 

You took on many projects that required a great deal of innovation to complete. Talk about a few that stand out. 

I developed the relief printing of “brush strokes” for Salvador Dali when we realized the famous portfolio of “Alchemy of the Philosophers.” It must be remembered that in 1974, special capillary films did not yet exist that could have more easily achieved the effect. I had to imagine a special technique to obtain these reliefs of ink. The following year, it was Ernst Fuchs who asked me to use this technique for another huge portfolio, “The Original Kabbalah.” 

Later, in 1979, Dan Reisinger asked me to re-use my relief technique in the 53 prints of his enormous portfolio, “Scrolls of Fire,” on the symbolic history of the Jewish Diaspora. 

With Dali, I had other adventures – some funny, and some that could have been catastrophic! As long as there was no audience who expected his theatrical grandeur, Dali was a great professional with whom it was very pleasant to work. I recall how he often signed his parchment prints in his swimming pool in Cadaqués. Once, he dropped one in the water while he was signing it. This was for the “Alchemy of Philosophers,” where I learned after taking on the job that the “parchment” would actually be lambskin. Four thousand sheep died for that portfolio! So Dali dropped one of the prints and we fished it out of the pool, but the lambskin became a very small, hard, dry roll. Unrecoverable! 

Or, less comical, when the publisher later informed me of a fungal invasion in the corners of many of these famous prints, impossible to remove! I found a rather special remedy: to overprint fungus shapes using a transparent ink in the non-invaded parts to “unify” the whole body and to give them a purposeful appearance. 

With the Canadian Peter Fromme-Douglas and his “Movie-Stars,” the complexity between softness and contrast was difficult to recreate. This was a problem that I found again many years later with [Alain] Margotton’s nude of 2003, for which I earned the first “Best in Show” at the SGIA awards competition. Recreating works in the manner of Warhol was also a series of exciting experiences. So many things that mixed art and technique together so closely, all my life!

 

It’s interesting how politics seemed to weave in and out of your career – the student uprisings of 1968, the Chilean dictatorship of the 1970s, the AIDS protests of the 1980s were all documented in your work – and yet you also worked for a number of famous French politicians. Were you something of a chameleon in that sense as well?

It’s funny, but by nature I remained completely apolitical, even secular – neither angry with any religion, nor the absence of it. As my friend Pierre Soulages told me: “Whether they are left or right, I do not care, as long as they like what I do!” I fully share this point of view.

But there is an enormous exception: I have never been able to support dictatorships, whether left or right – hence, my pleasure to realize the “Chile” portfolio with South American artists, the sale of which paid for the expedition of artists and intellectuals fleeing from the Pinochet regime. 

The portfolio with [Gérard] Fromanger after the events of May 1968, with the controversial bleeding flag, was another nice challenge. The two years spent developing the mass posters which raised awareness of the AIDS epidemic was also very rewarding. We worked with 37 European artists in 1993, then 23 from Latin America the following year, and the exhibition toured both continents.

So, there were certainly many of my works that I knew had significant political implications – like the greeting cards created for President Chirac – yet overall I remained a chameleon, changing colors often.

 

You worked with many famous artists over the years – Fromanger, Niki de Saint Phalle, Dali, others. Is there one for whom you will always have a special place in your heart?

That’s a very difficult question! There has been a great deal of artists with whom, either immediately or over time, friendly, warm, and genuine relationships have developed. But if I must quote a few with whom I’ve maintained affectionate relations, there are two whom I dearly miss, Leonor Fini and André François, and two whom are happily still alive, Alberto Bali and Fabienne Verdier – with whom we, Thérèse and I, share a friendship that goes back 20 years.

 

You make a point in the book of saying that all of your fine-art projects were screen printed. You embraced noncontact printing in your advertising business; why did you stay away from it in fine art?   

Although I have seen interesting things done using digital printing, I am extremely reluctant when it comes to the area of original prints – that is, signed and in limited editions. I cover this very specifically in my book.

Simply put: An electronic file, which can be infinitely reproduced, cannot possibly meet the requirement of a true original print. On the other hand, I find that on-demand art posters or reproductions, of much less value and in unlimited quantities, can certainly utilize digital printing (although digital printing is best for smaller quantities). 

 

The book traces a number of challenges to the limited-edition market that you witnessed – for example, the economic crisis of the ‘70s that prompted art publishers to work only with established names, shutting out emerging talent. What are some of the most significant challenges you see in the limited-edition market today? 

Honestly, I think the current challenges are quite similar to the old ones. There are fewer editors, galleries, and screen printers involved in the production of original prints or art posters, and they still favor famous signatures to cut the risk. Yet there is a relatively new and interesting phenomenon that is emerging. Some artists, small printers, clubs, and associations produce prints and posters of an incredible quantity, from unknown or barely known artists. These are often relayed on the internet by distributors, resellers, and specialized galleries that help to distribute them, or sell them directly. It’s a new way for artists to break through.

Jean-Claude Flock, original print, 1983: This print, intended as a double homage to the recently deceased Hergé and Andy Warhol, took on extra significance when Caza was able to get Warhol to countersign it during a visit to New York. Warhol died in 1987.

 

I imagine that you won’t miss the business side of art publishing. Your work brought you into contact with some unscrupulous and highly volatile personalities. 

Unfortunately, this phenomenon of “almost” fraudulent sales, even quasi or real scams, has been somewhat aggravated by the internet. In addition, digital printing makes it even easier to produce quality printing, which can be perceived as genuine by an audience often unknowledgeable of fine art.

On many websites specializing in fine-art sales, the “waltz of the labels,” is equally surprising. The price differences are often staggering for what, according to the descriptive text, date, size, technique, etc. is assumed to be the real thing. If you see the same image, often with several formats, you can be sure that it’s a simple reproduction, not an original print. It goes (or should, rather) without saying, that a Warhol serigraph, or a lithograph by Miró, Dali, or Picasso going for $20 or even $200, is in fact a simple reproduction. I confess to being a little skeptical regarding some online auction sellers; many of them leave me with little doubt after researching their sites, even recognizing some of my own works. However, let’s not paint things blacker than they are! There are many publishers and galleries, many online, that are perfectly honest.

 

You never worked directly with Andy Warhol, though you met him and became ironically linked with his work after he died. It must have been an honor to have been asked to explain his process for the documentary film, “My Name is Andy Warhol.”

Well, frankly, I do not consider that I was “honored” when a TV channel asked me to do this shoot in my studio. For me, it was an all-natural thing! Many people have known for years (I first met Warhol in 1965) that I was a bit of a “Warhol specialist” in France. This is largely thanks to my friend, the famous New York gallery owner Leo Castelli, who gave me the reprints of Warhol’s “Four Flowers” for Nouvelles Images in 1975. And then there was the double tribute to Hergé and Warhol in 1983, the year that Hergé died and four years before Andy’s death. I had the opportunity to chat with Andy several times but never worked directly with him. Funny enough, when I met with him at The Factory in the late ‘70s, Andy told me that in reference to the work that Domberger and I were doing, “your silkscreens are too beautiful and sophisticated for me!” After this movie, I continued to “Warholize” with Chanel, Ladurée, and Absolut Vodka, as I tell in the book.

 

And what is next for Michel Caza? Will you continue to speak, work on limited editions, perhaps more works from Thérèse?  

Of course, I will continue! In art, especially with Fabienne Verdier, with my wonderful Thérèse too if the opportunity arises, and with my students, for whom I happen to prepare files and simulations. I also remain a technician and consultant for whoever may need my advice in the world. I will continue to write articles, lecture, participate as a judge in competitions. Why the hell should I stop? I have no desire to become an angler somewhere in Scotland. After all, I’m only 83 years old and my future is not only my past!  

Michel Caza: The Chameleon of Contemporary Art was published in May and debuted at FESPA ’18 in Berlin. To order a copy, visit cazamichel-artedition.com. Read more from Screen Printing's June/July 2018 issue. 

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