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Reading Beyond the Fine Prints

June Wayne is best known for her far-reaching art-world contributions. But a new retrospective at LACMA sheds light on her own artwork, as this enduring and often overlooked innovator embarks on her ninth decade.

November 08, 1998|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Working on a new lithograph a few years ago, June Wayne recalled a production illustration she'd made in 1943 detailing the internal structure of an airplane. She recycled the drawing, making it the central image of her 1996 print "Nacelle."

"It amuses me to take ideas that were more than 50 years apart and combine them," says Wayne. "I find there's a continuity in my work, and its parts all live very happily with one another."

All those parts go on view Nov. 19 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. First mounted last year by the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, N.Y., "June Wayne: A Retrospective" highlights the career of an 80-year-old artist, feminist and social activist who always kept in mind her grandmother's warning to "never mistake a spit in the eye for rain."

That activism, compounded by her prominence from establishing the influential Tamarind Lithography Workshop, has often shoved Wayne's own artwork out of the spotlight. Despite creating hundreds of prints, paintings and other pieces on subjects as diverse as the justice system, her mother and the Northridge earthquake, and despite more than 70 solo exhibitions here and abroad, she was still referred to recently in a New York Times art review as a "little-known figure."

With more than 100 of Wayne's paintings, collages, tapestries and prints, many of the last drawn from LACMA's collection, the exhibition should throw light on her work, as well as reinforce her place in art history. Notes Victor Carlson, the LACMA senior curator of prints and drawings who organized the exhibition here: "It seemed an appropriate moment, as June enters her ninth decade, to recognize the role that she's had in the art community in Los Angeles."

That role pivots on her 1959 founding of Tamarind, a Ford Foundation-funded printmaking workshop that drew in part on Wayne's own experiences working for the Works Progress Administration in Chicago in the late '30s. Under Wayne's aegis for a decade in Los Angeles, Tamarind trained dozens of master printers, provided fellowships to about 200 artists from around the world and established lithography as an important art medium in the United States.

"I've always felt that June was the person who was responsible for the whole print publishing revolution in America," says Jean Milant, who trained at Tamarind in 1968-69, became a master printer and opened Cirrus Editions in L.A. in 1970. "She was Tamarind, and it was her vision that created all of us. I think most of the people in this business can somehow be tied back to Tamarind."

Wayne still occupies that same Tamarind Avenue studio complex in Hollywood where she trained printers in the '60s and analyzed professional problems for female artists at her "Joan of Art" seminars in the '70s. Petite but forceful, Wayne hardly seems an octogenarian as she talks about her recent lecture and exhibition opening in Cincinnati or moves briskly about her studio, pulling out prints or documents to illustrate a point.

Raised in Chicago by her mother and grandmother--her parents separated when she was an infant--Wayne is self-taught as both scholar and artist. A "chronic truant," she spent many school days at the library, dropping out of high school at 15. Her first job, putting labels on whiskey bottles, lasted three days (and, she told a recent art symposium audience, "put me off liquor for the rest of my life"), but she soon concentrated on art and never went back to school.

She was first attracted to art as a child, noticing how in the comics, dots combined to make colors. She was making drawings composed of colored dots by the time she was 13, and at 17 had her first solo exhibition.

A jewelry designer first in Chicago, then in New York, she moved with her then-husband, George Wayne, to Los Angeles in the 1940s. (She divorced Wayne in 1960, and, in 1964, married her current husband, Arthur Henry Plone.) She studied production illustration here, a career detour that contributed to her lifelong interest in science and space, and she worked briefly in the aircraft industry.

Wayne turned to lithography in the late 1940s, seeking a better way to create an optical effect she wasn't able to achieve in her paintings. In the U.S. she found lithography limited in both techniques and materials, so she traveled to Europe to work with printers there.

Continuing to paint, draw and make prints, in the late 1950s Wayne met with Ford Foundation executive W. McNeil Lowry, explaining to him why she went to Europe to work and why simple arts grants weren't the solution. At his request, she followed up with a proposal for Tamarind. Over the next decade, Tamarind published approximately 3,000 print editions by such artists as Josef Albers, David Hockney, Louise Nevelson, Richard Diebenkorn and Edward Ruscha.

Tamarind relocated to the University of New Mexico in 1970, freeing Wayne to return to full-time art-making, which included prints and, soon, tapestry design as well.

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