I published a short article on Karl Kasten in the Spring 2008 NewsBrief. Reading it over today, after a moving memorial luncheon for him, I realize that my article is flawed: it has the facts, but doesn’t begin to convey the enthusiastic generosity of spirit and joyful love of art that is Karl’s hallmark. This revised version is an appetizer to whet your appetite for a few more substantive articles on Karl that will follow from people who really knew him well.
Karl in July 2009 standing in front of his prize-winning 1938 piece,
“The Berkeley Campus”, permanently installed In the O’Neill Room,
Faculty Club, University of California, Berkeley.
That Was Then: Origins of the Bay Printmakers Society.
I went to visit CSP member Karl Kasten in August of 2007 to ask him about the founding of the Bay Printmakers Society (BPS). CSP had Our predecessor organizations, California Society of Etchers (CSE) and Bay Printmakers Society (BPS). They merged in 1968 to create the California Society of Printmakers (CSP). Karl was president of both organizations, the last year of BPS and at the first year of CSP.
What I wanted to know was why BPS had started up in 1955, when California Society of Etchers (CSE) was still in existence? The archival records in the CSP Archives at the Bancroft Library don’t seem to address this question.
I had been to Karl’s house once or twice before many years ago. As I entered and saw the layout of the living room to the right, the dining room to the left, with the foyer and staircase in the center, I remembered the Kasten art-infused environment, and was really glad to see it again. Art everywhere. Gauguin, his love, Gauguin’s teacher Emile Bernard, African masks, Egon Schiele. Worth Ryder sketches and paintings, Rolf Eiselin, John Ihle, Kenji Nanao. Kandinsky. More, lots more. Of course, selections from Kasten’s work, including his most recent collographs and paintings.
It seems I had gotten some facts confused. It turns out Karl was not involved in the founding of BPS. He was, however, a charter member and had exhibited at BPS’ First National Print Exhibition, and won a prize for his color etching.
In 1955 Mel Strawn (1929-) and Will Petersen (1928-1994) weretwo recent graduates from Oakland’s California College of Arts and Crafts. They placed an ad in a national art magazine announcing themselves as the Bay Print Society hosting a national print exhibition. Work was to be sent to the address cited even though a location for the actual show had not yet been established. As the work poured in, and started overflowing from Mel’s apartment, Paul Mills, then director of the Oakland Museum, provided the venue, and remained a strong supporter during the next four national BPS exhibitions.
Charter members of the Bay Printmakers Society included artists Beth Van Hoesen (1926- ), John Ihle (1925-2002), Karl Kasten (1916-2010), and Nathan Oliveira (1928- ), among others. Their activities were focused exclusively on their national juried print show, usually with a one person jury. In contrast, CSE hosted two annual shows. The first was its annual membership show, which was often juried: send in 2-3 pieces, the juror will pick at least one. The second was its annual national print show, also juried, but with a three person jury team consisting of one CSE artist member, one critic, and one museum curator. CSE members paid no entry fees, and non-members who were selected were solicited to join CSE. CSE itself provided two cash awards along with numerous purchase prizes from art supply companies, local collectors and museums, and most of those collectors (especially Mrs. Edgar Sinton, Mrs. Philil Lilienthal) have deeded their collections to the Achenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Karl’s recollection of the 1955 founding of BPS is that Mel Strawn and Will created BPS because CSE was dormant, least as far as exhibitions go. At first this seemed to me to make sense, as CSE had enjoyed the fruits of a dedicated executive secretary, Nicholas Dunphy (1896-1955) for more than twenty years! Understandably, Dunphy’s death created a huge hole in CSE leadership. Elizabeth Ginno (1911-1991) (CSE Secretary after Dunphy’s death and also Winkler’s wife), John W. Winkler (1890-1979), and Mark Luca (1918- ), kept CSE active from the time of Dunphy’s 1955 death until 1968 when they approached Kasten about merging CSE and BPS.
However, it turns out that CSE held annual membership shows every year except the year of Dunphy’s death, 1955, so it wasn’t moribund at all. There are other explanations. CSE members were associated with the San Francisco Art Institute and the Achenbach, and were older, while BPS was associated with Oakland’s CCAC and Oakland Museum and were younger. Strawn and Petersen were recent art grads and wanted to participate in a national show. They had energy. In fact, Mel Strawn, in a recent email, wrote:
“I’m not sure how aware we were at that time of CSE. The core idea to have a contemporary print show was Will’s. We were close – both had our own litho presses at our rented homes. As soon as he had the idea we discussed and decided to go for it. Nate Oliveira was also a returned GI grad printmaker in the CCAC MFA program and became involved in the exhibit – a venue for him to show as well.”
In 1968 Elizabeth Ginno (Winkler’s wife and CSE Secretary) and Mark Luca invited John Ihle (1925-2002), then a member of Bay Printmakers, to join CSE. Rather than continue to “poach Bay Printmakers members, Ginno and Luca went to Karl, then President of Bay Printmakers, and proposed a merger of the two print clubs. Karl readily agreed. Karl remembers the merger meeting of CSE & BPS at the Oakland Museum in 1968, the meeting that led to the new organization, California Society of Printmakers. Most of those present were from BPS: Gordon Cook, John Ihle, Virginia Vandegrift, and Karl. Representing CSE were Elizabeth Ginno and Mark Luca.
Once they agreed on the merger, they agreed that the next thing was to write a constitution for the new organization. Karl had a copy of the SF Art Association’s constitution which Vandergrift (secretary) and Karl used to develop CSP’s constitution. Karl, good natured that he is, doesn’t recall any fights over any particular issues, which is nice to know, and remembers that Gordon Cook was quite active, as he was strictly a printmaker at that time. Gordon Cook served as Vice President officer of BPS in 1957 and 1958 and served on its Board of Directors.
Kasten taught printmaking at UC Berkeley from 1950 until 1983 when he retired as professor emeritus of art. In 1988 Kasten became an honorary lifetime member of California Society of Printmakers. Four years later, in 1992, Kasten donated an 1890 Kelton D-wheel copperplate press to the Bancroft Library where it resides in its press room, and is still used to teach history of the book and letterpress. Over the years Karl has lobbied Bancroft curators Bill Roberts and Tony Bliss to exhibit printmaking materials, selections from the CSP archives, and works of CSP members. Maybe one of these days…