Untitled prints from master printmaker John Armstrong are on display in his new MAM exhibit, Engaged Abstraction.
Even though he’d gotten his master’s in art, master printer John Armstrong spent decades mostly teaching others how to make prints and rarely made them himself. After graduating from the University of Montana in 1970 he taught one year in South Dakota and then began curating exhibitions until 1980, when he and his wife, Joan Prior, decided to start up a printing studio in Phoenix, Ariz. called Armstrong-Prior, Inc. The studio brought in numerous printmakers—professional and amateur—and over the years the couple were able to provide a hub for creative printmaking and an archive of all the visiting artists’ work. Still, Armstrong spent little to no time on his own art, and kept himself busy with helping others, fine art brokering and remodeling his house. But after several years the desire to create something began to gnaw at him.
“I looked at my house and I said, ‘I’m changing all my walls again.’ [I was] moving them six inches here, six inches there, which is nuts,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘I haven’t made art since 1974 and I’ve been building on this house for 18 years and somebody’s gonna buy it and either paint it pink or tear it down.’”
Around this time, in 2000, Armstrong was helping an old friend at California State University-Chico raise money for the school’s art department. He asked some of his frequent printmaking friends to help him by flying out and making prints to sell for the fundraiser.
“My artist friends, they said yes, they’d print—if I would print,” he says. “Well I hadn’t printed for 27 years. I’d printed with artists, solved all their problems since 1980, but I was very uptight about the idea.”
So Armstrong began to experiment with materials, first with marbleizing paper and then with more projects using etching tools and metal.
“[I was] trying to make a more interesting composition,” he says. “And lo and behold, everybody was pretty impressed and I really got back into it very rapidly.”
Armstrong has been working ever since on numerous prints of his own and just recently opened an exhibit called Engaged Abstract at the Missoula Art Museum (MAM). The display shows several prints from Armstrong’s studio archive alongside his own work, handpicked for exhibition by MAM’s curator, Stephen Glueckert.
Still, Armstrong’s most passionate about helping other people with their prints. He grew up in Laurel. His parents have frequently visited he and Prior at their Phoenix studio, and one year, Armstrong says, his father got the printing fever.
“He was always right over my shoulder, which is wonderful, really,” Armstrong says. “One day I was trying to prepare to teach a collograph class and my collograph students would need to know what things you could glue down to print.”
He cut 40 4-by-4 pieces of 8-inch masonite and collected together materials he’d saved—wood shavings, heavy burlap, cotton, sequined materials and others.
Armstrong asked his dad, who was 85 years old at the time (now 94), if he would help glue down the materials.
“And of course he didn’t know what he was doing so he approached it very innocently and he said, ‘What am I doing?’ And I said, ‘It doesn’t matter, just take these different materials and glue them down however you want.’”
They dried the next day and Armstrong started printing them, telling his dad how good they’d turned out.
“My dad’s a pretty gruff guy,” says Armstrong, “and he said, ‘What the hell ya talkin’ about?’ And I said, ‘They’re really good prints’, and he said, ‘Oh bullshit!’ He couldn’t believe it. I had them lying all over the studio and artists would come and ask, ‘Who did these neat prints? Who was it?’ And my dad’s sitting over in his chair, hearing all this stuff. So the third day I had put everything away, he came into the studio and he said, looking around, ‘Where’s my prints?’”
Engaged Abstraction shows Armstrong’s latest work, which plays with shapes in a non-figurative way. For Armstrong—who used to do some figurative and political art—the shapes are what they are. Still, you never know where printmaking will lead you, he says. One print at the MAM shows what looks like mountains. Originally they weren’t, but as Armstrong used the shape over and over in different pieces it evolved into more of a landscape. Toward the end he made the mountain shapes green under a blue sky to look like Montana, and another one in black and white to look like a mountain winterscape.
I don’t like to plan things out,” he says. “And when artists want to print with me they sometimes get very uptight and say they’ve got to go home and get prepared. And I say, ‘You won’t do it like that. After the first print you’ll be off on your own travels in a different direction.’ It almost always is that way. And if you let the medium carry you, it can be a great voyage.”
John Armstrong’s Engaged Abstraction and the exhibit Prints From the Armstrong-Prior Studio continues at MAM through May 23. Free.