Judith Solodkin is one of those lucky people who found what they wanted to do in life, and then did it. She is a Master Lithographer and founded SOLO Impression in 1975, in the space where we visited her, the Starrett-Lehigh building in Chelsea. She works closely with artists such Louise Bourgeois and Donald Sultan, creating multiples of their images, a creative process for her that she likens to ‘a cook getting a new recipe’.
I am very fascinated by your title: ‘Master Lithographer’, it sounds like something from the 19th century or from the era of guilds. Do you think in this age, this kind of printing might die away?
Not as long as there are young people who are artists who want to collaborate and work with people who are accomplished in fine art printing. The reason I’m called a Master Printer is that I trained at a place called Tamarind Institute in New Mexico and after two years they actually give you a certificate, which says ‘Tamarind Master Lithographer’ and it is based on the old guild system.
If you were to describe to someone what there is to learn, what are the hard things to master?
Okay I’ll give you an analogy. Say you love the violin, let’s say and want to compose a sonata for it but you don’t know how to play it, then you would go to someone whose been studying at the Juilliard for years and say here is my composition and have them play it through for you and you could take notes and make revisions but you don’t have the skills of that instrument, but you can work with somebody who does.
What are the basics?
The basics are chemical. Oil and water don’t mix—but that’s the simplest way of putting a very complex process.
What draws you to something like this as opposed to other kinds of printmaking?
Well, it’s part of my background. When I finished getting my Master’s in fine art and painting, I kept drawing but wanting to draw in color the same image over and over again. It seemed very inefficient … at the time Joseph Albers was doing his boxes and Warhol was doing repetition, so I was very fascinated by repetition and multiples. [And] I love machinery.
What for you is creative about the process?
Oh, it’s extremely creative! Think about it. If you have a rubber stamp you can ink about the various areas … any kind of impression that you make, you can have variations in the way you make an impression. At every stage there are variables and the challenge when you are working with an artist is to present them with the variables that reference their ideas and their work.
Can you tell us why you love machinery?
Why do I love machinery? It’s a thing you grow up with. My father liked to tinker. He was a lawyer but he tinkered anyway. So I’d go down to the basement and watch him fix a clock or do some other things. I always loved how things work. I love knowing the inside of it.
How are you on flat pack [IKEA] furniture?
Very good actually!
When you meet an artist and you are going to work with them, someone say like Louise Bourgeois, with whom you have worked extensively, what is your point of entry? It must be daunting.
No. Because artists are people and I’m fascinated to talk to them about their work and they are very enthusiastic about talking to me because they want someone who can be responsive to their ideas. To me it’s very familiar. It’s like a cook getting a new recipe.
You work not only with letterpress and woodcut but also with embroidery [as in the case of Louise Bourgeois]. How do you take a piece of fabric and make that into a print?
Well we’re not making it into a print exactly … but my thinking about it is very much and the way I go about making the multiple is very much in line with the way I make a print, layers and runs, sequentially.
How much of this is math? Or logic?
Math? It’s really not very mathematical. I was not very good at math. I would say it’s more Talmudic. I grew up in an orthodox Jewish home so my approach to it is very Talmudic, I would say.
How do you mean?
Well the logic is: ‘If this, but no … maybe that but, on the other hand, this may be possible. However, we have another variation …’ It’s where you have a lot of options, a lot of variables and the more you have, the more interesting it gets. Then the artist cuts through it all and makes a decision.
You make hats, I have read.
Yes. All along as I was working with artists and doing collaborative things, I have always loved sewing but have never pursued it. So, FIT is right near here and I thought why I don’t just go to FIT and see if I can take some tailoring classes. So I took a couple and enjoyed them enormously. And then kept looking for more classes. This was like my going to the opera, it’s my way of relaxing. I love beautiful garments, beautiful buttonholes, pockets and this way I could see how they were made. I took a class in millinery and the reason is I used to buy hats but I would always tell the milliners to alter them. And it occurred to me if I keep telling these people who had done their own thing how to re-do it for me, they’re going to get pissed at me! So, why I don’t just learn how to make them? And now I can make hats professionally. This is my art. I make them for myself. At home I have a whole room that is my hat studio.
I saw you earlier, walking into the building, wearing one of your hats, a big furry one [see picture – it turned out to have a pair of eyes on the top, looking as if she had shot a teddy bear in Toys ’r Us and madeit into a hat]
They tend to have a sense of humor. Bill Cunningham has taken my picture many times.
These things, sewing hats … they’re old-fashioned things.
Well, so is the printing. I think I was attracted to making hats because it was a turn-of-the century thing.
Are we losing something?
We’re always losing something, but we’re always gaining something..