Crown Point Press: Where Everything Old is New Again

The art we display in our homes is a powerful form of self-expression. Even if we hand over the reigns to an interior designer, the art we choose is personal. From a child’s fingerprint painting to an original piece by a renowned artist, art transforms a house into a home.

My love affair with art collecting began in the 90s during my prior life as a banker, when Crown Point Press joined my commercial portfolio. Crown Point Press is located in a dramatic, light-filled building on Hawthorne Street in San Francisco’s SoMa district. I was immediately energized by the space, the old-world presses and shining copper plates, jars of vibrant colored pigments and, oh, the art! Surrounded by work from Richard Diebenkorn, Chuck Close, Ed Ruscha, Wayne Thiebaud and Nathan Oliveira, I quickly recognized I was in a special place.

Founder Kathan Brown gave me a tour of the press and a demonstration of the printmaking process, explaining how ink is transferred onto paper from an inked copper plate. The press forces the paper into depressions engraved or etched into the plate and pulls the ink out to make the print.

Crown Point Press is widely credited with sparking the revival of etching and intaglio printing as a viable art medium in the Bay Area while encouraging new work and ideas by renowned artists. Crown Point Press exhibits and sells the prints it produces in curated shows in the gallery that adjoins its studios and bookstore at 20 Hawthorne Street in San Francisco. Check their website, crownpoint.com, for special events.

Kathan founded Crown Point Press more than 50 years ago after spending two years in London studying etching, a traditional form of printmaking. Armed with a working knowledge of that skill and an antique printing press she found abandoned in the backyard of a rooming house in Edinburgh, Kathan returned to the United States on a slow freighter bound for San Francisco.

While Kathan founded Crown Point Press as a printmaking workshop for herself and her friends, its reputation grew as she also began to invite renowned artists from Europe, Japan and throughout the United States to work with etching in her studio. Each year, Crown Point works with just three to four of today’s most established artists. Assisted by Crown Point Press master printers, the artists typically each create four or five original copperplate etchings, which are then hand-printed in limited editions of 20 to 50 original prints. Each print is signed and numbered by the artist. A proof of each work is sent to archive collections at both the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. The copper plate is then melted down to insure the integrity of the piece.

The creative process, from sketches to copperplate etching to finished print, is painstaking, but, as Kathan explains, “The artists are delighted with the results. Because the printing process physically embeds ink into the paper, rather than letting ink sit on the surface, there is a vibrancy, texture, and physicality to the finished work that doesn’t exist with modern printmaking methods. Also, artists have freedom to play with color in this medium, which can be a lot of fun.”

The art of collecting

Since my first foray into Crown Point Press in 1993, Kathan has introduced me to some of my most cherished possessions, including Order & Disorder by Francesco Clemente, Steep Street by Wayne Thiebaud, and 1990 l by Gary Stephan. I in turn have with total confidence introduced friends and clients to Crown Point Press. In terms of fine art by established artists, their pieces are affordable (thousands rather than hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars). Because the artists are already known, I don’t feel I’m rolling the dice that they will maintain their value. Crown Point keeps meticulous records of purchased pieces, every piece is catalogued, and proofs are maintained in the archives of two major museums, so are easily authenticated.

Most importantly, the artwork I have purchased speaks to me. It may sound corny, but I really do believe that I was meant to have each piece. When I mentioned that feeling to Kathan, she didn’t flinch, “That’s really the most important criterion, that there is a connection between you and the piece. It’s not enough to ‘like’ it, or to know that a famous artist created it. You need to want to look at it every day. The art can become a long-term partner.”