R.A. Smith Serigraph

"Beginning" serigraph by R.A. Smith, 1960.  (28x61in.)
“Beginning” serigraph by R.A. Smith, 1960. (28x61in.)

Serigraph (better known as silk screening) is a fine art, color stencil printmaking process in which special paint is forced through a fine screen onto the paper beneath. Areas which do not print are blocked in each of the stencil screens. A sheet of high quality, archival paper is first inserted under the screen and special paint poured along the edge of the frame. A squeegee is then pulled from back to front, producing a direct transfer of the image from screen to paper. A separate stencil is required for each color in each serigraph.

I once attempted to do silk screening when I was a teenager, let’s just say I failed miserably, but it did give me massive appreciation for difficulty of the process. I still can’t fathom how some of the beautiful serigraphs I’ve seen over the years could have been done using the process.  Many serigraphs can take over one hundred different screen pulls to create all the hues required.  Now a days a computer/machine can cut the perfect precision stencils needed for silk screening work, but that wasn’t the case forty years ago. Most serigraph/ silkscreen artists hand cut all of their stencils, an art form in it’s own right.  I couldn’t even line up the stencils properly for each layer when I attempted the process, much less precision cut intricate stencils for the work.

The use of silkscreen as a modern artistic medium began in 1938 in New York City when a group of artists funded by FDR’s wonderful Works Project Administration (WPA)* began experimenting with the techinque and developed it into a fine art medium. This founding group coined the term “serigraphy” and later were the founding members of the National Serigraph Society.

Using silk screening as a method to produce fine art grew over the next thirty years.  In the 1960s artists such as Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Robert Raushenburg an others brought it to the forefront of the pop art movement.  Andy Warhol in particular is the patron saint of serigraph/ silk screening, his most famous and iconic works are all serigraphs/ silk screen works.

A few years ago at an auction I came across a large serigraph work signed “R.A. Smith” dated 1960. It came from a house with some of the best mid century modern furniture  – original womb chairs, Bertoia diamond upholstered chairs, Flos arco floor lamps, Knoll’s marble topped  Saarinen tables, etc…  I found the work interesting, loved the large scale of it and ended up buying it without much trouble or cost on gut instinct.  I’m so glad I did because it is a marvelous, bold piece of art that was a perfect fit in my bedroom.  As I’ve said many times large scale artwork is the best and creates a dynamic presence in a room which I love.

R.A. Smith 60' -signature & date in pencil
R.A. Smith 60′ -signature & date in pencil

I’ve been able to find out a bit about R.A. Smith, Robert Alan Smith, and a group of California artists who created their own little art movement employing serigraph in California, called the “Western Serigraph Institute.”  Much of the information I have found is thanks to this website which is dedicated to researching R.A. Smith and a few other artists of his era and place.  He was an accomplished professional artist who exhibited in galleries and museums across the country, he taught art at the college level and designed/ illustrated album covers, books, magazines, etc…  In 1960 he won a “purchase award” in an exhibit at the Library of Congress and they purchased eight serigraphs from him.

Even more interesting was Smith worked at Disney studios and was an early Disney animator.  He used the name “Bob Smith” for his work at Disney, so he could keep it separate from his serious, fine art work which he signed under his real name, Robert Alan Smith.  He would probably be shocked at the respect and admiration Disney animators now receive. (Once again I give credit to K.C. Moore and her website about Smith for this info. – it is the website to go to for the most detailed information about Smith’s career and art work.)

My Smith serigraph pictured at the top is approximately 61 x 28 inches. It was screened onto two pieces of 30 inch paper, which were then joined and permanently applied over art board about 1/3 of an inch thick and then embedded in a frame. It is signed, dated and titled in pencil along the bottom tan boarder.  The pencil markings along the bottom read “R.A. Smith 60′”  in the right hand corner, in the center is the title “Beginning” and “E55,” E55 appears again in the left corner.  There is printed signature also on the serigraph in the left corner.

Smith did a series of serigraphs in the 61×28 size as well as pieces of a more typical poster size scale.  I’ve noted some serigraphs done in 1960 and then a few more all done in 1965.  Generally they are abstract works, but I have seen some that incorporate some impressionist images of trees or other imagery. It’s also noted on the website linked above that Smith did watercolors and illustrative works.

Like my piece, R.A. Smith serigraphs do pop up in auctions from time to time and judging from the hammer prices I’ve found in the past decade they can be obtained at bargain prices.  However, once

R.A. Smith, signature printed within serigraph
R.A. Smith, signature printed within serigraph

dealers or store owners get their hands on the serigraphs the prices rise dramatically, but still basically obtainable prices.  I think these Smith serigraphs are great pieces to own and the large scale serigraphs work exceedingly well with mid-century modern decor.  If the serigraph is exceptional and in overall good condition, they will probably make good investment pieces as well.  (One drawback to the serigraph pieces is some of the thicker paints applied have a tendency to craze or crack over time, but that’s not uncommon with old paintings, inks or glazes.)

The appreciation for a variety of mid century art and design is rapidly increasing and I think these pieces are great examples of the modern aesthetic of the era.  I always encourage people who incorporate mid century modern furniture/decor in their homes to seek out art original to the era.  Something really galls me about artists today who use a “mid century modern inspired” in their “art.” It seems more of a commercial endeavor or marketing ploy that lacks artistic merit.  I think art and artists should be constantly evolving. The problem with the “MCM inspired” art I’ve seen typically is just kitschy idea of what the artist thinks of the era or what they think it looked like without much basis in reality.  Much like it’s easy to tell the difference between furniture, fabrics and other designs that have been made in the past decade with a “MCM look” from the real deal.

Besides, for the most part, there still is wonderful artwork available by authentic mid century era artists.  Once you get away from the famous big names of the art world of the era, much of it is very reasonably priced or obtainable if one is just willing to patiently look.

*During the depression the WPA funded a number of different artistic endeavors, everything from photographing the poverty of the dust bowl and Appalachian coal towns, to beautiful painted murals in public buildings, to poetry and new published works by writers.  It almost single handedly kept the arts alive in America during the depression, literally ensuring artists didn’t starve and could use their talents.

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3 Comments

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  1. I have found a 1962 serigraph of ra smith it is of a women in dress I don’t know much about it please help thx

  2. Hi, just wanted to let you know I came across a robert smith serigraph in New Haven , CT, with this article taped to the back of it. It was helpful in doing some research. It’s not the same piece you have highlighted but it pointed me in the right direction. Mines from 61 and seems to be titled beginning evening 2. Just wanted to let you know your words are out there and are helpful. Thanks for the info!

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