IV. The Art of Pressure: Willie Cole’s Beauties
- Jennifer L. Roberts, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities in the Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University
In 2011–12, Willie Cole worked with the Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis on an ambitious series of twenty-eight large prints that were made by stripping, crushing, inking, and printing ironing boards (cat. nos. 41–63 ). Collectively titled “The Beauties,” each print bears a woman’s name from the era of Cole’s grandmothers: Anna Mae, Bertha Mae, Bessie, Calpurnia, Carolina, Clara Esther, Dot, Emma, Eva Mae, Fannie Mae, Ida Mae, Jane, Jesse Mae, Jonny Mae, Lilly, Lucy, Lula Bell, Mammy, Matti Lee, Pearl, Queen, Rose, Ruth, Saphire, Sarah, Savannah, Willy Mae, Zeddie.
These unsettlingly beautiful works represent the culmination of more than thirty years of Cole’s intensive engagement with the steam iron as tool and motif. Ironing, and its entanglements with the history of domesticity, servitude, embodiment, refinement, and power, has been a part of the artist’s life since his childhood in Newark, New Jersey, where his grandmother and great-grandmother worked as housekeepers and often asked him to fix their steam irons.1 The iron entered Cole’s mature artistic work in the late 1980s, around the time of his pivotal artist residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, when he had a transformative encounter with a crushed iron in the street: “I saw a discarded iron. It had been run over by a car or a truck and left right in the middle of the highway. The magic occurred the moment I looked at it and noticed that it was looking at me too. I picked it up. It was no longer an iron but an African Mask.”2
Since that original moment of metamorphic displacement (from appliance to mask), the tools of ironing have recurred regularly in Cole’s sculptures, prints, and paintings. Over the years, Cole has increasingly highlighted the capacities of the steam iron as a complex associative trigger. For example, exploiting the resemblance between the design of ships and the bow-pointed shape of ironing boards and the iron’s heated base or “sole plate,” Cole fused the themes of ironing with those of shipping and passage in his monumental Citation: A relief printmaking technique in which an artist carves the image into a plank of wood along the grain. The wood surface acts as the printing matrix; areas that have been cut away do not print. The block is inked with a brayer or dauber, covered with a sheet of dampened paper, and printed under manual pressure from the back of a wooden spoon or baren, or in a printing press. Also called woodblock printing. Stowage (1997) (fig. 4.1).
This print forever equated the ironing board with the iconic eighteenth-century diagram of the slave ship Brookes and the trauma of the Middle Passage in the Atlantic slave trade. Cole also continued to cultivate resonances between iron iconography and African art and history: shields, masks, scarification practices, and sculpture (fig. 4.2). Drawing particularly on Yoruba religious traditions, he highlighted the elemental associations of iron and steam, invoking Ogun, warrior and spirit of metalwork (god of iron), and Shango, god of thunder and lightning. At the same time, he cultivated the resemblance of the sole plate to the Gothic arch and the veil of the Virgin of Guadalupe in works such as his Virgin of Enlightenment (ascending/descending) (cat. no. 86 ).
Using irons as printing and scorching tools, Cole viscerally evoked the practice of branding in the slave trade while simultaneously exploring the meaning of “branding” in modern merchandising—cataloguing the unique steam-vent patterns that differentiate a GE from a Silex from a Sunbeam. Looping back to connotations of scarification, he associated these advertising “brands” with African traditions of marking tribal identity.3
As should already be clear, the meanings Cole has elicited from the iron over the years have often been blatantly contradictory: simultaneously positive and negative, violent and transcendent, connecting seemingly incompatible spheres of meaning and activity. And all along, the original connection to the domestic labor of Cole’s grandmothers has endured. Merging with all of these other associations, their laundry work is now unforgettably charged with the scope of global historical economies, politics, and religions, and their traditionally feminized domestic labor has become inseparable from the traditionally masculine sphere of founding and blacksmithing—along with the power and danger of fire and steam.4
It is in the “Beauties” project that Cole has attested most directly to the link between the iron motif and the domestic labor performed by generations of Black women in America. With the Beauties, the themes and associations that swarm around iron, irons, and ironing reach a new intensity. For viewers, conflicting associations shoulder their way in, each refusing to yield to the others: the prints are slave ships, tombstones, portraits, shrouds, windows, monuments, shields, X-rays, and more, all at once. Rapidly oscillating between associations of violence and beauty, precarity and permanence, matter and spirit, the prints reject any single or synthesizing interpretation.
The series achieves all this, I will argue here, by maximizing the
resonances of printmaking and its connection to pressure. Printmaking
plays a self-referential role in the project (making the Beauties with a
printing press underscores the pressing that they evoke) while also
generating the project’s profusion of simultaneous external references.
Printmaking’s unique way of harnessing materials and forces inserts
fundamental forms of ambiguity into the core of the project: the
crushing pressure of the press paradoxically expands the images and
holds them open to the juxtapositions they compel. In other words, in
the materials and the making of the Beauties, the very conditions for
their significance are established. There is, we might say, a
specifically printerly intelligence running through these works—one
that is closely related to the intelligence of Cole’s grandmothers as
they labored over their ironing.
Making the Prints
The “Beauties” project developed from a long process of material and conceptual exploration at Highpoint Editions, where Cole made repeated visits over the course of sixteen months.5 Cole Rogers, the master printer at Highpoint, encourages visiting artists to experiment broadly with the materials and techniques of printmaking. Artists collaborate with printers in the studio to generate projects and explore ideas. Fairly early on in his time at Highpoint, Cole decided to pursue printing directly from ironing boards instead of more “typical” surfaces such as etched metal plates or woodblocks. This would allow the ironing boards to create their own images—to serve directly as their own rendering tools.
Printing ironing boards is—to say the least—uncommon, so a series of experiments followed. At first, Cole envisioned a huge print, incorporating impressions from a few boards arranged on a wavelike ground, strongly emphasizing the slave-ship associations of much of his previous work. During Cole’s first visit to Minneapolis, several ironing boards were printed and test layouts made, but nothing was resolved. Rogers and his team decided to spend a few weeks perfecting the process of printing the boards; they prepared and proofed a wide range of them in anticipation of Cole’s return a few months later.
When Cole arrived at Highpoint for his second visit, the printers had tacked proofs of individual boards around the studio perimeter for him to examine. He was immediately struck by the way the tall, narrow format of the proofs amplified their latent anthropomorphism and multiplied their cultural and visual associations (fig. 4.3). It was this anthropomorphic association that inspired Cole to conceive of his project as an explicit testament to the women of his grandmothers’ generation. He called his mother from the studio to begin gathering the names of women in his family history. He then researched naming conventions for Black American women in the early to mid-twentieth century and eventually settled on a name for each of the twenty-eight prints.
How were the boards printed? First they had to be acquired—a project in itself. As the printers and interns at Highpoint began shopping for ironing boards in local stores, they realized that all the boards they could find were identical in shape, in rib structure, and in steam-hole pattern. (Apparently all were made in the same Chinese factory.) Seeking variety, the team scoured Craigslist and thrift shops in the Minneapolis area and were eventually able to assemble twenty-three vintage boards. These twenty-three yielded twenty-eight prints: five were printed twice, once from each side. Queen (cat. no. 67 ) and Lucy (cat. no. 53 ), for example, were pulled from the same ironing board—Queen from the top and Lucy from the bottom.
The boards had to be flattened to pass under the roller of the Citation: An intaglio printing technique in which an acid-resistant ground of asphaltum, varnish, beeswax, or rosin is applied to the surface of a copper, zinc, or other type of metal plate. Using a steel etching needle, scribe, or other sharp tool, the artist scratches an image through the ground, exposing the underlying metal surface, Then the plate is immersed in a ferric chloride or Dutch mordant (solution of dilute hydrochloric acid with potassium chlorate), at which time the areas of exposed metal are bitten (etched) by the chemical action of the acid. The ground is removed, and the etched plate is inked, wiped, covered with a dampened sheet of paper, and run through a press. The press forces the paper into the etched lines, causing the transfer of ink to paper. press. The flattening began crudely, in a process that also gave each board a unique patination of scratches, incisions, and dents. In the parking lot behind the studio, Cole and the printers battered the boards with hammers and sledges of several shapes and sizes; as they did so, the boards also picked up marks from the asphalt and gravel below them (fig. 4.4). Then many of the boards were tied to a rope, topped with cinderblocks, and dragged around the blacktop to increase the surface scratching. At several points, Cole himself provided the weight, sitting or standing on the boards as a Highpoint intern pulled him around the lot. Cole later recalled, “We destroyed them. We surfed them down hills and hammered them out. We even ran trucks over them to give them a little more history. … I think of them as ironing board warriors.”6 At the time this process was being devised, Cole and the printmakers were still exploring the idea of using the printed boards in a composition with maritime associations. In other words, they were thinking about the boards as ships. This is important to note, especially with the knowledge that the prints would eventually receive names, because it is difficult to contemplate the flattening process without addressing its inherent violence. Part of the power of Cole’s project is that it absorbs and confronts the violence it evokes, even if only retrospectively.
To complete the flattening process, the printers placed each board between two sheets of Masonite and ran it back and forth through the press multiple times, slightly increasing the pressure at each run. By now each board was about 3⁄16 inch (4–5 mm) thick, with all its three-dimensional extensions (the lip around the edge, the struts and connections that once joined it to its legs) folded or crumpled into this thin space (fig. 4.5). Each board had its own specific topography of marks: some shallow, some deep, some sharp, some blunt. Each still retained much of its original surface paint. (All ironing boards are painted to protect against rust caused by steam iron moisture.)7
Now each steel ironing board, with its pattern of depressions and incisions, had become a printable Citation: Any printing surface, such as a metal plate, woodblock, acrylic sheet, or lithographic stone, which receives and then transfers ink to paper or other material during the printing process. that could be treated in essentially the same way that any Citation: Italian for “carving,” intaglio refers to a broad category of printing techniques in which images are cut, etched, or otherwise incised into metal or acrylic plates (sometimes wood blocks). The incised or etched plates are inked, wiped, covered with a dampened sheet of paper, and passed through a printing press. The press forces the paper into the incised or etched lines, which hold the ink, so that ink is transferred from the plate to the paper. The resulting image is the reverse of that on the printing matrix. plate (such as an engraved or etched copperplate) would be handled in a traditional print shop. First the printers distributed dense black ink over the boards with a plastic spreader. Then they worked the ink further into the topography of each one with a bristle brush.
Intaglio printing works by depositing ink in the crevices of a plate and using pressure to force dampened paper into those ink-filled depressions (the “valleys”). For this to create a legible image, the ink sitting on the high areas of the plate (which are meant to appear as white or blank space on the final print) must be removed. This process is called wiping, and it is a highly skilled operation, because the ink must be coaxed off the surface of the plate without also pulling it out of the crevices. The printers at Highpoint did this with a succession of tarlatans (loose-weave cloths heavily sized for stiffness).
Then the boards were ready to print. First a sheet of Masonite was placed on the press bed, then a sheet of Mylar, then the board, then the dampened paper, and finally the felts (fig. 4.6). Multiple hands were needed during the pass through the etching press: the paper and felts had to be kept taut and straight, and the nose of the board had to be held still as it entered the rollers—any small deviation or gathering at the nose end of the print would create creases that would travel throughout the length of the print. Like ironing itself, the printing process involved careful avoidance of wrinkles and creases.
After drying, it was time to print the names at the base of each print.8 Unlike the intaglio boards, the names were printed in relief, a process that takes ink from the top surfaces of a plate rather than the valleys. Small plastic relief plates were generated from stencil forms and gently inked in a flat gray. To minimize the chances of misalignment, the existing print was rolled back through the press cylinders until only the “tail” remained; then the relief plate was positioned and printed as the remainder of the paper passed through (fig. 4.7). Here, unlike the massive force used to flatten and print the ironing boards, the pressure was very light—just enough to pull the ink off the top surfaces of the letters but not enough to pick up any indentation from the plate a millimeter below. The common Citation: A relief printing method by which text is printed from the raised surfaces of metal, wood, or hard plastic type. Letterpress is commonly used in the printing of text for fine, handmade limited-editions books. term for this is the “kiss Citation: An individual print pulled from a printing matrix. It may or may not be part of an edition of prints..” So although the ironing boards entered the print studio violently, they left it, as the prints received their names, in a gesture suggesting affection and intimacy.
Cole grouped five of the prints—Savannah, Dot, Anna Mae,
Queen, and Fannie Mae (cat. nos. 64–68
)—to be offered as a set titled “Five Beauties
Rising,” which was printed in an Citation: The number of impressions printed from a completed matrix and signed or otherwise approved by the artist. The number of such impressions typically is limited and does not include proofs, such as artist’s proofs, printer’s proofs, presentation proofs, publisher’s proofs, or archive proofs. of nine. The other twenty-three
were released in an edition of only three each.9
Posture and Pressure
These details of the printing process are not mere technicalities; rather, they are precisely what allow the Beauties to signify so broadly and eloquently in the realm of culture, politics, and ideas.
First of all, the pressure in the printmaking process creates essential postural ambiguities in the prints. Their names, narrow vertical proportions, and “standing” format strongly recall aristocratic portraiture in the West, helping to account for the hieratic, dignified bearing the prints assume. Queen, for example, standing tall with her flaring, folding contour and elaborately patterned surface, recalls any number of beskirted royals in the history of aristocratic representation (figs. 4.8 and 4.9).
And yet a contravening spatiality inserts itself into the experience of these works, precisely because they are prints. A full-length portrait typically results from a scene of uprightness: an artist standing at a standing easel, perhaps, painting a standing figure at ease. But the Beauties emerge from entirely different forces and orientations. The boards lie prone, under enormous pressure, on the press bed. The image transfer that creates the prints occurs along a horizontal plane. Unlike a freestanding portrait subject, the Beauties are exposed and subjected to elemental forces along all their primary surfaces.
An ironing board’s posture in its normal domestic condition is similarly horizontal and subordinate: it’s a flat surface whose job is to support and order a task from below as well as to withstand pressure (and heat) from above. Needless to say, the fundamental horizontality of ironing, with its connotations of work, force, repetition, and “low” matter, generates associations entirely different from the airy ease of the standing aristocrat. The material evidence of this horizontality remains conspicuous in the Beauties themselves: the strong embossing and debossing of the paper along the incised areas and board edges (the result of the deformation of damp paper against the topography of the ironing board “plate”) inevitably convey these impressions of force and resistance (fig. 4.10).
The ambiguities raised by this clash of simultaneous postural associations (horizontal or vertical?) also impinge on the most basic tasks of visual interpretation and identification. Consider the upper contour of Queen, which resembles the draping fall of a fabric veil (gravity pulling from top to bottom) and yet also clearly derives from a piece of crushed metal that has been shaped by forces working in a perpendicular direction. These ambiguities also create fundamental terminological confusions that make the prints difficult to describe, because they have no stable orientation in space. It seems that we should call the image we see when we stand in front of Queen the “front” or “face” of the print. But it actually comes from the “back” (or perhaps the “top”) of the ironing board. Front? Back? Top? Bottom? Recto? Verso? Dorsal? Ventral? Queen’s postural and prepositional signals are forever crossed.
When the Beauties assume their portrait orientation on the wall, then,
their origins in the press accompany them, charging their dignified air
with memories of (literal) oppression. This emphasizes the endurance,
resistance, and precarity behind their standing, rather than any easy
sense of unfettered aristocratic privilege. They don’t just stand;
There is a sacrificial quality to the marks on the Beauties: the hammering, dragging, gouging, and crumpling of the original ironing boards produce physical evidence of violence that transfers directly to each print. Given the anthropomorphism of the prints, in which the boards stand for bodies, each inky mark reads as either a scar (the embossing, resembling raised scar tissue, amplifies this association) or the image or impression of a wound—like a bandage that holds the reverse image of a cut when it is pulled off.
Here the direct connection between wound and image in these prints has a long history in foundational ideas about print in the West. Consider the sudarium, or veil of Veronica, an iconic motif in Western Christianity since the Middle Ages. According to tradition, after Saint Veronica stopped to wipe the blood and sweat from the face of Jesus along the way to Calvary, a miraculous image of the face remained on the cloth. Early modern printmakers unsurprisingly took this as emblematic of their own work, which after all involved cutting and scratching into one body (a block or plate) and transferring a viscous image from it onto another surface through contact alone (fig. 4.11). All prints are essentially contact relics in this sense, physical echoes of damage done to a matrix, and Veronica’s veil simply underlines the essential qualities of the medium.11
Cole’s work immediately seizes this model of the wound-image and extends it to African American and women’s history, raising the specter not just of the wounded Christ but of the scarred or wounded body of an enslaved person or a victim of other forms of overt or latent racial or gender violence. Yet here, too, are inescapable ambiguities in the tone and meaning of these incisions. They appear not just as horrors but also, as their name reminds us, as beauties. In particular, the markings have a decorative quality about them. Steel crumpling around a hammer strike creates a depression that looks like a rose when inked and printed. The resemblance of the boards’ contours to dresses or robes amplifies these associations: the pattern of the marks in many of the prints recalls the ubiquitous flowered housedresses of the mid-twentieth century—for if printing has essential connections to wounding, it also has essential connections to pattern making and decoration. Some of the earliest printing techniques in the world were used in textile design, with its need to repeat patterns and motifs over large areas. (The movement of printed textiles around the globe, like the movement of enslaved peoples, was an essential driver of modern global imperialism.) Cole has long been interested in pattern design and textile printing, both African and Western, and this too comes through in the Beauties.12
Moreover, as Cole’s other work with the steam iron and its patterns has
made clear, scarification, tattooing, and other flesh-marking traditions
have strong positive associations in many African cultures, where such
bodily modifications denote beauty and refinement.13 And just as
prints make beauty from cuts and gouges, scars announce both the
presence of a wound and the action of healing, both the body’s passive
reception of an external injury and its active remediation. Veronica’s
veil, as a relic, was said to have healing powers for all who touched
One of the paradoxical qualities of intaglio printing is that although it involves opaque plates that transfer marks in the close, dark space of the press, that profoundly blind material operation can generate pictorial effects of lightness and transparency. This is not just because a printing press can create pictures of ephemeral things such as angels and clouds. More fundamentally, it has to do with the unique way the press perceives and transmits information about texture and topography.
This paradox is exemplified by the Beauties. Standing in front of Jonny Mae, for example, we know that we’re looking at an imprint taken from just one side of the board, which is a solid (if perforated) sheet of steel (fig. 4.12). Yet we have the strong illusion of being able to see through it, as if it were made of translucent material: it looks like an X-ray or a stained-glass window.14 We can clearly perceive the pattern of struts and supports that occupy the other side of the board: two strong vertical lines and two horizontal, each darkening against the pattern of the facing front surface.
How is this possible? To understand this effect, we must appeal to the physical exigencies of printing. At Highpoint, the struts were left attached to the boards as they were flattened. Crushed against the bottom of a board, they made that portion of the “printing plate” thicker, altering the topographic disposition of the top side. The thicker parts of the board picked up scratches and dents more readily during the patination process, and thus held more ink when printed. Also, when the board was printed, the thicker areas of the plate drew more pressure from the roller, further darkening the corresponding areas of the print.
A similar effect occurs in Queen. The struts behind the surface are clearly visible, and indeed, the print is so full of exquisite incidental detail around these struts that it resembles a Rembrandt etching, with its wide variation in sharpness, tone, and scale of the marks. The matrix itself (the board) is surprisingly reticent by comparison (figs. 4.13.1 and 4.13.2). The press, we might say, “sees” the back of the ironing board far better than does the human eye. Printing is a haptic art, an art of pressure, and its elements—plates, felts, the press itself—are designed to respond with maximum sensitivity to minute changes in texture and topography that are invisible to the eye. This is common knowledge among printers, who routinely witness the enormous difference between the way a matrix looks in itself (the way it is interpreted by the human eye) and the way it looks when it is printed, or “interpreted,” by the press.