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Stitches and Ink: SVA Faculty Member Judith Solodkin on Her Work with Louise Bourgeois

When BFA Fine Arts faculty member Judith Solodkin first met the artist Louise Bourgeois, with whom she would go on to have a long, productive collaboration, it was as a neighbor. It was the mid-1970s, and Solodkin had recently moved to Manhattan from New Mexico, where she had earned the distinction of being the first woman to complete the master printer program at the Tamarind Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to fine art lithography.

"I would see her pushing her shopping cart, full of art supplies, down the street to her house," Solodkin says. "So I introduced myself. We were both involved with the local feminist movement, and we became friends."

Eventually the two began collaborating, with Bourgeois providing drawings and Solodkin turning out faithful lithograph editions of them, a harder task than it might seem to be. Lithography is the most demanding of the traditional printmaking techniques, involving a multipart process that uses the incompatibility of oil and water, rather than etched or carved or perforated surfaces, to make its images. And Bourgeois was a merciless critic. "At the beginning I would bring her proofs and she would just tear them up," Solodkin says. "She could be very difficult to work with."

Bourgeois became just one of several notable artists to work with Solodkin's SOLO Impression printing business—the list includes Francoise Gilot, Maya Lin and Jean Shin—but she was likely the most consequential of them: Solodkin's work on creating an edition of Ode à l'Oubli, Bourgeois' 2002 book of fabrics and stitch work, helped to establish SOLO in the nascent field of digital embroidery art. Today, Solodkin not only works on embroidery projects with artists like Kent Henricksen and Elaine Reichek, she also teaches the techniques to undergraduate and continuing education students at SVA.

With Ode à l'Oubli among the many works included in "Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait," an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, on view through January 28, 2018, Solodkin recently took time to answer a few questions about her work and friendship with the artist.

How did your working relationship with Bourgeois start?

I had just started my business and was living in my first shop, which was on Eighth Avenue and 20th Street, right by Louise's house. And of course I wanted to work with her—she was a great artist, I admired her tremendously. So I took two litho stones and gave them to her, for her to draw on with a grease pencil. And she gouged into them [as you might do with an etching plate]! I was horrified.

[But then] I would take her drawings and translate them into lithographs, and she would look at my proofs and draw on them and we would go back and forth until she was satisfied. Lithography allowed her to do blended inkings, and it produces strong colors, and she was very particular about color. And she knew that I was always up for a challenge, like figuring out how to print a lithograph on a piece of fabric or sewing pieces of paper onto another piece of paper [as Solodkin did for Bourgeois' The Song of the Blacks and the Blues (1996)].

The wall text at the MoMA show says that Bourgeois got more involved with printmaking later in life. Do you think you had something to do with that shift?

No. She had always made prints. She was friends with Max Ernst and those artists and they were all making etchings at the time. She had a printing press in her basement.

Did she ever come to review the printmaking process at your shop?

No, my assistant Rodney Doyle and I would go to her. Everyone went to her. And when we went over to her house it would be all day. We would show her prints and she would make us lunch. I don't know if you've seen pictures of her house, but her kitchen was very simple: two hot plates. She cooked like a French peasant. She would make things like macaroni and cheese, and we would all eat from one pot.

People were always coming and going. It was a revolving door of curators, artists, dealers. She threw a famous Christmas party: Imagine this rather run-down room filled with drawings tacked up on a wall, crowded with all these highfalutin art types, and there would be a huge cake with all this pornographic stuff on it, and champagne.

Of the works you did together, are there any that you're fond of in particular?

There are many. Louise was very generous, so we made lots of prints in editions of 50 or 100 for fundraisers. We did a series of Hamlet and Ophelia floating down the river for BAM. I love those. We did one called Couples [2001] for an exhibition at the Hermitage. We did lots of lithographs together.

I noticed several works at the show that were printed on sheet music paper. Did you ever work with her on anything like that?

Yes. Louise had insomnia and she would get up at night to draw. And she liked to draw on music composition paper, but the paper she was using was not archival quality. So I printed lots of Rives cream paper with music staff on it, for her to keep by her bed.

My Hand [2002], a drawing of her own hand that we printed in three different red inks, is printed on music paper. That's a favorite of mine. It reminds me of her.

Among your students and coworkers on campus, you're known for the incredible hats you make and wear. Did your millinery have anything to do with getting involved with Bourgeois' fabric works?

Louise loved my hats. She would host these salons on Saturdays and artists would show their work or people would put on these performances—she loved performance—and she wanted me to come with a whole bunch of hats and show them to the group. It was not my cup of tea [laughs], but I did it.

But Louise had a woman, Mercedes, who worked in her basement. She had an old, prim sewing machine and Louise would give her old towels and linens—schmatta, basically—and Mercedes would sew it all up. There's a French tradition of giving kids fabric books made of old garments and fabrics that they can touch and play with, and the original Ode à l'Oubli came out of that.

Her assistant Jerry Gorovoy and [gallerist] Peter Blum wanted to see if they could edition a fabric book. I had been coveting this high-end digital sewing machine, so I offered to do it. It was an incredibly complicated work. I devoted a year and a half to it. But it was my first digital embroidery project and it started me on this new path.

Did you ever make a hat for Bourgeois?

I did. But she didn't like it! She said it was a hat for a younger woman. She never wore it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

"Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait" is on view at The Museum of Modern Art through January 28, 2018.

For more information on Solodkin and SOLO Impression, click here. For more information on SVA's BFA Fine Arts program, click here.

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