The tradition of the artist-printmaker was not a fully developed one in the late 19th- and early 20th-century United States. Few American artists saw printmaking as a worthy endeavor, but rather a new and arduous process that was not worth their time and toil. When artists considered printmaking it was often as a means of reproducing their work, and they employed professional printmakers to fulfill their requests. Printmaking courses of the day promoted technical competence and picturesque subjects but did little to push the medium beyond second-rate status.
Atelier 17’s Stanley Hayter promoted the print as an expressive and experimental process for form and meaning. This approach appealed to those who were disenchanted with the provincialism and conservatism in American art–particularly in New York in the late 1940s.
At the onset of the World War II, Hayter left Paris for London and finally settled in New York in 1940, after a short stint giving courses at the California School of Fine Arts. At the New School for Social Research, Hayter was given a small space to re-establish his workshop. The close proximity of students and intellectual discourse surpassed that in Paris, with students often going for drinks after class, discussing art, ideas and even personal matters.
The draw of the workshop was the opportunity to study, converse and work at the same table with many émigré European artists, including Chagall, Miró, Dalí and Masson, all of whom had worked with Hayter earlier in Paris.
Perhaps the watershed moment for the workshop’s re-establishment came in the years 1944 and 1945, when the Museum of Modern Art organized an exhibition entitled “Hayter and Studio 17.” Among the exhibitors were Miró, Masson, Lasansky, Chagall, Calder, Lipchitz, and Peterdi. And, some of them went on to establish their own printmaking studios and programs at other American universities. These studios would perpetuate the spirit of the experimental workshop throughout the United States.
Others who worked at Atelier 17, and seem to have been influenced by ideas central to the studio, were artists experimenting with abstraction, including Reuben Kadish, Robert Motherwell, Louise Bourgeois, Louise Nevelson and Jackson Pollock.