Chiron Press—The First of Its Kind

In our November 2020 Contemporary Art sale, we’re honored to offer more than thirty important works from the Collection of Stephen Poleskie, founder of Chiron Press, New York’s first fine art screenprinting studio (inaugurated in 1963 on East 11th Street in Lower Manhattan). Through collaborations with many of the foremost New York artists in the 1960s, Poleskie and Chiron Press were at the center of a watershed era in contemporary American Art, a momentous decade that witnessed the succession of Pop Art from Abstract Expressionism. Poleskie produced editions with many of the most established artists of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, including Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning and Robert Motherwell, artistic luminaries such as Louise Nevelson, Ellsworth Kelly and Alex Katz, as well as the trailblazers of Pop Art, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Jim Dine

Elaine de Kooning, Portrait of Steven Poleskie, pencil, circa 1965.
Estimate $3,000 to $5,000.

Stephen Poleskie & The Birth of the Chiron Press

Poleskie was born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania in 1938. A largely self-taught artist, he had his first solo exhibition at the Everhart Museum, Scranton, in 1958, while still in college. He worked as an art teacher in Pennsylvania before moving to Miami in the early 1960s, where he became a designer in a screenprinting shop, learning the craft that would soon place him at the nexus of the New York art world. Poleskie moved to New York in 1962 to pursue an artistic career and rented a modest studio on East 10th Street, then a veritable hotbed of the New York artistic scene (among his neighbors and friends were Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Frank O’Hara and Louise Nevelson). Within a year, he’d taken a lease on another space on East 11th Street to open a fine art screenprinting studio—the first of its kind in New York. The workshop became known as Chiron Press and by 1964 had relocated to a larger, more suitable space at 76 Jefferson Street on the Lower East Side near the Manhattan Bridge.   

“Although a prominent member of the avant-garde, Helen was not exactly a bohemian. She drove down to my shop from her uptown residence in her white Mercedes-Benz convertible.”

Stephen Poleskie

76 Jefferson Street

Recalling the Jefferson Street workshop, located in an 1893 loft building, Poleskie reminisced on working with Helen Frankenthaler and the idiosyncratic nature of the studio itself:

“Although a prominent member of the avant-garde, Helen was not exactly a bohemian. She drove down to my shop from her uptown residence in her white Mercedes-Benz convertible. As Jefferson Street was only two blocks long, lined with empty loft buildings and ending at the East River, she never had any problem parking right out front. The patrons in the bar on the corner became quite used to seeing snappy transportation arriving at my door: Nick Krushenick in his Porsche, Larry Rivers on his BSA motorcycle, and the occasional chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce of a wealthy art collector. As most of the occupants of 76 Jefferson weren’t exactly legal, artists without residence permits, and a few drug dealers, the street door was kept locked, and there was no buzzer. The normal procedure was for the visitor to stand on the sidewalk and yell up the name of the person that they wanted to visit. A window would open, or sometimes not, and the caller would be recognized. Thereupon a key to the front door would be thrown down in a weighted sock. There was no elevator so guests had to walk up rickety wooden stairs lined with dangling fire buckets. If you are not familiar with these, they were bright red buckets filled with water, hanging from hooks in the hallways, two per floor. The idea being that if a fire should start you could throw this water on it before hopefully getting out of there.” Poleskie also recounted, “This building, 76 Jefferson Street, now torn down to make room for a housing project, would become such a popular home for artists that in 1972 The Museum of Modern Art made an exhibition including all the major artists that had studios there along with the prints from Chiron Press.”1  

The Wise Teacher

The workshop’s namesake, Chiron, was a benevolent Centaur in Greek mythology who, unlike his vicious brethren, was known for being a wise teacher. Like Chiron, artists gravitated towards Poleskie, seeking his guidance and artistic direction in printmaking. Once established at the Jefferson Street studio, Poleskie and Chiron Press became prolific, flooded with job requests and producing dozens of fine art screenprint editions from 1965 to 1968 with a roster of artists that reads like a Who’s Who of the ’60s New York scene, and includes such prominent figures as Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Alex Katz, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Motherwell and Robert Indiana. Brice Marden, fresh from his MFA at Yale University, was Poleskie’s studio assistant at this time before he was hired by Robert Rauschenberg as his assistant. 

The Paris Review

Poleskie’s timing and the studio’s focus on fine art screenprinting were uncanny. Among his good fortune were commissions to produce many of the 1960s limited-edition posters for the famed literary magazine The Paris Review. The fine art print/poster series was funded by a 1964 gift from Drue Heinz to provide financial support to the magazine, whose print/poster series encouraged contemporary artists such as Frankenthaler, Motherwell, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dine, and Katz to produce signed, limited editions of their original works, to donate for sale by the magazine. 

New York Abstract Expressionist School

New York Abstract Expressionist artists, such as Nevelson and Frankenthaler, who enthusiastically experimented with myriad printmaking techniques throughout their careers, appreciated screenprinting for its directness and relative simplicity, absent the technical demands of lithography or etching, and their creative collaborations with Poleskie were fruitful. Meanwhile, Pop artists including Warhol and Lichtenstein embraced screenprinting with an unsurpassed voracity, unique to any other group of contemporary artists, and Poleskie was among the first master screenprinters to introduce them to the technique.

Poleskie benefitted from working with many of the titans of Abstract Expressionism, and they shared his direct, hands-on approach. He refused to use photography to transfer the artists’ images to the screens, instead maintaining they work from full-scale prototype drawings, then drawing the designs directly on the screens themselves, noting, “That artists who worked with ‘touch’ in their paintings should respond to the texture of the silk, or nylon, which was the medium, not the slick feel of the acetate [typically used to photographically transfer images to screens]. I also felt that using photography to transfer an image made the work a kind of reproduction. I tried to keep a certain hand-made quality to the prints Chiron Press produced.” 

Related Reading: Abstract Art: 1940s Through Now and The Studio Assistant: Louise Nevelson & Teddy Haseltine

After The Press

In 1968, wanting to devote more time to his own art, Poleskie sold Chiron Press and accepted a teaching position at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He lived and taught in upstate New York for the remainder of his career, retiring a professor emeritus of art from Cornell. As the mythical centaur Chiron forwent immortality for freedom and was placed as a constellation among the stars, Poleskie too looked to the sky. He learned to pilot biplanes and created his widely praised Aerial Theater. Flying aerobatics, skywriting, music and dancers were all encompassed in Aerial Theater; Poleskie’s drawings and designs of these aerial events were exhibited at galleries from the 1960s through the 1980s. Today these works are held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Tate, London, among many other institutions.

Though spanning only about half a decade, Poleskie’s Chiron Press occupies a significant and lasting legacy in the history of contemporary art and printmaking. Poleskie’s bright, saturated inks and geometric stencils are unmistakable hallmarks of the Pop Art movement. His appropriation of the screenprint for fine art has reverberated through the art industry for decades, his influence was long-lasting and many of the practices he established or popularized are often still used today.   

1. 76 Jefferson: Work by Artists Who Lived at 76 Jefferson Street Where Artistic Activity of the ’60s and ’70s Evolved,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 11-December 1, 1975.

Do you have a Pop Art or Abstract Expressionist print we should take a look at?

Learn about how to consign to an auction, and send us a note about your item.