A Visit Through The Old Print Shop: Q & A with Robert Newman

Dec 28,2016 | 16:22 EST By Jessica Helen Weinberg

I turned the windy corner onto Lexington Avenue, anchoring my hat down and redirecting my scarf that blew itself straight out in front of me. Deciding to challenge the crosswalk signals, I shuffled to the other side at the 10 second mark and skipped onto the curb; I don’t want to be a minute late for my appointment with Robert Newman, the President of The Old Print Shop!

Jutting out like a cast iron limb, the carved, black and white sign hanging from the facade of the building, filled me with the comforting thought that I would soon be sheltered from the cold and surrounded by the home and hearth of antiquities and rich conversation. Although the current location opened in 1925, The Old Print Shop was founded in 1898, by Edward Gottschalk, where it ran in the back of Wanamaker’s between 9th and 10th streets on Fourth Avenue. It was eventually sold to Harry Shaw Newman, whose final payment on October 31, 1933 solidified its fate as an instrumental leader in 18th, 19th and 20th century American print collecting and dealing. Once inside, I traveled across the pale wooden floor, adding scoffs of my own, like the 91 years of other visitors have done before me. The narrow floor planks, that run through the space, sing like the deck of a 19th century, Nantucket whaling ship — while dozens of antique light fixtures provide the atmospheric charm of a stately captains quarters. The Old Print Shop survived the Great Depression, World War ll and the re-evaluation of American Art during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s; but like a well built ship, its helm continues to soar above the temperamental tides of the art world. 

Interior Shot of The Old Print Shop, 1st Floor; Flat Files Leading into Backroom, 2016

After graciously touring me around both floors, Robert and I stationed ourselves in the exhibition gallery where our conversation ran through a spectrum of topics beginning with ancient cartography, right up to the time Andy Warhol walked into the shop, looking to trade the Marilyn Suite for an authentic Audubon print. (No, Warhol didn’t convince Robert’s father, Kenneth M. Newman, to make the swap) 

JW: You showed me a large, digital print hanging on the ground floor. Do you see the digital print becoming a common contemporary direction/practice? Is that the future of printmaking?

RN: Printmaking has a rich history in the west going back more than 600 years. Because printmaking is often a discovery by artists it is also experimental, artists are often re-discovering ways to make a print or another way to get the effect they are looking for. Digital is just one more tool in that tool box. It was easier for Peter Milton as he has been working with photo gravure and hand engraving for several decades, a scanned photo and then hand drawing is almost the same thing.

Digital is new, and there are many “printmaking” purists, both collectors and artists, who shun the process as being reproductive or an easy way out. It is true that it can be reproductive, so can photo-litho or photo-gravure, and in the 19th century there was an entire category of “reproductive engravings.” 

I tend to follow the Museum of Modern Art’s stance, if the artist conceived it and carried it out as a digital work than it is art.

JW: You named Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns as being two of the greatest printmakers in modern history. Would you elaborate for us? How does their process, creativity vs. technical skill compare to your 18th and 19th century inventory? Are they more similar to those centuries than we realize? 

RN: Every period had their artistic heroes, in the nineteenth-century in America it was Audubon, Bennett, Lane and the large lithographic publishers, Currier & Ives and Endicott and Company. In the 1920’s Martin Lewis, Edward Hopper, John Marin all became well recognized etchers. I appreciate Rauschenberg’s work because he experimented with lithography, more than any artist of the 1970’s he was a consummate printmaker, learning the process, then pushing the boundaries of what was possible. Jasper Johns is just a creative genius, he made these images that become timeless, and the way he worked is a good example to other artists.  He stuck with an image and continued to work it using up all the possibilities before moving on the next image. He worked in painting, printmaking and sculpture, each with an ease that is both surprising and refreshing.

JW: Okay, now an easier question, what advice would you give to new print collectors?

RN: The most important advice I can give to a collector beginning is to collect what you enjoy.  Then no matter what happens you will get your value and appreciation from the art. If it goes up in value you get a double benefit, but if it does not you have been able to live with it for years and your enjoyment is all that is needed. 

I encourage people to look at contemporary because in general it is fairly reasonable in price, at least that is true of my contemporaries. I have a floor limit, meaning I will not take work from an artist that will retail under $200, that being said the average price for contemporary work in my inventory is $300-600, yes I have some for $12-15,000, but the norm is not that high.

Interior Shot of The Old Print Shop; 2nd Floor for Contemporary Works, 2016 

JW: There is one print in The Old Print Shop by Currier & Ives, that isn’t for sale, could you tell me a little bit about its backstory and historical significance to the shop?

RN: The one item that is not for sale is an advertising broadside by Currier & Ives.“Colored : Engravings for the People : Published by : N. Currier : Lithographer, . . .” This broadside was given to my grandfather by Harry T. Peters. Mr. Peters was one of the earliest collectors and he gathered information on the firm and published the first in depth research book on the firm in the 1920’s. His collection of American 19th century prints was very large, over 7,000 items. On his death his son gave (I believe the number is correct but I could be wrong of the total quantity) 6,000 Currier & Ives prints to the Museum of the City of New York, and they currently have the largest collection of this publisher because of this gift. 

We have never offered it for sale, and to my knowledge it is the only known original impression, Mr. Peters did make a reproduction of the image, my memory is it is ¾” bigger than the original. As art dealers we do not keep much, this is in fact the only item we have kept all these years.

Interior at The Old Print Shop; Image of an original Currier & Ives Advertising, 2016

JW: We are eager to know what you’re planning to include in your second Bidsquare auction. What can we look forward to from The Old Print Shop?

RN: Stow Wengenroth, lithographs and drawings. Stow is well known in New England for his lithographs done during the 1930-1950 era. After that I think I will put together a Marine sale as I have a great collection of marine art from the 18th through 20th century.

Robert Newman Pictured with: Admiral D.G. Farragut/Regina Apostolorum, Kurz & Allisons Art Studio, Chicago, Original Lithographic Stone, C.1880 

As Robert pointed out to me, there are hundreds if not thousands of “The Old Print Shop” sticker’s on the backside of the artwork’s that have been sold to a range of distinguished print collectors. The shop has experienced conceptual art movement shifts and art market spikes and declines, so perhaps, above all, knowledge is the compass which guides the way; authenticity and respect for the craft. I have to admit, after flipping through the bins of his contemporary artists, as he suggested new collectors do, I have a feeling I will be making a return visit, as a new customer. If you are lucky enough to pay Robert a visit, you can look forward to being greeted by a smiling face, and a willingness to share his passion for printmaking with whoever’s asking. Bidsquare is thrilled to have The Old Print Shop as an active vendor on our platform; stay tuned for their upcoming sales!

Robert K. Newman has served on the board of the International Fine Print Dealers Association for eighteen years starting in 1992 and served as president for six of the years. He has been chairman of the Print Fair committee since 1997 and has run the Capital Art Fair in Washington, DC, since 2009.