Why editions matter: Printmaking stalwart Niels Borch Jensen discusses 40 years in the business

Active since the 1970s, the Copenhagen-based gallerist talks about his early interest in printmaking, the way he envisions this discipline, and how he works with artists

Clément Dirié: Before opening your gallery in 1999, you had been active as a printer and publisher for 20 years. Could you tell us about your beginnings in the graphic art world?

Niels Borch Jensen: I went directly from high school to printmaking. I was supposed to go to university, but somehow I fell in love with this activity. The fact that it perfectly combines the intellectual world and a very physical practice appealed to me a lot. When I was in high school, I borrowed all the art books. But the ones that really fascinated me were the books about prints, about collections of famous prints, the books about Goya’s and Rembrandt’s etchings. I decided very early on to work in that field. I gained experience in Denmark first, then in America and Spain. It was a kind of informal and international apprenticeship. In 1979, I opened my own print studio in Copenhagen. I immediately started publishing artists like Per Kirkeby, as well as renowned Danish, Scandinavian, and German artists. The first print I did was actually with Per. I had just opened the print shop and he showed up one morning with some tiny plates he wanted me to print. We did that, and developed a relationship that lasted for 40 years. Later we worked with Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen. It developed organically from one artist talking to another artist or seeing what other artists had done. In 1999, we opened the gallery in Berlin and decided to focus on printing only our own works. For a long time I also collaborated with galleries and other publishers who commissioned me.

When you started in 1979, what kind of machine did you use?

I had a very old Krause printing press made in Leipzig. That particular machine had belonged to Paul Gauguin’s grandson, who was Danish. The machine was manufactured in 1899. These are very simple, old-fashioned machines. You have to understand that there are two approaches to classic printmaking. Some publishers, like Brooke Alexander, are not involved in the production process; they prefer to master the project, to orchestrate it, and then to delegate the production. Others, like me, both publish and print. I’m fascinated with the printing process and each time I start a new project I look for artists that I think could do good prints with these classic techniques. Both approaches are equally interesting. It really depends on who you are. There is also this new approach to limited editions that is about producing sculptures, eccentric artists’ books, experimental objects, etc., but this is not really my thing.

Julie Mehretu. Courtesy Niels Borch Jensens.

What kind of machine do you have today?

Exactly the same one, and we have acquired a couple of others. I also have a very large press I built. Four masterprinters now work at the studio. My main job today is the dialogue with the artists, but I still make the plates. Everybody in the print shop can do it, but it often ends up being my task. It is like being a chef, cooking. I still enjoy it as much as when I began. In principle, an etching press is made of two rollers and a very strong frame. There is nothing complicated about it, and that is really one of the nice things about it. You are very free to experiment because it is so simple that you can think about what would happen if you were to run tomatoes through it. If you try to do that on an Epson printer, it is not going to work. What I like about etching is that it works like a pencil. If you give it to one person, they will draw a certain way. If you give it to another person, they will do a completely different drawing. These techniques are very specific, but at the same time extremely malleable. It is perhaps why I currently see a renewed interest from younger generations in working with classic printmaking techniques. They may see room for experimentation and freedom, but without the random aspect of digital printing.

How many projects do you do each year?

About 10 projects of different sizes. Every year we try to add some new artists to our list. We usually work on a basis of trust with the artists. Once we start a collaboration, it could last for years, but we don’t start until we feel we really want to collaborate together. Some artists don’t like making prints because there is a distance between what they envision, what they usually do in their own studio, and the result. In that case, it’s better not to start. Printmaking is challenging. On the other hand, some artists really like it because they go to places they never went to before, and create works they wouldn’t have created otherwise. When you start with an artist you don’t know, you spend a lot of time talking and playing around and doing things until the artist feels comfortable with it and free enough to experiment and ask questions about the possibilities. We have been lucky enough to have artists who really got excited about working in a print shop. We recently published works by Stanley WhitneyJohn Zurier, and Thomas Scheibitz for the first time.

Which print proved to be the most difficult to make?

Because we work with artists over a long period, I think it is also part of my role to challenge them a bit. When I get to know how they think, I sometimes suggest going in a certain direction. That said, I’m particularly proud of what we did with Julie Mehretu (Epigraph, Damascus, 2016). It is the first work we ever did together and is 2.5 by 6 meters. Producing and engineering a print that large is always an achievement.

How do you decide the number of copies for each edition?

We decide it with the artists. Of course, there are physical limits. Some plates will wear out after maybe 20 prints, so the edition will be limited to 20. Nowadays the market is really focusing on small editions. When I started, an edition would be 100. Before that, it would have been 300. These days our standard number is around 16. I would like to add something here because people often misunderstand this. What we are doing as printmakers and publishers is not about reproduction. The prints we produce are specifically made to be printed; they don’t reproduce anything. There is no original. The prints themselves are the artworks and are conceived as such.

Why did you open the gallery in Berlin?

Copenhagen is a small town, there isn’t an art market that would support the kind of publishing we do. We had to go beyond it. Berlin is only an hour by plane from Copenhagen. I have many friends there; I had worked with many galleries based in Berlin. It was quite natural to open there. Our inaugural show was with Georg Baselitz. Later, in 2014, we opened a space in Copenhagen to showcase our editions not too far from the print shop.

Extract from the Art Basel | Year 48 book. For more information, click here.

Learn more about Niels Borch Jensen.

Top image: Tacita Dean, Quarantania, 2018. Photogravure on 7 panels on Somerset White Satin 300 gr. Size: Paper 72 x 100 cm; Frame 247 x 757 cm. Edition of 12 + 3 AP. Courtesy Niels Borch Jensen.