The Master

His inspired passion made him a favorite in the art world. Now Marcel Salinas is stuck in St. Louis, where hardly anybody knows his name.

Desperate, Salinas walked into a Paris print shop. The proprietors asked whether he could do lithography. And Salinas fibbed.

"I said yes," he recalls. "I needed money just to pay my rent. I knew vaguely, you see. I know you put a grease on a stone. But I had never done it. To know something and to do it is very different."

Invented 200 years ago, lithography is an exacting, sometimes maddening craft. Using slabs of limestone as the work surface, traditional lithographers paint pictures with grease, then wash the stone with a solution of nitric acid and gum arabic, which etches the image onto the limestone. The stone is wetted with water, and oil-based ink is applied. The image in grease attracts the ink; the wet portions of the stone repel it. There is little room for error -- once the grease goes on the stone, it is virtually impossible to remove it. The strength of the acid solution must be carefully considered. Each color requires a separate stone, and the artist must take into account how overlapping colors will blend on the final print. A single lithograph might require ten stones or more.

Jennifer Silverberg
Marcel Salinas: "I was not Picasso's friend; I worked for him. It was artist-to-artist."
Jennifer Silverberg
Marcel Salinas: "I was not Picasso's friend; I worked for him. It was artist-to-artist."

"You cannot put green and blue on the same stone, but with yellow and blue, you can make a green," Salinas explains. "Yellow and red, you can make an orange. When you make a proof and you print and it's not working, you have to know how to compensate with the next plate. It's fascinating, and this is why I was in printing."

Eventually, sheets of zinc that could be wrapped around printing drums became more popular than stones, which were awkward to work with and scarce. Zinc was subsequently replaced with Mylar sheets. Today, reproductions made with digital cameras and computers have largely taken the place of handmade lithographs, much to Salinas' dismay.

Salinas' initial lithographic assignments were hardly fine art. He was relegated to adding color to architectural renderings. "You have three colors; you cannot have four," he remembers. And he was forced to work cheap. "He didn't have working papers," LeShufy says. "They took advantage of him and paid him, like, a third of what they paid everybody else because he was an unregistered worker."

Papers or no, Salinas still had his pride.

"One day, the guy in the print shop said that he had very difficult work to do and that I couldn't do it, so he asked a guy from Mourlot," he remembers. "I saw the work. I could have done it. I said nothing. I went to an artist friend who did tapestries. He was working on [illustrating] a book of poetry. I had done one or two lithographs for him, simple things. I said, 'Do you think I could work at Mourlot?' He said yes. I said, 'OK, give me an introduction.'"

At the time, Mourlot was the leading print shop in Paris. Salinas says, "I went to Mourlot; they saw my work; they liked what I was doing. I started working on the book of that guy -- I started working at Mourlot. I went to the smaller shop after I started the work at Mourlot. I said to the guy, 'Look here. Next time that you need somebody, a Mourlot boy, to make a work, you can call me. He said, 'What do you say?' I say, 'Because I'm working there.' The guy became white. And that was the last time I was there. I did so much work for that guy, very difficult work. But I don't like when somebody steps on purpose on my foot. He was exploiting me, paying me very little for my work. I never had to do that kind of thing to survive."

Salinas wasn't the sort to stick in one place. He has always worked freelance, cutting his own deals and resisting representation by any agent or single gallery. Gradually, moving from shop to shop, Salinas earned a reputation as one of the best lithographers in the city. But he nearly panicked when a publisher approached him in the late 1960s with a dream job: reproducing a series of original Picasso paintings, known as the "Imaginary Portraits," in a series of 28 lithographs.

"I was very, very worried," Salinas recalls. "If I have a failure, whoosh!" But this was no task for the meek. "I want to take a chance," he says. "You're reproducing work, but at the same time you have to have a creativity -- or you can copy, but it becomes tedious and boring and flat. This is not photographical, this is you. And if you make a mistake, it will be printed forever. And they had chosen me because they knew that I would do a kind of inspired passion.

"Picasso is not this," he explains, pinching his forefinger and thumb together. "Picasso's art is this," he says, flourishing his open hand in the air. The lithographs, he knew, must be just as daring.

Working from four-by-five-inch photographs of the originals and his own knowledge of Picasso's style, Salinas created lithographs that are works of art in their own right. It is impossible, Salinas says, to precisely copy a painting when working with grease. Oil paintings can be copied in oil, but exactness goes out the window when one works in a different medium than the original. Colors, for instance, had to be carefully considered -- the precise colors as on the original paintings would not appear properly because the lithographs were of different sizes.

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