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The Odd Couple

Bob Hiebert and Sid Block celebrate 25 years of working in eerie harmony at the city's only gallery devoted to works on paper.

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Bob Hiebert and Sidney Block have been in business together longer than many people have been married, and as with many couples their friends tend to think of them as inseparable--Sid and Bob, Bob and Sid. It's been 25 years since they opened Printworks, still the city's only gallery dedicated exclusively to works on paper--contemporary prints, drawings, artists' books, and the occasional painting or photograph. For the past 15--five days a week, nearly every week of the year--they've sat on opposite sides of a single desk in their cramped, 600-square-foot space in River North.

Printworks is associated with some of the most prominent names in postwar Chicago art history, including the first generation of imagists--Leon Golub, Seymour Rosofsky, Roland Ginzel, Theodore Halkin, June Leaf, Evelyn Statsinger. But it's also kept pace with the artists who've followed. Audrey Niffenegger, who teaches at Columbia College's Chicago Center for Book & Paper Arts, has been exhibiting her fable-like, surrealist-inspired pieces there since 1986, when Hiebert and Block discovered her at a School of the Art Institute student exhibit. Her work drew only modest attention until 2003, when her debut novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, became a best seller. That led to two nearly sold-out shows of her paintings, drawings, and prints--and a newfound cachet for the gallery.

Niffenegger doesn't take full credit for the gallery's new audience, though. "Once people got curious about me, it turned a few people on to all the groovy things that Printworks has besides me," she says. She helped curate its new exhibition, "The Art of the Bookplate," a 25th-anniversary celebration. Seventy-two artists associated with the gallery were asked to design a bookplate honoring a person who's influenced their lives. Niffenegger, for example, chose Aubrey Beardsley. Phyllis Bramson chose Soren Kierkegaard, while Tim Lowly liked Andrei Tarkovsky; Jim Nutt chose his wife, artist Gladys Nilsson, and Bert Menco was drawn to the Elephant Man.

"After 25 years, we've ended up knowing and befriending so many artists," says Hiebert. "We wanted to include as many of those people as possible."

Hiebert is 58. Block turns 82 next week. They met by accident. Hiebert, a Minnesota native, moved to Chicago in 1969 to work as a physical therapist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, then on East Ohio Street; Block, who grew up on the south side, was working across the street at the graphic design firm Coventry, Miller & Olzak (now CMO Graphics). Hiebert, who'd been dabbling in photography since moving to the city, rented a spare darkroom in CMO's photo department and used it often. "We had similar interests as far as music, art, theater," says Hiebert. "We liked opera and classical music, and we'd run into each other at Orchestra Hall. We became fast friends."

In the 70s the two visited England regularly, joined by Block's wife, Hanna, and occasionally mutual friends. During one trip, they made what Hiebert calls a "crazy decision." They both admired the kind of fine-art posters and prints they used to peruse at the Van Straaten Gallery, then located on Michigan Avenue, so they hatched a plan to start a business selling similar items overseas. "There were some wonderful posters all over Europe," Block says. "Wonderful works of art by all the big names, some hand-signed, and very affordable."

In 1979 they incorporated as Printworks Ltd., but setting up shop in London proved to be too expensive. Back in Chicago, however, they were able to lease a third-floor space at 620 N. Michigan, then home to galleries such as Richard Gray, Carl Hammer, Frumkin & Struve, and Sonia Zaks. Printworks opened on September 5, 1980, with an exhibit called "The Art of the Poster," featuring works by the likes of Matisse, Miro, Chagall, and De Chirico, some of which were signed limited editions. Soon artists who taught at the School of the Art Institute started bringing in their work. "At that time nobody was really into selling prints by Chicago printmakers," says Block. The gallery kept afloat in its early years thanks to corporate clients who were interested in works on paper because they "didn't have to spend a fortune."

Hiebert's father, an inventor and self-made businessman, was leery of the enterprise. "He said you should never have a business partner," Hiebert says. "He'd never heard of a partnership that could last. But my parents absolutely fell in love with Sidney."

A rent increase prompted Printworks to move to its current location in 1983. The two figure they were the tenth gallery to settle into the burgeoning River North district. ("I know it was early because in the morning you could park anywhere," says Hiebert.) By 1984 Hiebert was able to quit his job at a medical-supply company; the following year Block went part-time at the graphic design firm. He retired from it in 1990.

Also in 1984, Leon Golub walked into the gallery. An internationally known painter of huge, provocative political canvases, Golub left Chicago in 1959 for Paris and then New York but was still closely identified with his hometown. "Nobody knows about my prints," Block remembers Golub saying. "Do you guys ever take on new people?" In 1985 the gallery held a show of his prints and drawings concurrently with a Golub retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art and exhibits of his paintings at two other galleries.

The show put Printworks on the map. Hiebert and Block sold many of the pieces, some to museums like the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery of Australia, and the Art Institute. "Museum purchases are the most satisfying, because it validates what we're doing," says Hiebert. He and Block visited Golub and his wife, artist Nancy Spero, at their SoHo studio often until his death in August 2004. They tried to interest a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in some of Golub's lithographs, but its purchase committee took a pass. "Leon admired us for our chutzpah," Hiebert says. "He always made us feel special."

As word got around, other established artists from New York and the midwest--including Philip Pearlstein, Ellen Lanyon, Richard Hunt, and Hollis Sigler--brought their pieces to Printworks. The gallery's roster now includes 50 artists, from imagists such as Robert Lostutter and Karl Wirsum to mid-career artists such as Michiko Itatani and Nicholas Sistler.

Many exhibit bigger-ticket items like canvases elsewhere, but that suits Hiebert and Block fine. "Painting galleries mostly don't want to have anything to do with prints or drawings," Block says. "They don't want to open their drawers and go through 30 or 50 prints and explain prices. No. They want you to take that big, expensive painting off the wall and walk out the door with it."

Mark Pascale, associate curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute, says that works on paper bring in "minuscule amounts of money" compared to other pieces. Many of Printworks' sell for three figures, with high-end pieces by artists like Golub selling for upward of $6,000. But the gallery has been able to stay in business, Pascale says, thanks to a low overhead, an "interesting stable of important artists," and its owners' ability to cultivate long-term relationships with clients. "[Printworks] has a print-cabinet atmosphere where you'll find a variety of things--some on the walls, some in bins, some in drawers," he says. "It's like a one-on-one personal relationship--you don't get this mass-marketing thing at all. That's the way dealing was."

Two years ago Hiebert and Niffenegger pulled off the most ambitious of the gallery's occasional themed group exhibits: to celebrate Block's 80th birthday, they spent 14 months secretly coordinating a collaborative project as a surprise gift. Lured into the nearby Jean Albano Gallery on December 16, Block was greeted by hundreds of well-wishers--and The Exquisite Snake, a serpentine work on paper composed of foot-long segments by 215 artists. Jules Feiffer made the head, Ed Paschke the tail. Hiebert admits that some of the plotters feared Block would be too surprised. "I might have a heart attack," Block told an Art on Paper writer covering the show. "But it would be worth it."

"The Art of the Bookplate" isn't as elaborate, though Niffenegger says the initial list of artists was "three times as long as the number of people who could be in the show." Hiebert got the idea for the exhibit earlier this year, when he came across a book, The Art of the Bookplate by James Keenan, which featured works by the likes of Albrecht Durer, William Hogarth, and Paul Revere. "We thought it would be fun to do it in a contemporary vein," Hiebert says.

But for Hiebert and Block, "contemporary" is often only a relative term. "I love them because they're extremely old-fashioned," says Niffenegger. "They've got their roles. They don't tread on each other. They're very kind and courtly and low-key in a certain way that makes them easy to be with, so I can see how they've managed to be together for so long."

"Somebody once said that, not counting spouses, you only have one or two good friends in your lifetime," says Hiebert. "And obviously, Sidney's mine."

"I feel the same way," says Block. "I feel very privileged to do this with Bob every day."

The Art of the Bookplate

When: Through Sat 2/4: Tue-Sat 11 AM-5 PM

Where: Printworks, 311 W. Superior #105

Info: 312-664-9407, printworkschicago.com

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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