Contemporary Prints: The Medium is Not the Message
The New York Times, Sunday, June 28, 1970, by James R. MellowWith a reproduction of Itchkawich's etching 'Concert at the Night Encampment'
Everything looks encouraging for the field of printmaking these days. For a variety of reasons — technical and esthetic as well as economic — it has achieved a new viability. One no longer looks at printmaking as merely a sideline activity for artists more importantly engaged in producing painting or sculpture. In fact, many artists whom one had clearly associated with those two disciplines have recently turned to the graphic arts. Not exclusively, to be sure, but with a new and marked interest in the potentials of the medium.
New forms of mechanical production and experimentation with novel and inexpensive materials like plastics have been some of the more productive trends in recent printmaking. They are part of the general drift away from traditional concepts of the masterwork—from the prestige of the unique and irreplaceable art-object — to less costly forms of art that can be readily duplicated to serve a broad audience. Certainly, the new audience for posters and "multiples" — the latter large-edition works that frequently employ printing techniques — has helped to expand and consolidate the audience for contemporary lithographs and etchings.
Economic factors, too, have played a considerable role in the current expansion of the print field. The prices of works by established modern masters — of Matisse or Mondrian, say — have risen so astronomically that they are beyond the means of all but the wealthiest collectors and most heavily endowed public institutions. Even comparatively young but well-known artists can command prices of from 10 to 15 thousand dollars for large-scale canvases — prices that place them out of bounds for provincial museums with limited budgets.
That there is a new audience — and a new market — for contemporary prints, one can judge from the fact that recognized art dealers and private entrepreneurs have lately been entering the field in increasing numbers. They are opening galleries specifically devoted to contemporary prints, establishing workshops for printmaking and commissioning artists to create new works for their published editions.
Still another reason — this one sociological — for the current revival of the print: its role as a vehicle for political protest and social comment. In the past, in the hands of artists like Daumier and Hogarth, it could produce damaging indictments of the political system and satirical outbursts against the foibles of established society. It is this old role that a number of contemporary printmakers have rediscovered. Printmaking, then, has become an extremely versatile medium, responsive to both the technical and social pressures affecting present-day art.
Anyone interested in seeing the best and most effective work being done in contemporary printmaking should make a point of visiting the Seventeenth National Print Exhibition now on view at the Brooklyn Museum. Ordinarily, large invitational shows are apt to be boringly inclusive of every recent trend — each of them effectively canceling out the other. The representative nature of the Brooklyn exhibition, however, is instructive. The show, selected by Miss Jo Miller, the museum's new curator of prints and drawings, includes 150 works by as many artists. The technical range of the works runs the gamut from conventional lithographic and etching methods through a variety of mixed media techniques including the use of plastics like plexiglas and mylar. There are, as well, several examples of three-dimensional prints.
"In selecting the prints," Miss Miller notes in the introduction to the catalogue, "we were concerned with the artist who makes graphic statements — not the accomplished technician fascinated with media. The medium is not the message from this group, although recent scientific advances in the field have given the artists new tools." There is, nevertheless, a good deal of technical virtuosity to be found in the show. But equal time has also been given to artists with something on their minds besides pure form and experimentation. The messages range from stark political statements like Chaim Koppelman's grisly embossed print of babies dangling from butchers' hooks entitled "Our Injustice, Vietnam," to the deadpan social commentary of Charles Fahler's "Trigger Begins," a little narrative on the subject of death and taxidermy, Hollywood style. It depicts the apotheosis of Roy Rogers's famous (and now stuffed) Palomino poney, Trigger.
When the Brooklyn print shows were initiated 23 years ago by Una E. Johnson (Miss Miller's predecessor, now retired), they were intended not only to promote the medium but to encourage younger talents as well. The current show continues that practice admirably and among the new talents this reviewer found especially notable were Ed O'Connell, whose "White Out," a six-sided plastic box printed with white benday dots, creates a brilliant optical effect with the simplest and most fastidious formal means, and David Itchkawich, whose cryptic little etching, "Concert at the Night Encampment," has a marvelously Wonderlandish quality. There are several veterans in the show, ranging from Alexander Calder to Carol Summers, whose resplendant and ambitiously large color-woodcut serves beautifully as the poster for the exhbition. From among the names one doesn't usually associate with graphics, there are impressive prints by Phillip Pearlstein, Richard Diebenkorn, Alex Katz and Fairfield Porter. And among the first-timers in the show is John Cage, whose plexigram, "Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel," represents a new venture for the avant-garde composer. Handsome in its tightly composed way, it consists of random elements of typography a bit too studiously arranged, printed out on eight successive sheets of plastic. Reportedly, Mr. Cage consulted the I-Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, in creating his work.
That, perhaps, best sums up the current state of printmaking. Its technical options now range from the computer to ancient Chinese theories of chance.