Looking for a Thumb Print
The New York Times, Sunday, December 3, 1972 by Hilton Kramer
From time to time, everyone who looks at contemporary art with any regularity also looks at contemporary prints, if only in passing. Yet the world of prints — of printmaking and print-collecting, and especially of what we might call print esthetics — stands a little apart from the rest of the art world. It seems to constitute a separate enterprise. It seems to be governed by a different economy, and another kind of connoisseurship. It seems even to enjoy a different public. Yet not entirely or consistently. Many — perhaps most — of the major artists of the present century have lavished a great deal of creative energy on the making of prints. Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Kandinsky, Beckmann, Moore — the list could be extended indefinitely, yet it is not of their work in the print media that we instantly think when the names of such artists come to mind. We tend to think of their printmaking efforts as something that follows their "serious" work in the other, "major" media, and generally we are right in doing so.
If, on the other hand, we try to think of a single major modern artist whose work has been confined to a print medium, the mind balks. It isn't even an interesting question. Printmaking is assumed to be a subsidiary order of artistic endeavor. The esthetic pace is set elsewhere — in painting or sculpture or one of the hybrid amalgams derived from them.
Then, too, to be perfectly frank about it, there is a suspicion that much of what passes for printmaking nowadays is simply an ingenious and energetic form of marketing. This is unfair — as both an esthetic judgment and a moral criticism — to the many serious artists who are printmakers because they feel a genuine artistic affinity for the special possibilities of the print media. Yet the suspicion is not unfounded. Sooner or later, if an artist attains a certain celebrity and therefore enjoys an expanding market, we can be pretty certain that he will turn to a print medium as a way of enlarging his output, and it is fairly rare for such artists to become deeply engaged in the esthetics of the medium. Often they are not even engaged in the physical tasks of the medium. Their work is, in the most literal sense, produced by others. And what compounds our suspicion is the fact — and it often is a fact — that their work is none the worse for their never having to take a direct hand in it.
What is produced is not necessarily expected to add anything to the range of their artistic accomplishments. We are offered, instead, a token sample of their artistic signature, so to speak, and at a price that is markedly cheaper than examples of their "original" work. Ideas conceived for the painting medium are adjusted to the specifications of the printing press, and the result is often a kind of visual souvenir of something one has already experienced in its original form.
There is, I think, an undeniable element of outright commercialism in all this, but that is very far from being the whole story. Since certain forms of painting have themselves become extremely mechanical in the way they are realized on the canvas — I think especially of the masking tape and spray-paint school of abstraction — it really makes little difference who effects the actual results. The step from such mechanical painting procedures to mechanical printing procedures is not, I think, a very large one. But do artists of that particular persuasion have anything important to contribute to the esthetics of printmaking? I doubt it.
These reflections are prompted by the 18th National Print Exhibition, which is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum. This is an exhibition in which a good many celebrated names are represented — Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella, among them — but, with the exception of Mr. Johns, who has made prints an important part of his oeuvre, they are not names that really add anything to the history of printmaking. They contibute the prestige of their reputations to the exhibition, but the exhibition adds nothing to what we already know of their work, except perhaps the knowledge that these well-known artists have been persuaded to join in this production of token samples.
What, in many cases, this brief encounter with a print medium suggests is that artists who have no profound affinity for the medium rarely bring the full pressure of their sensibilities to bear on the result. Printmaking seems to encourage a fatal facility in such artists, and we turn away from their work feeling that only a small part of their minds has been engaged in the task at hand.
Even Jo Miller, the curator of prints and drawings the the Brooklyn Museum, seems a little uneasy about what has happened to printmaking in its current revival. "Technically, the quality of printing in this s how is the finest I have seen," she writes in the introduction to the catalogue, "due perhaps to the high standards of the professional presses that have sprung up across the nation in the past few years." But then she adds: "During teh selection of this exhibition, which included the viewing of hundreds of prints, I can't remember coming across a smudgy thumb print in the margin. I wish I had found a few to convince me that the artist is still totally involved in the making of this print."
For this reason, perhaps, I found myself especially drawn to certain works in the exhibition where there was no question of the artist's total involvement. Certain etchings, for example — Leonard Lehrer's fine landscape, David Itchkawich's almost novelistic scene of graphic narrative, and even Sol Lewitt's purist abstraction. There is something direct in this work — and therefore directly engaging — which all the slick lithography and elegant, flawless silk screening cannot match. This is not a moral judgment, but an esthetic one: The etchings can be experienced at first hand, so to speak, whereas the general run of the lithographs and sil screen prints might just as well be pages in a book of reproductions.
The artists who come off best in this sort of facile lithography, I think, are those who accept its being a lightweight medium. Niki de Saint Phalle's "The Zoo with You" is a delight in this respect, and so is Joe Goode's Magritte-like untitled work. Beyond this, there is much to engage and amuse the curiosity, but very largely in the way the new printmaking now functions as a source of "information" about what has lately been happening in other media. Somehow one leaves the exhibition feeling a little sorry for the artists — are they really as rare as they seem in this survey? — who have a genuine sense of artistic vocation for printmaking. They must at times feel a little lost in the new commercial hurricane.