Published: February 7, 2006
Focusing on the Twentieth Century renaissance of printmaking, “Presses, Pop and Pomade: American Prints Since the Sixties” is the subject of an exhibit currently open at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. The succinct and comprehensive display focuses on printworks created by some of the giants of Twentieth Century art.
The exhibit explores the two separate and co-dependent factors that drove the midcentury resurgence of printmaking: the artists and their work, and the flowering of the art print presses that published their work. Comprising only 36 images, the exhibition is a highly concentrated look at the explosion of printmaking and the innovative mantles it assumed. The works on view are from the art center’s permanent collection and, for the most part, are on view for the first time.
Printmaking’s revitalization on these shores was triggered in 1940 with the arrival of British artist Stanley William Hayter from wartime Paris. He reopened the experimental printmaking workshop he ran in Paris, Atelier 17, in New York City. It established itself easily as a hub for emerging and recognized artists who took up the challenges of printmaking. One early devotee was Jackson Pollock. While Hayter returned to Paris after the war and Atelier 17 closed in 1955, other professional and academic print shops appeared where American artists continued to work. One such shop was Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) that Russian émigré Tatyana Grosman established in a cottage on Long Island in 1957, drawing such figures as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The Tamarind Lithography Workshop that was founded in Los Angeles in 1960 also drew luminaries of the period.
Other art print presses as important as the artists whose work they published are Original Editions, Marlborough Graphics Inc, Cirrus Editions, Gemini GEL, Landfall Press, Parasol Press and Crown Point Press.
Curator Patricia Phagan observes, “For the artist, thepresses are crucial to printmaking.” Artists who make printsrecognize the aesthetic of the print shop and understand thedistinctions between printmaking in one’s own studio and in theprintshop. Each print is different; each shop lends its owncharacter to the finished print.
The artists who took up the challenges of printmaking early on, particularly Pollock and Franz Kline, were known best for their idiosyncratic action paintings. Their efforts stirred other artists around the country to explore the same techniques. Adapting action paintings that often incorporated stray objects in the paint to the print format was complicated.
When Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist began producing their large-scale pieces, they turned to commercial processes like silkscreen and offset lithography for publishing their art. Warhol eventually founded Factory Additions to publish his own work; other artists patronized commercial publishers.
“Presses, Pop and Pomade” is arranged chronologically, beginning with work from the 1960s. The works on view reflect the culture of the decade, offering political and social commentary in humor, irony and the downright grim.
The centerpiece of that section is Phagan’s favorite: AndyWarhol’s emblematic 1967 silk screen print “Marilyn” from hisportfolio of ten screen prints of the actress. Phagan says herattention keeps coming back to “Marilyn,” which she describes as”an icon of the Sixties.” Many of Warhol’s images came to typifythe decade. He had turned to silk-screening around the time ofMonroe’s death in 1962. Warhol published “Marilyn” at his press,Factory Additions, in an edition of 250 and it was printed by AetnaSilkscreen Products. “Marilyn” is centered between Lichtenstein’s1965 “The Melody Haunts My Reverie” and Rosenquist’s 1968 “SeeSaw.”
Lichtenstein is generally considered the first practitioner of Pop Art, the movement that emanated from and at the same time arose in reaction to Abstract Expressionism. Pop Art resurrected the three-dimensionality that Abstract Expressionism had disregarded. The subjects of Pop Art works were primarily drawn from popular culture, whether it was advertising, the news or other aspects of culture. Artists, particularly Lichtenstein, adapted comic strip figures and gave them topical and political importance.
Lichtenstein produced “Melody” the year after Life magazine asked, “Is he the worst artist in America?” His use of Benday dots, thick outlines and bold colors with startling results caused many to look askance at his work. He told one interviewer that he found the industrialization that many decried interesting. For him, the commercialism of advertising signs and comic strips were subjects of interest.
Rosenquist, who began his career as a billboard painter, alsoembraced readily the images of advertising and pop culture andincorporated them into his work. His work is more abstract thanthat of Warhol and Lichtenstein. His image of Mao Tse-tung imposedagainst repetitions of the words “upper, middle, lower” resembles apolitical poster and offers a terse comment on circumstances inChina.
Frank Stella is another of the giants of the era whose minimalism signaled a new abstraction. His 1967 lithograph “Point of Pines” was based on the last of his “Black Paintings,” the black canvases with only white pin stripes.
Bauhaus-trained artist, teacher and designer Josef Albers is represented by his 1968 screen print “DRb” from his “Homage to the Green Square.” The 1966 lithography “Summer in Venice I” by Russian American artist Adja Yunkers represents the transition from Abstract Expressionism to the gestural abstraction of the 1960s.
Ronald Brooks Kitaj made the screen print and photo-screen print “Civic Virtue all over the Floor” in 1967. Printed at the Kelpra Studio in London, the image hearkens back to Dadaism.
The gallery devoted to work of the 1970s showcases the decade’s developments in abstraction, figuralism and realism that were rooted in Pop Art. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Jim Dine and Larry Rivers integrated images of daily life into their works. In his 1971 lithograph “Decoy,” Johns combined elements from his 1966 prints “Passage I” and “Passage II” with the photograph of an ale can and the canceled plates of his “First Etchings.” The title “Decoy” refers to a distraction or subterfuge designed to conceal a person or object. The prints on view appear to have layers that both reveal and obscure an inner image, depending on the eye, the light and time.
In Ellsworth Kelly’s 1973 untitled lithograph, the artistplayed shape, color and the paper off against each other. RedGrooms celebrated life in New York in his vibrant “Taxi Pretzel”from his “No Gas” series. The image easily captures the kineticenergy and color of life in the city. Photographic realism alsoemerged in prints in the 1970s, typified by the Richard Estes’ 1970print “Cafeteria,” which is striking in its complex geometriccounterpoints.
An untitled 1973 screen print by Washington, D.C., color field painter Sam Gilliam delivers stunning flat blocks of color against thick, handmade paper, making the paper as much a part of the piece as is the form.
The decade of the 1980s is represented by such artists as Richard Diebenkorn, Michael Mazur, Julian Schnabel and David Salle, whose work exhibits a more figurative expressionism than seen previously.
Schnabel’s untitled etching and aquatint from his 1983 portfolio “Tod: Cage Without Bars” was printed on delicate Japanese paper and demonstrates the juxtaposition of style, technique and materials.
Mazur created layers within layers in his 1985 monotype and pastel “Vine Tree Winter III.” A similar figurative expressionism is evident in “Besieged” by Richard Bosman.
The Nineties saw even greater developments in abstraction and figurism, often in combination to express personal and cultural identities. Louise Bourgeois created “Stamp of Memories II” in 1994 in a playful and lurid exploration of femininity. Ellen Gallagher’s 2004 “Duke” looks at African American men.
“Presses, Pop and Pomade” had its genesis in the organizationof a traveling exhibit of prints from Vassar’s impressivecollections. In assembling the exhibit, Phagan says she selectedthe most significant prints of the period. It was, as she notes, atime of profound cultural, social and political change and theimages on view reflect that turmoil. The work represents giants ofthe Twentieth Century and defines the fluctuations of the 1960s and1970s.
Vassar College was the first college in the country to have been established with its own art collection and gallery. It was founded in 1861 by Englishman Matthew Vassar, who in 1864 purchased a chunk of the art collection of the art patron and Baptist minister Reverend Elias Lyman Magoun. Vassar donated the 3,789-piece collection of paintings drawings, prints, works on paper and photographs. The college has built on the collection over the years and now owns more than 16,000 works.
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, which opened in 1993, houses the collection that illustrated the history of art from antiquity to the present.
“Presses, Pop and Pomade: American Prints Since the Sixties” remains on view through March 19. The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is at the entrance to the campus of Vassar College. For information, 845-437-5632 or www.fllac.vassar.edu.
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