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American Prints from Hopper to Pollock.

American Prints from Hopper to Pollock

Stephen Coppel

Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries, 2008, 271 pages, 25 color and 135 black and white illustrations, $70.00 cloth

American Prints from Hopper to Pollock is the catalog for an exhibition of the same name originating at the British Museum. In his preface, Antony Griffiths, Keeper, Department of Prints and Drawings, writes that although the Museum's collection of works on paper by twentieth-century American artists is comprised of only three thousand works, "we believe that the [British Museum's] print collection covering the first sixty years of the twentieth century is the best outside the United States itself, and we know of nothing similar in Europe." (p. 6) The breadth and diversity of the artists included support Griffiths' contention. The scholarly essay by Stephen Coppel, Curator of the modern collection of prints and drawings at the British Museum, (with the assistance of Jerzy Kierkuc-Bielinski), is divided into twelve chronological sections that read like individual studies: The Ashcan School to George Bellows; The Provincetown Woodcut; American Modernism and Precisionism; Edward Hopper and the American Scene; Satirical Realism; The Regionalists; The Depression and the WPA; Artists of the Left and the Second World War; Joseph Albers and Geometric Abstraction; S. W. Hayter and Atelier 17 in New York; The Post-War Woodcut; and Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. One of the main themes that emerges from the text is the importance of internationalism on American art from this period, reflected in everything from Modernist experimentations with the latest European styles, to politically charged compositions reacting to the rise of fascism, America's entry into World War II, and works commenting on the Cold War.

Coppel starts his essay by describing the modus operandi of influential print establishments of the late 1950s and '60s, such as Universal Limited Art Editions on the East Coast and June Wayne's Tamarind Lithography Workshop on the West Coast, that commissioned, published, and distributed artists' prints, all the while recording with meticulous detail virtually all aspects of their printing. This approach differed markedly from what preceded it during the first half of the twentieth century in the United States, when, "[the] print world was splintered into a myriad of specialist societies, each eager to promote a particular branch of printmaking," ranging from the more traditional Society of American Etchers to the more progressive Painters-Gravers of America, and everything in between, including the Provincetown Printers, the first group devoted to colored woodcuts in America. (p. 10) Over time, Coppel points out, the role of museums and their associated Print Clubs became crucial, for, "as well as providing official recognition and encouragement to an emerging artist, acquisitions from exhibitions of contemporary print organizations by museums was [sic] to become the usual basis for museum collection-building." (p. 11)

Another key aspect of this period was what Coppel terms the "graphic illustrative tradition," in which printmakers freelanced for commercial studios or as magazine illustrators. Some artists, such as Edward Hopper, who contributed illustrations for short stories in popular periodicals (Scribner's and Adventure), despised this situation and found it demeaning. Draughtsmanship skills were easily attainable through the schools of the time, as for instance the Art Students League, whose major instructor, Robert Henri, exhorted his students to capture directly the plethora of New York scenes around them; Coppel notes, "his [Henri's] espousal of an art for life's sake was a direct reaction to the prevailing aesthetic of art for art's sake initially propounded by Whistler and perpetuated by his acolytes." (p. 13)

Coppel goes on to chart the critical part in the promotion of American printmaking played by such individuals as Una Johnson at the Brooklyn Museum; Carl Zigrosser, first at the Weyhe Gallery in New York, and later during his stint as Print Curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Jacob Kainen at the Smithsonian's U. S. National Museum (now the National Museum of American History), in Washington, D.C. Other influences are also discussed, such as the importance of professional printers George Miller, Bolton Brown, and Atelier Desjobert in Paris; and dealers such as the Weyhe Gallery, the Downtown Gallery, and Kennedy & Company, all in New York City.

Most of the works in the catalogue typify the subjects for which an artist is best known; in the case of George Bellows, for instance, there are examples in the exhibition related to sporting themes (A Stag at Sharkey's, 1917, based on his 1909 oil painting of the same title in the Cleveland Museum of Art), and the inclusion of the powerful and disturbing lithograph, Electrocution, 1917, showing his stance on political issues of his day. Coppel cites Bellows as describing the latter as "a study of one of the most horrible phenomenon [sic] of modern society." (p. 55) It has been speculated that the print was made in response to the execution of Thomas J. Mooney, a labor activist convicted for his connection to a 1916 anarchist bombing in San Francisco. Robert Gwathmey's colored screenprint, The Hitchhiker, 1937, is representative of his concerns in taking up Social Realist themes during the Great Depression, pointing out the chasm between the haves and the have nots, a contrast which Gwathmey illustrates with the poor hitcher amid images of alluring female figures and delicious boiled lobsters plastered on roadside billboards. Peggy Bacon's drypoint, A Frenzied Effort, 1925, reveals the autobiographical touches for which she is known. The subject is a life drawing class at the Whitney Studio Club, where her husband, Alexander Brook was then assistant director. Not only did Bacon include herself in the composition, but other artists as well, such as the satirist Mabel Dwight and lithographer George Overbury "Pop" Hart. Blanche Lazzell's The Blue Vase, 1927, reflects her desire to combine the "Provincetown print" technique associated with the colored woodcut medium, with the latest avant-garde idioms--in her case, cubism. Taking a still life, one of the favorite motifs of the cubists, Lazzell created a tight relationship of interlocking colored planes. Lazzell was versant with cubism from her Parisian period of study under Albert Gleizes from 1923-1925; Coppel provides her statement, "Cubism is to express volume and strength by the use of geometric forms." (p. 64)

The "Provincetown print" was born at the outbreak of World War I, when the Massachusetts art colony became home to a number of figures who had been living in Paris. One such artist was Swedish-born Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt, who, among other things, was familiar with the Japanese woodcut printing method, which featured multiple block printing and reliance on water-based inks. Nordfeldt eventually originated what was known as the "white line" or "Provincetown print" method of creating a multicolored woodcut from a single block by cutting an especially deep groove in the wood that separated different colors applied to the uncut areas. In the printing process the grooves appeared as a white line which emphasized the design of the composition.

The author is meticulous in his research and scholarship--there are over 100 endnotes to his essay--and he frequently relies on primary sources. For Grant Wood's lithograph, Sultry Night, 1939, of a farmer cooling off by pouring a pail of water over his naked body, Coppel quoted a portion of the artist's unfinished memoir, Return from Bohemia, A Painter's Life, to capture how the artist believed the soul of the Midwest pioneers was formed by the land--that "they developed a character ... akin to the land itself." (p. 132) Unfortunately for the publisher, Associated American Artists, the work was viewed by the U. S. Postal Service as obscene, and because AAA relied on the mail to distribute the work, only 100 out of a projected edition of 250 impressions were ever printed. In addressing Thomas Hart Benton's The Race, an image of a horse desperately attempting to outrun a steam engine, Coppel turns to Benton's autobiography, An American Artist. The railroad train embodied Benton's epic romantic longings, writing, "[Its] steam pushed promises, shook up the roots of generations, and moved the hearts of men and women." (p. 127)

Coppel routinely calls attention to the unique characteristics of the impressions themselves. For instance, discussing John Steuart Curry's lithograph, John Brown, 1939, of the Abolitionist who led the raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859, Coppel pointed to an inscription that revealed it was a Christmas gift from the artist and his wife, Kathleen, to the Dean of the Agricultural College at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who had arranged for Curry to become the nation's first artist-in-resident there in 1936. In some cases, in describing an impression, revealing insights are also provided about the printing techniques and working methods of the artists and printers involved. A case in point is the British Museum's version of John Sloan's etching, Connoisseurs of Prints, 1905, which is perforated with holes around its edges; it was the habit of Sloan's printer, Peter J. Platt, to stretch his proofs by pinning them to a wall at the edges. Since the paper was generally not trimmed after the drying process, the tack holes remain. Coppel routinely examines the relationship of preparatory sketches to the final versions of the prints themselves, as in Edward Hopper's East Side Interior--New York, 1922, with deeper shadows and more of a "dramatic chiaroscuro effect" achieved in the etching. (p. 95)

By extending to 1960 the cutoff date for the exhibition, the British Museum exhibition fit in artists generally thought of as being active in the second half of the twentieth century. This proved to be a wise decision, supplying poignant information on a number of less-prominent figures, including many of those in the section Artists of the Left and the Second World War, such as Hugh Mesibov, Claire Mahl Moore, Jolan Gross Bettelheim, Hugo Gellert, Riva Helfond, and Joseph Leboit. The inclusion of these and other neglected printmakers distinguishes this catalogue from many American-generated surveys. Tranquility, 1940, an etching and aquatint by Leboit was a commentary on the debate raging at the time of World War II--should artists take up the issues pertaining to the Social Realists, or to the aims of pure abstraction, independent of politics? Leboit's response was to depict an artist in the tranquility of his studio, painting a non-representational composition while wearing a gas mask as military planes fly by, seen through the open window. Hugo Gellert's The Fifth Column, 1943, commented on the fear at the time that the United States could easily be undermined by a "Fifth Column" of Nazi sympathizers. In this colored screenprint a rat, symbolizing the Fifth Column, gnaws away at the rope holding up an unfurled American flag. Claire Mahl Moore's lithograph, Factory (Industry), 1937, critiqued the hierarchy of the industrial complex, with the bosses, brandishing a set square and a blueprint, and sporting white shirts and ties, shown at the top; below them the blue-collar workers rivet steel plates with air hammers, and at the bottom a mother offers up her newborn to the corporate leaders. Coppel writes that "by alluding to the religious gesture of the donor figure, Moore appears to be commenting upon the role of the factory as the new 'cathedral of power' within modern capitalist America." (p. 190) In the chapter, "Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism," Hans Burkhardt's nightmarish lithograph After the Bomb, 1948, delineates his ravaged, scorched-earth vision of a potential post-apocalyptic scenario, given the realities of the Cold War era.

One of the most compelling series in the entire exhibition is Louise Bourgeois' He Disappeared into Complete Silence, 1947, in the section, "S. W. Hayter and Atelier 17 in New York." Coppel relied on the artist's own characterization of the set of engravings as "a drama of the self." The parable-like text that accompanied the prints addressed themes of isolation and anxiety, paralleling Bourgeois' own childhood feelings of being alone and trapped in her family's Parisian home. Plate 8, for instance, is of an empty room with four ladders of various length connected to the ceiling, "the ladders lead to nowhere; the interior spaces are shown as confined and claustrophobic," as Coppel states (p. 228). The text coupled with each print is reproduced in the catalogue; for Plate 8, she described an American soldier who slowly, physically and metaphorically, loses his hearing to the point that "[l]ater on the middle ear grew completely hard and he became cut off from the world." (p. 236) Bourgeois printed the suite herself when she worked at the Atelier 17 from 1946-1949. Starting in 1933 Stanley William Hayter's experimental intaglio printmaking studio in Paris, Atelier 17, had attracted an impressive roster of avant-garde, largely surrealist artists. After the Englishman emigrated to the United States in 1940, he drew to the reopened Atelier 17 in New York City artists like Bourgeois, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Andre Masson, Joan Miro, Jacques Lipchitz, Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell.

There are self-acknowledged gaps in the collection--in his preface Griffiths regrets the lack of prints by Paul Cadmus, Philip Evergood, Louise Nevelson, and Barnett Newman, among others--and it should be noted that Rockwell Kent and Arthur Wesley Dow are also absent. Nevertheless, the overall breadth and scope of the artists covered is truly impressive. Supporting the exhibition's comprehensive nature, the catalog itself with its scholarly yet accessible essays, its informative preface on the history of the acquisition of American prints at the British Museum, its copious and lush black-and-white and color illustrations, and its clear, straightforward layout, make it a genuine tour de force.

"American Prints From Hopper to Pollock" was on exhibition at the British Museum until September 7, 2008, then traveled to Nottingham, Brighton, and Manchester. At a time when so many nations are turning against the policies of the U. S., it is refreshing--from the point of view of an American--to find such a major exhibition being staged overseas, one that underscores the myriad transnational connections in our art and culture.

Efram Burk

Curry College
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Author:Burk, Efram
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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