The many masks of modern art

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Although I've seen a few truly exciting new prints in the past few years, I haven't seen any that profoundly moved me.

I'm not saying that I haven't been touched by a few. Nor that, here and there , a superb new print by such an old-timer as Miro, or such relative newcomers as Stella, Dine, or Johns, hasn't popped out at me with all the quality and vigor of genuine art. Nor even that there aren't a few printmakers, both traditional and modern, at work today who will be studied and respected for years to come. No, what I mean is that I haven't come across a single recent print that truly gripped me either on a profoundly human or formal level, and that said to me, ''Yes, this is truly and profoundly art!''

I've thought about this a great deal, and have come to the rather unhappy conclusion that for all the colorful, exuberant, wonderfully idiosyncratic, innovative, and forward-moving nature of printmaking today, it hasn't accomplished much except to expand the scope, definition, and craft of printmaking, and to present us with hundreds of thousands of colorful, clever, charming, beautifully executed, and otherwise rather inconsequential graphic images for our walls.

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The reasons for this are complex, and must take into account such things as the extremely technical nature of printmaking, the innovative aspects of modernism, and our contemporary need for moderately priced, original works of art. The overriding reason, however, is the fact that the main focus of ''serious'' printmaking today lies in expanding the range of its technical and formal resources - not in deepening or broadening the substance and significance of what is communicated. To that end, the major creative efforts of our leading printmakers today is directed toward discovering and inventing new graphic processes and techniques, creating never-before-seen technical effects and formal devices, and in trying to enlist every possible photographic, reproductive, chemical, or mechanical process in the search for greater surface effectiveness. The result, of course, is that never before has printmaking been so richly and wondrously fertile, and so full of potentials - and yet so often so thematically trivial, so self-serving and surface-oriented.

And this criticism applies as much to some of the more traditional printmakers as to the highly innovative and advanced ones. In order for the former to compete with the latter, they've focused their attention upon what distinguishes them from the others, and have produced such technically brilliant and exquisite traditional prints that the etchings and engravings of Rembrandt and Durer pale beside them. The ultimate reaction, however, once the viewer's awe at such technical virtuosity has worn off, is the same: disenchantment, and a feeling of having been duped by superficial effects.

All art, most specifically art that is probing into hitherto unexplored creative or expressive territory, is going to have to commit at least a portion of its identity to new formal means. Thus Rembrandt, while trying to create images that would fully represent his creative intentions, increasingly broke with the conventions of etching practiced during his time, and substituted his own stylistic and technical inventions for them. The results were so dramatic and effective that a few of his contemporaries insisted he had sold his creative soul for a few surface effects.

We know, of course, that this was not so, and understand that he was actually trying to ''say'' what he wanted to say clearly and directly. The only way he could do this was to smash through and to discard anything that held him back.

A great deal of the history of post-Renaissance Western art consists of one great artist after another smashing his way through the limitations of tradition to find his own true voice. The only problem is that we have become so accustomed to interpreting all art history in this fashion that we now believe that the only way anyone can create art is to first smash, subvert, or leap over whatever preceded it.

When we consider that this process has been going on for several centuries, and that the rush for greater and greater ''freedom'' and ''originality'' has become increasingly frenetic since World War II, it shouldn't surprise us if our art has occasionally descended to a hysterical race for the ultimate sensation, formal device, technical effect, or gimmick. And that many of us have lost sight of what art can really be.

There is something amiss when the actual identity of a print, its meaning and significance, lies entirely in the technical effect or formal device that brought it into being. Or when the difference between a work of art and a piece of non-art is determined exclusively by the fact that the former is ''new'' and the latter is ''old.'' Truth in art cannot be established by the blind acceptance and usage of such words like ''original,'' ''new,'' ''traditional,'' or ''academic.'' The harder we try, for instance, to be original, the more likely we are to end up trite, trivial, and ridiculous.

Art is a language based on certain physical effects and sensations. But that does not mean that it is entirely a matter of such effects and sensations - any more than speech is only a matter of moving our lips and of sound waves, or this sentence only a matter of tiny black specks.

Of course we all know that, and I'm certain that the vast majority of experimental printmakers would agree that art is a communicating device and not an end in itself. (Although there are some purists who claim that art is precisely and exclusively that.) Even so, a casual glance at any exhibition of contemporary printmaking will indicate that this simple fact hasn't truly penetrated to a disturbingly large number of today's printmakers.

Printmaking is a subject I've been particularly concerned about ever since I saw my first etchings by Rembrandt and Goya as a boy, and my own first etching was run through the press in art school. Both times I was totally enchanted - in the first case by artistic greatness, and in the second by the apparent magic with which a few scratches on a copper plate could be transformed into a graphic image. Since then I have seen, held, owned, admired, and been overwhelmed by many more prints than I care to remember. I can think of no more delightful way to spend a day than at a print-dealer's gallery opening and peering into box after box of prints, or at a press watching impression after impression of a particularly fine print being run off.

It is just this interest in and love for prints that makes me so unhappy about so much of what is happening in the graphic world today, turning one of the most intimate and direct forms of pictorial expression into one more vehicle for formal and technical ''experimentation.''

It's not innovation I'm objecting to - only to making those qualities the goal and end of art. No one was a greater graphic innovator than Rembrandt, and yet everything ''new'' he came up with derived from a profound inner necessity, a passionate urge to make the substance of what he saw, felt, and believed as absolutely clear as possible.

The same was true with all other great printmakers, from Goya to Picasso, and is true of certain lesser but still genuine printmakers alive and working today. These printmakers vary in style and attitude from the most conservative and traditional to the most radical and innovative. I've seen an etching-and-engraving by Mark Leithauser of a forest scene that is as lovingly and fancifully detailed as the prints of Rodolphe Bresdin. And a few prints by Arakawa open up never before suspected graphic possibilities. And then, more or less in the middle, is Jim Dine, a painter and printmaker of exceptional sensitivity and taste, who has created a series of etchings based on household objects and tools which are as original as they are beautifully done.

And yet, lovely, even exciting, as some of Dine's prints may be, they still remain, at least for me, on the surface of things. I enjoy looking at them, and can appreciate the shrewdness with which he executed the various prints in the series, but I am not moved by them, either significantly or profoundly.

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