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Art that looks real can still be good

By Theodore F. Wolff / October 19, 1982

New York

Print collectors are a determined lot. They have been known to spend months and years tracking down a particular print, and then to spend a small fortune for it. Or to suffer through sleepless nights worrying about the possibility of a rival outbidding them for a choice item.

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This urge to collect prints isn't limited to the graphic masterpieces, but is also directed toward the work of excellent but lesser artists. For every specialist haunting print dealers and auctions for the prints of Durer or Rembrandt, there are dozens of equally devoted collectors looking for the works of Van Leyden, Callot, Meryon, Hopper, or Dine. Or searching for the personally printed etchings of Whistler, or prime examples of the art of such American Regionalists as Benton or Wood.

This collecting bug also extends to the works of vast numbers of good-to-excellent printmakers who may not be widely known, but who enjoyed regional or national fame at one time or another. Artists such as F. L. Griggs, Wanda Gag, or John Taylor Arms.

Among the best of these, although currently also among the least known in official art circles, is a lithographer who devoted his life to the depiction of the scenery of the New England coast, producing a little over 200 good prints, about 100 excellent ones, and roughly two dozen that are among the glories of mid-20th century American printmaking. American printmaker

The people who know this best are a few print curators, a handful of print dealers, and a large number of truly passionate collectors of the prints of Stow Wengenroth. Given their enthusiasm and focus, it is very likely, if not inevitable, that the name of Wengenroth will once again rise to national prominence.

A marvelous introduction to the art of Stow Wengenroth is currently on view here at the Mary Ryan Gallery. It consists of a large selection of his lithographs, drawings, and watercolors covering the entire span of his creative life. Included among them are several of his finest and rarest works.

Wengenroth was as American an artist as one could hope to find. He was born in Brooklyn in 1906, studied at the Art Students League in New York, lived in Manhattan for a short time, and then spent the balance of his life as far from big-city life and as close to the rugged outdoors as he could get.

He began his printmaking career in 1931, and by 1936 was already considered a major American lithographer. His reputation continued to grow until the late 1940s, when it fell victim - as did so many others - to a dramatic reversal of taste in prints brought about by the more experimental and openly innovative graphic vision of Stanley William Hayter and Mauricio Lasansky.

This lessening of official acclaim, however, did not slow him down. If anything, he became even better, for some of his very best prints date from between 1950 and 1978, the year of his death. No need for color

Wengenroth was that relatively rare creature, a genuine black-and-white artist. In his prints, the issue, the need for color, ceases to exist. This quality is most apparent in his very early works of 1931-32, in which his blacks and whites interact and clash against one another with little regard for the intervening grays. In these prints, the massive black of a huge rock might loom threateningly over a stylized and choppy sea, or a dark and brooding house might sit forlornly against an even darker sky. Everything becomes black-and-white pictorial drama, and one gets the impression that the young Wengenroth was trying to squeeze the last drop of melodramatic effectiveness out of every line, form, or tone he laid down.

It didn't take long, however, for Wengenroth to discover the greater internal drama of subtle grays played off against white paper and accentuated here and there by a black. Or to acquire the knack of drawing out the whiteness of paper and making it the major source of light in a print.