Frank Stella -- as important a printmaker as he is a painter

Frank Stella is one of the very few major American painters who is also a major printmaker, and one of the few artists of his generation who obviously doesn't believe that anyone who can paint is also automatically a graphic artist.

Stella is that wonder of wonders, a painter who makes prints that arem prints, and not merely mechanically transcribed versions of his paintings. Which isn't to say that his colorful lithographs, screen prints, and multi-media graphic works don't derive from the same creative sources, and partake of the same imagery, as his paintings - only that they've been conceived and executed as prints, and not as small paintings on paper.

More than 140 outstanding examples of his graphic work can be seen in the Whitney Museum's Frank Stella: Prints, 1967-1982. It's a stunning show that was originally organized by the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the American Federation of the Arts - and has been beautifully installed at the Whitney by Judith Goldman. For its New York run, it has been expanded to include the artist's earliest and most recent work, including ''Swan Engravings,'' which are the result of an intaglio project undertaken by Stella in the last two years.

Stella's concern for achieving precisely the quality he wants in his prints has led him to expand the technical range of printmaking. He has combined screen print with lithography and the woodcut with etching. To top it off, he has combined as many as 65 colors in a single lithograph and 150 colors in a screen print.

The final effect is often spectacular. Some of his most recent prints - in particular his 1980 series ''Polar Co-Ordinates for Ronnie Peterson'' and his three series of 1982, ''Circuits,'' ''Shards,'' and ''Swan Engravings'' - are ravishingly beautiful. And ''Pergusa Three'' (from the ''Circuits'' series) is the most extraordinary piece of graphic art I've seen in a long time.

I know I really shouldn't be saying this, for I'm probably sticking my neck out a little too far. But I had the very strong feeling as I walked around this exhibition that these recent prints of Stella's will one day rank among the very best prints executed anywhere during the second half of the 20th century. No, I'll even go further - make that the entire century.

After its closing at the Whitney on March 13, this excellent exhibition will continue its nationwide tour as follows: the Huntsville (Ala.) Museum of Art, April 3-May 29; the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, June 17-July 31; Brunnier Gallery, Ames, Iowa, Sept. 18-Nov. 12; Cleveland Museum of Art, Dec. 11 -Feb. 5, 1984.

In 1984 the schedule continues at the Block Gallery, Evanston, Ill., March 4 -April 29; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, June 10-Aug. 5; Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, N.Y., Aug. 24-Oct. 14; Laguna Gloria Art Museum , Austin, Texas, Nov. 11-Jan. 6, 1985.

The 1985 tour includes the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, Memphis, Feb. 3-March 31; Beaumont (Texas) Art Museum, April 26-June 23; Nelson Gallery, Kansas City, Mo., July 21-Sept. 15; Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Columbus, Ohio, Oct. 13 -Dec. 1.

The show's last stop is the Los Angeles County Museum, Los Angeles, Jan. 12 -March 2, 1986.

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