Stow Wengenroth (1906-78) may well be the most underrated American printmaker of the 20th century. Although he has many fans and collectors, and his name is well known to serious print professionals, the discrepancy between the quality of his best work and the extent of his reputation remains quite great.
It's almost as though his popular appeal - and the fact that so many of his lithographs depict rugged coastal scenery, owls, sea gulls, shady village streets, forest interiors, lighthouses, and sailing ships - has blinded much of the art world to his true gifts and accomplishments.
He did not, it is true, always operate at his best. At least half of his 369 prints are good primarily because their subjects are interesting and they are technically accomplished. And neither can many of the rest be described as truly first-rate. The balance, however - about two dozen - rank among the glories of mid-20th-century American printmaking.
Two dozen minor graphic masterpieces out of 369 is not a bad record, especially since there are many collectors who would agree on that number but disagree on which of his prints belong in that select group. No one would deny, however, that his few lithographs of the Brooklyn Bridge and of New York City streets are among his most sought-after works. Anyone who paid the going price of $20 to $40 apiece between 1940 and 1960 could easily sell them now for 100 times that amount.
One reason Wengenroth made so few city prints - a dozen at most - is that he preferred to draw the great outdoors. Perhaps he understood urban life a little too well, for he was born in Brooklyn, lived in and around New York City until his mid-20s, and picked up most of his formal art training in Manhattan.
But, whatever his feelings about New York, he knew by a fairly early age that what he really wanted to draw lay to the north in Maine and Massachusetts.
Success came early. His first exhibition was held in 1931, and by 1936 he was already considered a major American lithographer. Things went well until roughly 1950, when America's taste in prints was dramatically altered by the more experimental and more openly innovative graphic vision of Hayter and Lasansky. The lessening of official acclaim did not, however, deter him. He worked as hard as ever and produced some of his very finest works during the remaining years of his life.
Wengenroth was that relatively rare creature, a genuine black-and-white artist. In his prints, the issue, the need, indeed the reality, of color ceases to exist. Everything is reduced to tone, to a series of grays augmented here and there by a few harsh or luminous blacks and some areas or touches of white. And yet nothing is missing, nothing is unclear. The images with which we are presented are as complete and final, as perfectly realized, as any work of art could be.
When it came to the orchestration of complex varieties of grays, no American lithographer, and only a handful of European printmakers, could match him. Nothing seemed too difficult for him to tackle.
Everything he saw and touched (he was never very good at depicting what he imagined) was translated into a wide range of dots, lines, smudges, silvery tones, rough textures, velvety blacks, or any combination of these devices he needed to achieve his effects. What resulted was a body of work so technically varied and inventive that anyone the least bit interested in the techniques of lithography must respond to it with something close to awe.
But technique, of course, is not enough for the creation of art, and Wengenroth was as aware of that as anyone. Everything he did on the lithographic stone resulted from direct and respectful confrontation with a particular subject, and, if he ever allowed himself the liberty of introducing a clever technical device for the sake of showing off, I have yet to find it.
He simply wasn't that sort of artist - or man. His passion for truth in art and his inherent modesty would never have permitted it.
No, technique for Wengenroth existed only for purposes of clarification and communication. If he worked hard to translate what he saw into crisp, clearly defined images, it was only to permit him to share with others as precisely as possible what he loved about nature. And if he devoted much of his energy to creating technical devices, it was only because he wanted to depict such things as feathers on owls or foam on waves better and more simply than they had been depicted before.
Wengenroth didn't believe in art for art's sake or in a purely formalistic approach - at least not for himself. And, except for three or four rather melodramatic prints at the very beginning of his career, he would never have thought it ethical to distort anything for greater effect.
What we have, as a result, are 369 beautifully rendered lithographs designed to transmit as clearly as possible one very special artist's impressions of New England. And we have, as a bonus, at least two dozen of the most stunning black-and-white images any American has produced in this century.