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James E. Allen - printmaker and perfectionist.

By Theodore F. Wolff / August 13, 1984

New York

It's sad how quickly some artists - even very good ones - drop from sight. And even sadder how few of them ever get a second chance. When one does, it's usually for the wrong reason: The artist's heirs want to empty their attic of his paintings, or a gallery decides to stir up interest in pictures of his they haven't been able to sell. In either case, an exhibition is mounted, the public is informed that a major figure has been ''rediscovered,'' and some art-world interest is created. Unfortunately, that interest is often limited to a few old friends of the artist, a critic who leaves immediately, and perhaps a dozen collectors who can't quite make up their minds to buy.

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There are times, however, when renewed interest in a neglected artist results from a museum's inclusion of several of his paintings or prints in a major exhibition, or from an influential gallery's decision to hold an important retrospective of his life's work.

That may still not do the trick, but it is at least a step in the right direction - especially if the quality of the work is high and the show is intelligently assembled.

The print retrospective of James E. Allen (1894-1964), now at the Mary Ryan Gallery here, fulfills both qualifications. The lithographs and etchings on view include some of the best graphic images produced in the United States between 1925 and 1945, and their selection - with only four or five prints out of his total production missing - is remarkably complete.

That Allen was among the best American printmakers of his day will come as a surprise to almost everyone except a few print professionals, and even some of these will have to admit that they hadn't known of him until his inclusion in the Metropolitan Museum's ''Working America'' show last year. This ignorance is all the more unusual since he was very well known during the 1930s and '40s, with many awards and commissions to his credit. True enough, he represented the kind of traditional printmaking that became thoroughly unfashionable - thanks to the influence of S. W. Hayter and Mauricio Lasansky - around 1950. But Howard Cook, Martin Lewis, Louis Lozowick, and a few other printmakers survived, and their work was roughly of the same quality as Allen's.

Whatever the reason he faded from public view, the important thing is that his etchings and lithographs are once again in evidence - and are very good.

By and large, Allen's prints depict the channeling of human resources toward industrial goals, focusing on the various kinds of labor needed to create our modern world. The men in his pictures work hard to build bridges, construct skyscrapers, and dig tunnels, but his attitude toward them is far from romantic or sentimental. A laborer may possess dignity and deserve respect, but for Allen , backbreaking work is hardly the pinnacle of human aspiration. His subjects do what they must, but they don't glory in it. Nor are they slaves of a capitalist system, as was depicted in quite a few prints of the '30s.