Painting's 'poor relation'

One of the most salient characteristics of art in our age is the diversity of media. Artists no longer feel themselves restricted to the classical materials of painting and sculpture. They are much more democratic in their attitude toward media traditionally associated with crafts or the decorative arts -- and derogated as such.

For example, clay, textiles, glass, and photography have all mounted challenges to the preeminence of the fine arts, but the print has led the greatest revolution of all. On view at the Museum of modern Art is "Printed art: A View of Two Decades," which attempts to assess the character of that revolution.

This exhibition, the first full-scale survey of contemporary prints at the Museum of Modern Art since 1964, authenticates the print as a primary rather than a secondary form of art. It also shows that the so-called "print boom" is far more than a commercial venture and consumer response but a valid genre as rich in aesthetic implications as social and political.

Riva Castleman, who oganized the show and is MOMA's director of the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, avers in her catalog essay: "More than just printed souvenirs of the major stylistic movements of the last decades , the prints of Pop, Op, Minimal, conceptual, Photo-Realist and recent figurative artists are of major significance in the understanding of the art of our time."

The status of prints has risen since World War II for a combination of reasons. Probably the greatest single influence was the proliferation of print workshops such as Universal Art Editions Limited, Gemini, And Tamarind. With their perfectionist standards and experimental attitude, they conferred upon printmaking both respectability and excitement.

Modeled after the medieval guild, the workshop removed the modern stigma from the collaborative (as opposed to the individual) effort by asserting that the artist's conception counts for more than his execution. The workshops also were responsible not only for the sophisticated revival of lithography and intaglio but for the technical advances that made silkscreen such a popular medium.

Visually this exhibition is a delight and a revelation for anyone who has tended to look askance at the print as a poor relation of painting. The greatest value of the show is didactic: It demonstrates the unique suitability of the print to render certain kinds of content and form.

The print is by nature a multiple. The fact it is intended for wide dissemination rather than exclusive possession identifies it as a public or egalitarian rather than a private or elitist medium and explains why its subject matter is relatively accessible and its price affordable.

The print is a not-so-distant cousin of the poster, and it is no coincidence that its message is sometimes political. Two of the most striking examples in this show are Richard Hamilton's celebrated silkscreen, "Kent State," and Robert Rauschenberg's montage of modern life, "Signs."

The conceptual movement, which is similarly message-oriented -- more concerned with ideas than images, the visual than the verbal -- also found the print a particularly appropriate medium. Most of the books on display come out of conceptualism, and the most impressive "print" in the show is Ronald Kitaj's "In Our Life for the Most Part," a portfolio of 50 silkscreen book covers that comprise a subjective encyclopedia of the century.

The exhibition is organized by categories, or movements, which enable the visitor to evaluate each manifestation in print form. As the first room dramatically illustrates, pop art virtually defined itself in print, particularly the silkscreen. Andy Warhol's celebrity images, Jasper johns's numbers, Roy Lichten's comics, Ed Ruschas' gas stations, and Tom Wesselman's nudes -- all the banal, trendy, materialistic symbols of contemporary American life with which pop was preoccupied -- discovered an affinity with the mass and mechanically produced print.

Artists whose concerns were primarily formal also found that the print offered distinct possibilities. A print is capable of greater precision than a painting, so any artist who treated color scientifically, such as Josef Albers in his "homage to the Square" series, or op artists such as Richard Anuszkiewicz , who strive for illusionistic optical effects, found the print the most appropriate medium.

Similarly, the minimalists, who employed a modicum of imagery, no more than a geometric gesture, discovered a basic harmony between the simplicity of their ideas and the understatement of the print. One of the most stunning sections in this show is the minimalist, which consists almost entirely of austere black and white prints by Ellsworth Kelly, Sol Lewitt, and Barnett Newman among others.

Photo-realists Philip Pearlstein, Chunk Close, and Richard Estes serve as reminders that graphics are at times very graphic indeed, whereas those artists whose imagery is more personal, such as Pierre Alechinsky, reawaken us to the soft-focus lyricism which is also inherent in the medium. These two tendencies come together in the last room, where the print proves itself a natural vehicle for "decorative" artists such as Jennifer Barlett and Joyce Kozloff.

This exhibition, which includes prints by more than 175 artists, primarily from the United States but also Europe, South America, and Japan, will continue at MOMA through April 1.

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