Original prints exhibition: a vast and varied overview

If I had my way, it would be a serious federal offense to use the term "original print" in any but the intended way.That is, to identify a work of art specifically designed by an artist to be reproduced in multiple form, and printed either by him or by a master printer under his direction.

Most particularly, I would exclude from such usage all commercially manufactured reproductions of paintings, watercolors, drawings, etc. -- even if signed by the artist. And very specifically, reproductions of "art work" by movie stars, prizefighers, rockmusic stars, or highly touted commercial illustrators.

The presence of the signature, after all, signifies nothing -- especially if the buyer must pay from $400 to $4,000 for a mechanical reproduction that probably cost under $10 to make.

An original print can also be relatively inexpensive. It is possible to buy fine etchings, lithographs, woodcutss, serigraphs, etc., for $100 or less. (Although one can also pay tens of thousands of dollars.) And one never knows: The woodcut of a young printmaker costing $65 today may well be worht 10 times that in a dozen years. On the other hand, its increase in value might be much slower than many other forms of investment.

For those in the New York area or planing a trip here, one of the best and most pleasant ways to view and to learn about fine prints is to attend the Associated American Artists' current Annual Christmas Exhibition. This show includes over 200 prints and ranges from such materworks as Cezanne's "Baigneurs" and Renoir's "Le Chapeau Epingle" (both lithographs), to the prints of such relative unknowns as Elaine Simel and Ruth Rodman. Also included are works by Avery, Bonnard, Cassatt, Fantin- Latour, Feininger, Hassam, Matisse, Miro, Motherwell, Toulouse-Lautrec, Villon, and Whistler. Most, however, are by printmakers of good if not exactly first-rate reputations.

Much as I respect Cezanne and Renoir as painters, I'm afraid the few prints they made leave me rather cold. Renoir's, in particular, seem to cry out for color, something which no true black-and-white print (drawing) should do. And Cezanne's color lithograph in this show only serves to underline how magnificently he could handle thick, juicy paint.

This criticsm does not hold for the prints of Matisse, Bonnard, or Cassatt. Master painters all, they were also first-rate printmakers. Matisse's lithograph, "La Chemise Arabe," while not one of his very best, is still an exceptional graphic work. And Cassatt's "Looking Into the Hand Mirror" and Bonnard's "La Coupe et Le Compotier" are both excellent examples of drypoint etching and lithography respectively.

Another outstanding painter/printmaker was Childe Hassam, whose lovely etching "The Chase House" is included in this exhibition. This is a print that has grown on me over the years. It represent Hassam at his best and beautifully points up his sensitive touch with the etching needle.

Because Whistler, America's magician- etcher, is not wel represented in this exhibition (his major contribution is a lithograph), the honor of upholding the etching tradition falls to such artists of varying talents as Marie Laurencin, Reginald Marsh, Kenneth Hayes Miller, Ernest Roth, Luigi Lucioni, and John Winkler. I thought Laurencin and Lucioni did particularly well and was pleased to see Winkler included here. Although little known, he is one of our very best traditional American etchers. He and Lucioni may be considered a bit "old hat" by many, but I suspect their prints will be around for a very long time. Printmaking is very much a crafts-art, and both these artists are master craftsmen.

I was also taken by Mario Avati's mezzolightfully insane monotype "Tropical Monkey," Peggy Bacon's humorous "The Sights of the Town," Frederico Castellon's "Visiting Day," John Stewart Curry's "Prize Stallions," Adolf Dehn's "Lake in the Mountains," all of Carol Summers' pieces, and Grant Wood's "Fertility." And I mustn't forget to mention Robert Motherwell's "Put Out all the Flags."

But this list only scratches the surface of the wide selection of prints on view. For those whose interests run to botanical illustrations or to the precise depiction and identification of birds, good examples of these from the early to mid-19th century are alos included. Even fans of Japanese prints will find something to their taste.

This well chosen and very interesting exhibition of prints will remain on view at Associated American Artists through Dec. 31. Some substitutions will be made during that period.

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