Art that is small, intimate, and black and white

Some of America's most interesting older printmakers have been shunted aside by our recent preference for large, colorful, and decorative prints whose chief virtue often is that they look good over the sofa, or that their colors match those of the draperies.

Which is not to say that there aren't many excellent, even first-rate prints that are large and colorful -- even decorative. It's difficult to argue, for instance, with Picasso's powerful linocuts or Miro's many color lithographs, or with any number of recent works by our major (and even not so well-known) contemporary printmakers.

Just the same, it's a pity that we seem relatively uninterested in the kind of art that is small, intimate, black-and-white, and that is at its best when held in one's hands and savored rather than viewed from a distance on a wall. I mean the art of printmakers like John Taylor Arms, Martin Lewis, Stow Wengenroth , Grant Wood, John Marin, John Winkler, Louis Lozowick, Armin Landeck, Thomas W. Nason, etc.

And, most emphatically, Reynold Weidenaar.

Weidenaar, an exhibition of whose etchings and mezzotints has just opened at Martin Sumers Graphics here, is one of our older printmakers, whose work should be much better known than it is. Not that he doesn't have devoted followers and collectors, nor that he isn't represented in museum collections. It's just that he hasn't really caught the eye of the more "advanced" collectors and curators, and that he can't be readily pigeonholed into any of the general categories of contemporary printmaking.

The problem with Reynold Weidenaar is that he is a loner -- and that he is totally in love with drawing. By that I mean that the act of distilling form into line excites him, and that he can project himself into an etching plate and lose himself completely in the reaction of a miniature world in which every person depicted (and there may be dozens) is a unique individual, in which all buildings, trees, plants, animals, etc., are precisely characterized, and within which tiny signs abound whose lettering is so minuscule that even a magnifyying glass cannot always decipher what is printed on them.

And he does this entirely by drawing, by the application of thousands of lines, dots, and tones that represent a graphic vocabulary unsurpassed anywhere today for range and for imaginative variations and combinations.

He is, to begin with, a virtuoso with the etching needle, a master craftsman with extraordinary technical skills. He is proud of them, as indeed he should be, and has even combined them in a print demonstrating various graphic techniques. "Six Ways to draw on Copper" is a circular design divided into six pie-shaped sections, each one of which has an image executed in softground, engraving, mezzotint, etching, aquatint, or drypoint.

It is not as a technician that he makes his strongest impact, however, but as a highly imaginative delineator of form, as a draftsman with the rare ability to reach deep into the unique identity of an object or an individual and to bring it forcefully to the surface in a few lines. His images are stuffed to the rafters with life, and, in some instances, actually seem to explode outward with the sheer joy of living. His large and dramatic "The Tender Grass" is not only beautifully drawn (and shrewdly plotted as a print), but also sings out with such intense feelings for nature that its effect is very much like hearing a meadowlark burst into song on a clear spring day.

In "Still Life of Wilted Celery," this passion for life is "packaged" within a large number of people and animals. There is great attention to detail throughout this complex composition -- which in some respects resembles an updated Pieter Bruegel painting. But while every face, hand, shoe, or dog's tail is individually characterized, the composition is not cluttered or unclear, and looks as interesting from 15 feet away as it does from one inch.

In "Home From the Forest," Weidenaar has outdone himself by depicting, with Baroque abandon, an incident on a country road involving a team of horses pulling a heavy load of logs, a dangerously narrow bridge, some farmhands, and a very recalcitrant horse bringing up the rear. At least that's what we are shown. What an experience,m once again, an overwhelming sense of vitality, of pure energy given symbolic form.

"Last Run" is a more conventional study of a locomotive. But even here Weidenaar's gifts for characterization shine through, for this locomotive has all the personality of a tired old derelict.

He is also a master of the miniature print, the tiny etching not much larger than a good-size postage stamp, within which a veritable pictorial short story unfolds. Outstanding among these is one included in his show. "Unloading the Dowry" requires a magnifying glass to be fully appreciated, and yet it also looks intriguing as a composition if seen from a distance.

His weaknesses, when they exist, fall into the category of melodrama. There are times when his compositions arem forced and cluttered, when his images (and this happens most frequently in his mezzotints) are heavy and even a bit turgid, and when his virtuosity becomes an end in itself. Magnificent as his futuristic "The Great Society" may be technically (it's a downward view of a city), it ends up more as showmanship than as art. And his mezzotint nude strikes me as calendar art gone astray.

But outside of these few exceptions, the prints of Reynold Weidenaar exist as remarkable demonstrations of a creative personality giving form to its private and often idiosyncratic vision without regard for contemporary fads or fashions. That in itself would be worthy of comment. But there's more: He's also very good.

This excellent exhibition of the Weidenaar prints will remain on view at Martin Sumers Graphics through Feb. 21.

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