The Many Masks of Modern Art

If Durer were alive today, and making prints in the style for which he is now so universally acclaimed, we wouldn't know what to make of him. His extraordinary draftsmanship and stunning technical skills as a printmaker would confuse us, and I'm certain any number of well-meaning art lovers would suggest to him that he ''loosen up'' and try to be less controlled and ''tight.'' I wouldn't be surprised either if someone took him aside and gently hinted to him that he attend a contemporary printmaking course to catch up on the latest graphic ideas, methods, and trends. And that he try to bring his art up to date by studying what the successful printmakers of today are doing.

He would be startled by what he saw. Not only by the many technical innovations - many of which would fascinate him - but also by the richness, inventiveness, and complexity of the imagery that 20th-century artists have seen fit to put into graphic form.

I suspect he would be particularly surprised at the many ways color has been brought into printmaking, and the ease with which an increasing number of contemporary artists transcribe their painterly ideas into one or another of the graphic processes. Or invent new ones, should the existing modes be found inadequate.

He would be intrigued by the way photographic images are combined with collage effects and with pure drawing to create complex, ambiguous, and often huge works that bear absolutely no resemblance to any prints he had ever seen. And by the ease with which highly complicated feats are accomplished by purely mechanical means.

And yet, when all was said and done, and Durer had seen everything new there was to see, and had tried it all, I have not the slightest doubt that he would, at least at first, go right back to his old way of making prints. Not because he was reactionary but because nothing he saw in printmaking today could match the sheer quality and grandeur of what he himself had produced almost 500 years ago.

I'm certain, however, that he'd remain very alert to all that is going on. And would, considering how original and innovative he was in his own day, eventually incorporate a few ''modern'' devices into his prints.

What he would not do, however, would be to abdicate control over his ideas, craft, or forms. And neither would he throw overboard his technical skills in the name of ''truth,'' fashion, or contemporary notions of ''self-expression.'' Whatever else he might do, I doubt very much that he would make the late 20 th-century mistake of believing that drawing as he practiced it is dead, that printmaking as he practiced it belongs only in the art history books and on museum walls.

He would not, in other words, accept the altogether too popular belief (at least in certain quarters) that modernism is a ''corrective'' for the errors and misconceptions of the past, or the notion that a new idea, once advanced, immediately negates all that went before.

One of today's most pernicious art-historical and art-critical attitudes equates artistic creativity with scientific discovery, and the artist's studio with the scientist's laboratory. Seen this way, a particular creative act is one of a sequence of similar acts leading toward the resolution of a specific problem or the discovery of a particular truth, and is of value or importance only if it specifically answers that need or ''reveals'' that truth.

Thus Cubism is important and is art because it advanced and ''clarified'' certain of Cezanne's formal ideas. And Mondrian's art is valid and of value because it projected Cubism's analytical particularizations into ideal and metaphysical areas - and thus established a formal premise and a precedent for several generations of abstract painters.

The only problem with this view of art is that it leaves out the individualist who speaks entirely from his heart, the maverick who follows no road but his own, and the artist whose art reflects an extraordinary reference to cultural problems or issues.

This exclusion of the individualistic and the idiosyncratic is very evident in contemporary printmaking, at least as far as the influential print curators, critics, and collectors are concerned. These individuals will often exhibit, praise, or buy expensive graphic rehashings of the paintings of fashionable contemporary favorites and will ignore exquisite and lovingly hand-printed etchings or engravings by relative unknowns at one-twentieth the price. Prints that will sing out with their own special vision of life for centuries to come - provided someone collects and protects them.

One of the tragedies of the contemporary print world is the assumption that the only real difference between a painting and a print is the fact that the first is unique, that is, that it exists only in the original, while the latter comes in multiples; there may be two impressions of a print or several hundred. Any painterly image can be turned into a print if one knows the appropriate graphic process.

The fact of the matter, and this is where Durer (and Rembrandt, Goya, and Picasso, for that matter) would be most adamant, is that printmaking is as separate a creative activity from painting as playing a piano is from singing a song. And that, until we once again realize this, and make it a central factor in our evaluation and understanding of fine prints, we will fail to produce a significant body of prints that is uniquely graphic in identity, form, and expression.

This is an age when almost every painter thinks he is also a printmaker, and almost every major museum exhibition of prints shows more technically inventive and mechanically contrived wonders than works that are truly graphic. For this reason, it is a distinct pleasure to come upon an occasional etcher, lithographer, engraver, who sees, conceives, and expresses his creative realities strictly and entirely in graphic terms.

Peter Milton is such an artist. He is also one of the very best. His generally large and extremely complex prints have already carved out a unique and distinctive place for him in 20th-century printmaking. And, while there are those who see his art as too precious and obscure, there are also those who see him as probably the major 20th-century heir to the rich and idiosyncratic print tradition of Giovanni Piranesi, Rodolphe Bresdin, and Odilon Redon.

Milton works entirely in black and white. He is a consummate wizard at conjuring up fantastically detailed human, animal, and architectural images out of literally thousands of nearly invisible lines and dots, and then placing these images in exquisite counterpoint to photographically derived, but subjectively translated and integrated, forms. Although he is an exceptional draftsman and a past master of ''traditional'' etching, the roots of his art lie almost as much in collage and photomontage, in photography and films, as in the traditional subjects and techniques of printmaking.

His is an illogically logical world within which many odd and perplexing things happen, all of which, however, make ultimate sense in a strange and wonderful way. A gentle melancholy pervades his prints, a faint and subtle remembrance of earlier times, of dreams, and of hidden desires. To spend time with them is to enter a world totally unlike and yet remarkably like our own, a world within which our 20th-century realities, hopes, fears, dreams, desires, are magically transformed into an imagery that is clearly and beautifully realized in purely graphic terms.

Although their work is very different, I can't help but feel that Durer would appreciate Milton's prints. At least he would recognize them as prints, as living examples of a way of perceiving and articulating reality that goes all the way back to antiquity - and which will, I hope, continue on even further into the future.

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