Life is certainly full of surprises. No sooner had I come to the conclusion that contemporary American printmaking had sunk to its lowest point in years than an exhibition of prints is offered at the Pratt Graphics Center that indicates we might actually be entering a period of solid graphic achievement.
The remarkable thing about this show is that it consists of fine prints - not rehashed paintings run off by mechanical printing processes, or contrived images consisting of sensational but empty gimmicks, or any of the other numerous freaky and tricky reproductive works that have been passing as prints these past 20 or 30 years.
But that should come as no surprise, considering the sponsoring organization (Exxon, which has traditionally been perceptive in the exhibitions it has sponsored), and the fact that Gabor Peterdi made the selections. Not only is Peterdi a distinguished printmaker, he is also a teacher and author of note, and has been a positive influence in the field of printS for as long as I can remember.
His job was cut out for him. ''Prints USA: 1982'' is the result of an open call to artists throughout the country to submit works in all print media except photography for jury consideration; 1,046 artists responded with 2,100 entries. Every print was viewed by Mr. Peterdi for consideration, and of the total number , 100 were selected for this show.
Of the 100 prints on view, I responded favorably to 99, an unheard-of experience for me, since I tend to dislike a good 30 to 40 percent of most contemporary print exhibitions I see. I'm not saying that I liked each of these 99, only that I liked some very much - and admired the rest. Some of the styles are decidedly not my normal preference, but even so, there is simply no denying their quality and level of accomplishment.
I was particularly pleased to see that the preoccupation with technical experimentation that has dominated printmaking these past three decades is finally beginning to achieve some positive results. Almost every print included owes some sort of debt to the graphic innovators of the post-World War II period , and yet that ''debt'' is not obvious, but is assimilated into the artist's own attitudes - even, at times, into a complex of minor influences from other sources. These are definitely prints of our postwar era, and could not have been produced at any other time. (The exceptions are Sigmund Abeles's ''The Pensioner ,'' which could have been etched as easily in 1900 as in the 1;70s, and Kathleen Gallagher's ''Citicorp,'' which could, at first glance, be mistaken for an Armin Landeck etching of the 1930s.)
The range of styles is quit% extraordinary, and includes everything from the totally abstract (Janice De Marino's ''Reverse'') to the precisely realistic (Wilfred Loring's ''Glass Roof''). In between are works that incorporate elements and devices familiar to any print-lover of the past 30 years who has paid close attention to what was taking place in the contemporary print world during that period.
The wonderful thing, however, is that all these influences are put to individual creative use by these 100 artists in ways that alter and redirect them to highly personal ends. That is lhe most impressive thing about this show, and one of the main reasons I find the quality of the work so consistently high. It's a good thing that so many of our younger printmakers nos feel free to dip into the rich storehouses of techniques and images the major innovators have left behind, rather than feeling compelled to devote their lives to inventing new processes (or gimmicks), or coming up wiptPwy - O/o/ mO formal innovations.
I must admit that I had been hoping for quite some time that this would happen. That it is now taking place seems fairly obvious, or at least it is if this exhibition is at all representative of American printmaking as a whole.
As for individual prints, I was particularly taken by Gregory Hilton's ''Kimono Series IV,'' Lynn Shaler's ''Exits,'' Ann Rothman's ''Bar Series No. 4, '' Jose Luis Ortiz's ''Stone Men,'' Robert Detamore's ''Just Play the Game,'' Amy West's ''Hakkan-Yar,'' and Theodora Varney-Jones's ''Landscape 1.''
This exGeptional exhibition will remain on view at the Pratt Graphics Center, 160 Lexington Avenue, through June 22. It will then begin a two-year tour throughout the country. Its first stop will be at Frostburg, Ind., State College (September). During November it will be at Kilgore College, Kilgore, Texas, and next January it can be seen at the University of Minnesota at Morris. Future stops will be announced.