Applause -- and high time -- for US printmakers

It's time we realized how good American printmakers of the 1900-1950 period really were. And to what extent their thousands of etchings, engravings, woodcuts, lithographs, and so forth still constitute an untapped cultural resource.

The range of style and subject of what was produced during that period is staggering, and runs all the way from precious Whistler-inspired etchings and drypoints to bold and experimental modernist works incorporating abstract, surreal, and expressionist principles.

Most unusual of all, however, and quite unique in the history of printmaking, is what happened in the United States from roughly 1920 to 1945, when the majority of its artists decided to concentrate exclusively on American themes. The result was an explosion of talent and work -- and a huge body of both paintings and prints that we haven't as yet even begun fully to understand or appreciate.

Although we have singled out for fame a few of that period's outstanding printmakers (Bellows, Sloan, Marsh, Benton, Bishop, and Wood, for instance) and have recently and deservedly boosted the reputations of a few others (Martin Lewis, Louis Lozowick, Armin Landeck), we have, by and large, ignored the large majority of them.

It is always a pleasure, therefore, to come across an exhibition that singles out a few such individuals for special attention -- and shows their work within a contemporary social, political, or geographic context.

''The Artist and the El,'' currently on view at the Mary Ryan Gallery here, salutes the artists who chose to celebrate subway systems and the New York Elevated Railway, commonly known as the El, in various graphic media. Included are 70 prints by 36 artists on subjects ranging from packed and sleeping subway riders to monumental renderings of the El against the New York skyline.

There are views of the subway under construction, peddlers selling their wares under the El, job hunters during the depression, people rushing to enter already-full subway cars, straphangers, bums, and young girls going to work -- as well as detailed studies of particular stations, trains, buildings, and crossings.

Some of the pieces belong in museums -- most particularly Stow Wengenroth's extraordinary dry-brush study for his lithograph ''Grand Central Station'' (which is also included). There is also an unusual small etching made by Franz Kline as a Christmas card, in which the El is depicted as he thought it must have appeared in 1878. Also included are several outstanding prints by Stuart Davis, John Sloan, Louis Lozowick, and Benton Spruance.

The names of some of the artists are totally unknown to me. I haven't any idea, for instance, who Louis Schmidt, Kyra Marham, Isac Friedlander, or Jack Markow were (or are), but I certainly intend to find out. And when I do, I'll add their names to my growing list of exceptional minor artists who lived and worked during that 1920-1945 period. That list, by the way, already has over 100 names.

At the Mary Ryan Gallery through Sept. 26.m

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