Art that looks real can still be good

Print collectors are a determined lot. They have been known to spend months and years tracking down a particular print, and then to spend a small fortune for it. Or to suffer through sleepless nights worrying about the possibility of a rival outbidding them for a choice item.

This urge to collect prints isn't limited to the graphic masterpieces, but is also directed toward the work of excellent but lesser artists. For every specialist haunting print dealers and auctions for the prints of Durer or Rembrandt, there are dozens of equally devoted collectors looking for the works of Van Leyden, Callot, Meryon, Hopper, or Dine. Or searching for the personally printed etchings of Whistler, or prime examples of the art of such American Regionalists as Benton or Wood.

This collecting bug also extends to the works of vast numbers of good-to-excellent printmakers who may not be widely known, but who enjoyed regional or national fame at one time or another. Artists such as F. L. Griggs, Wanda Gag, or John Taylor Arms.

Among the best of these, although currently also among the least known in official art circles, is a lithographer who devoted his life to the depiction of the scenery of the New England coast, producing a little over 200 good prints, about 100 excellent ones, and roughly two dozen that are among the glories of mid-20th century American printmaking. American printmaker

The people who know this best are a few print curators, a handful of print dealers, and a large number of truly passionate collectors of the prints of Stow Wengenroth. Given their enthusiasm and focus, it is very likely, if not inevitable, that the name of Wengenroth will once again rise to national prominence.

A marvelous introduction to the art of Stow Wengenroth is currently on view here at the Mary Ryan Gallery. It consists of a large selection of his lithographs, drawings, and watercolors covering the entire span of his creative life. Included among them are several of his finest and rarest works.

Wengenroth was as American an artist as one could hope to find. He was born in Brooklyn in 1906, studied at the Art Students League in New York, lived in Manhattan for a short time, and then spent the balance of his life as far from big-city life and as close to the rugged outdoors as he could get.

He began his printmaking career in 1931, and by 1936 was already considered a major American lithographer. His reputation continued to grow until the late 1940s, when it fell victim - as did so many others - to a dramatic reversal of taste in prints brought about by the more experimental and openly innovative graphic vision of Stanley William Hayter and Mauricio Lasansky.

This lessening of official acclaim, however, did not slow him down. If anything, he became even better, for some of his very best prints date from between 1950 and 1978, the year of his death. No need for color

Wengenroth was that relatively rare creature, a genuine black-and-white artist. In his prints, the issue, the need for color, ceases to exist. This quality is most apparent in his very early works of 1931-32, in which his blacks and whites interact and clash against one another with little regard for the intervening grays. In these prints, the massive black of a huge rock might loom threateningly over a stylized and choppy sea, or a dark and brooding house might sit forlornly against an even darker sky. Everything becomes black-and-white pictorial drama, and one gets the impression that the young Wengenroth was trying to squeeze the last drop of melodramatic effectiveness out of every line, form, or tone he laid down.

It didn't take long, however, for Wengenroth to discover the greater internal drama of subtle grays played off against white paper and accentuated here and there by a black. Or to acquire the knack of drawing out the whiteness of paper and making it the major source of light in a print.

By 1936 he was a master of the lithographic crayon, and by 1940 he had achieved the highest plateau of his art in ''Meeting House'' and ''From the Weather Bureau.'' Except for Whistler, no one before him in American printmaking , and no one since, has been as subtle and sensitive at orchestrating grays, whites, and blacks. And no one else has been quite as modest about it. Art that hides its skeleton

I say modest because Wengenroth chose to submerge the mechanics of his art into his subjects and themes, and not to make an issue of them as has so often been the case since the Cubists. The result, unfortunately, has been predictable: Rather than being recognized in recent years as the extraordinary artist that he is, he too often has been dismissed as merely another artist drawing rocky coastlines, lighthouses, dramatic pine trees, and sea gulls and owls.

Now, it's true that these are the things that appear in his prints, and that they appear there because he loved and enjoyed them and wanted to share those feelings with others. It would be a serious mistake, however, to jump to the conclusion that that is all his prints are about, or to assume that he was a superficial sentimentalist merely because he depicted lyrically romantic outdoor subjects and events.

Unfortunately, thanks to the influence of Cezanne and the Cubists, we have too often been misled into believing that art is primarily structure and formal organization - and that a painting or print that puts subject or theme before those qualities must of necessity be superficial or nonart. But most particularly, we have been misled into the belief that art must make an open display of all the craft and scaffolding that went into the making of it. And that to not do so is to be guilty of creative dishonesty and deceit.

Wengenroth, however, belonged to the ''old school'' of picturemaking that held that the scaffolding, the compositional skeleton of a work of art, should be buried and remain hidden within the finished painting or print. And that the artist should subordinate his own idiosyncrasies and feelings in favor of a clear and total presentation of his subject. To accomplish that, Wengenroth composed as shrewdly and as carefully as any post-Cubist modernist. Unlike the modernist, however, for whom the dramatization of structure and scaffolding was often the point of art, Wengenroth saw such scaffolding as just that, as the structure upon which to build a subtly redesigned approximation of the view before him. Where the modernist might distill a complex scene into a few triangles, squares, and circles, Wengenroth went ahead and turned those geometric shapes back into ''real'' mountains, houses, and clouds.

The result, at its best, is art that is both startlingly ''real'' and immaculately structured - that conveys both the artist's love for the places and things he depicts and his deep awareness that art is more than surface appearance and effect.

To understand Wengenroth, we must perceive that he was a gentleman in every sense of the word. That he didn't believe in ''letting it all hang out,'' or in making an issue of how difficult it is to be an artist or to make art. And, most particularly, that he didn't believe in using art for the expression of deeply private feelings, or the airing of dirty laundry. In art as in life, Wengenroth believed in dignity and discretion, and he saw no reason to apply different standards and values to his art than he did to his life.

Although I cannot quite agree with Andrew Wyeth's opinion of Wengenroth as ''the greatest black-and-white artist in America,'' I most certainly believe that he was one of our best graphic artists. For those who would like more information about his work, I recommend the following two books that between them reproduce all 369 prints and quite a few of the drawings he made during his lifetime:''

The Lithographs of Stow Wengenroth - 1931-1972,'' by Ronald and Joan Stuckey. Boston: Boston Public Library, in cooperation with Barre Publishers. $35.00.''

Stow Wengenroth's Lithographs: A Supplement,'' by Ronald and Joan Stuckey. Huntington, N.Y.,: Black Oak Publishers. $35.00.

I also recommend the current Wengenroth exhibition at the Mary Ryan Gallery, 452 Columbus Avenue. It will remain on view through Nov. 14.

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