A print can be a work of art -- but when is it truly a print?

Printmakers seldom achieve art-world notoriety. That is more likely to happen to their more obstreperous colleagues with huge canvases and room-sized constructions.

They can, however, achieve formidable reputations among print devotees, and occasionally even among the general public. Yet most who succeed with the public are primarily painters who make prints on the side - either because they find it challenging or because they see it as a relatively simple and inexpensive method of attracting a wider audience.

Unfortunately, such artists too often replace the complex physical process of true printmaking with photography or some other simpler mechanical means. What results is a mass-produced commercial reproduction rather than a fine print conceived originally as a print by the artist, and actually executed by him. A true printmaker is physically involved with his image from start to finish and will examine every impression before signing and releasing it to to the public.

A painter, after all, is not necessarily also a printmaker at heart. The public generally may not be aware of it and much of the art world may not care, but this confusion between an original print and a reproduction (no matter how excellent, and no matter if it is signed by the artist) is serious, and threatening to printmaking in general.

All is not lost, however, thanks to a handful of print dealers and print curators who insist upon maintaining a clear distinction between mechanically produced reproductions, and original etchings, engravings, lithographs, serigraphs, etc. Among the youngest and best of the former is Mary Ryan, owner-director of the print gallery bearing her name on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Her current exhibition represents a good cross section of contemporary American printmaking. Although quite a few of the works were executed by artists who are primarily painters, every one stands on its own as a graphic statement, as an original print of at least minimum quality.

The list of artists includes such well-known painters as Fairfield Porter, William Bailey, Jack Beal, Richard Haas, Alex Katz, and Robert Longo - and such purely graphic masters as Peter Milton and Barry Moser. Of the former, Bailey's contributions come off well, although they are a bit too light-colored for my tastes, and the rest are represented by solid if not particularly spectacular works.

Milton, on the other hand, shines with his special brand of graphic magic. ''Country Pieces I'' is one of his loveliest prints, and should surprise those familiar only with his more complex and geometrically defined etchings.

Moser also stars with a group of his excellent and witty wood engravings. These prove once again that he is a top master of that medium. I was also very taken by Altoon Sultan's exquisite drypoints, Anthony Rice's marvelously free and colorful monotypes, and Hilary Fritz's bright and pointed graphic mini-worlds.

Most of all, I was delighted by the work of an artist previously unknown to me. Oriole Farb Feshbach's portrait prints took me by surprise and linger strongly in my memory. These consist of separate subjects arranged in a grid, and so positioned as to point up similarities between individuals, and parallels between facial types. Thus in ''In Time,'' a Rubens drawing, a photograph of a marble head, two studies ''in the manner of'' Hals and Eakins, and four original drawings - all of children's heads - occupy separate compartments on a large sheet of paper.

The result is a multiple image of great warmth and charm, and a print that beautifully survives the offset lithography process - a mechanical form of printing that normally produces straightforward reproductions. Offhand, I know of no other artist who uses this method more sensitively or appropriately.

At the Mary Ryan Gallery, 452 Columbus Avenue, through Sept. 22. Knowledgeable print dealer

When Mary Ryan opened her print gallery in November 1981, she took two big risks: She chose New York's Upper West Side, an area traditionally unsympathetic to art galleries, and she decided to specialize in the more traditional and less flashy forms of American printmaking.

She must have known what she was doing, however, for in less than two years she has established herself as one of the best print dealers in New York and the United States.

She did this by handling only authentic and quality work and by convincing print professionals and collectors alike that she is a knowledgeable and astute print expert with a love for prints and a deep understanding of their history, techniques, and ideals. In this she stands dramatically apart from many dealers who know little more about the prints they sell than who did them and what they sell for.

Her first show did much to establish her reputation, for it was the sort of exhibition only someone deeply involved with prints would mount. ''The WPA Era'' consisted of 52 prints by 15 artists of the 1930s and early 1940s, and included works by Barnet, Becker, Leighton, Lozowick, and Wengenroth. It wasn't a major exhibition by any means, but it was a highly unusual one for someone considerably under 30 to assemble.

Since then, her gallery has expanded to include some of the more accomplished and imaginative printmakers of the present - as well as a few drawings and paintings by the artists she represents. This, however, has not diverted her from her original objective - as her major Wengenroth and John Sloan retrospectives prove.

Among her other successful shows have been those devoted to the art of Adolf Dehn, Philip Reisman, and Barry Moser, and ''The Artist and the El,'' a group exhibition which celebrated the New York Elevated Railway and subway systems.

A visit to the Mary Ryan gallery is a treat for anyone who loves prints. There always is something new or special to see - if not a superb impression of a Hopper etching, then certainly a suite of tiny mezzotints by a new artist of great promise. Stacked in one corner may be sketches for WPA murals or some recent drawings by Sigmund Abeles. And tucked away in various drawers and portfolios will be enough etchings, engravings, lithographs, or whatever to please anyone interested in the fine art of printmaking.

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