Drawings that were worth waiting for

It isn't often that we encounter an artist who produces only drawings - especially drawings that are as sensitively and meticulously crafted as highly finished paintings.

Such work requires great patience, a passion for black-and-white, and the willingness to spend long hours working on a tiny section of a complex image, or building up subtle textures or tones. But that's not all. Because of the exceedingly slow rate at which such drawings are made, the artist may only be able to assemble a show every three or four years.

This obviously doesn't bother Gregory Paquette. His first one-man exhibition at the Staempfli Gallery here has been six years in the making and has necessitated two postponements. The drawings are finally finished, framed, and on view, however, and they prove decisively that good things are worth waiting for.

It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive one-person shows devoted to drawing I have seen in at least a decade, and for my money, it places Paquette high among the best black-and-white artists working in the United States today. To begin with, he is a superb draftsman, but unlike most draftsmen, who remain indifferent to the organizational aspects of picturemaking, Paquette composes intelligently and with exceptional formal tact. His images, as a result, are crisp, well designed, and executed with a feeling for tonal and textural nuances that is truly extraordinary. And to top it off, there is a warmth about them that makes the absence of color totally irrelevant.

Many of the drawings are quite large (''Studio (night),'' for instance, is 41 inches high), and all were executed in charcoal and either pencil or conte. Every one is built up with the same concern for tone, design, and detail that characterized Charles Sheeler's magnificent drawings of the 1930s. Paquette, however, is a bit more aggressive in his imagery, and more concerned with the psychological overtones of his subjects. But that is only appropriate for an artist of the 1980s. ''Bedspring'' could almost certainly not have been conceived over a decade ago, and the same is true of his 1982 ''Self-Portrait'' and ''Still Life With Urn.''

A great deal more could be written about these drawings, but for the moment let me only recommend a visit to see them. The Staempfli Gallery is at 47 East 77th Street, and the show will run through Oct. 6.

Prints at the Whitney Museum

Collecting prints ranks rather low on the list of priorities for most museums. Those who determine what art should be bought or accepted by such institutions generally assume that the public prefers colorful paintings and impressive sculptures to small black-and-white images on paper. Even the large, multicolored graphic work of Stella, Johns, Dine, and Kushner cannot compete with canvases by these same artists, or with large bronze, wood, or steel pieces by our major sculptors.

Even so, prints do serve a practical curatorial purpose - both in stimulating interest in certain artists and in rounding out a museum's coverage of contemporary ideas and trends. Collectors are also discovering that dry point, aquatint, and more recent printmaking techniques can produce art every bit as fascinating and good as that fashioned by brush or chisel.

Partly in response to this increased interest, the Whitney Museum, in 1982, established a print committee with members from all over the United States to oversee and help build the museum's collection of graphic works. According to Judith Goldman, the museum's adviser of prints, the committee's contribution has already been generous and significant.

To show off some of its outstanding recent acquisitions, the Whitney has put on view more than 200 of the 513 prints - including 11 portfolios and six illustrated books - it has purchased or received as gifts since mid-1973. Included are works dating from John Marin's 1911 ''Brooklyn Bridge'' to several executed within the past 18 months.

This exhibition should give the general viewer a rough idea of how American printmaking has changed over the past 70 years. There are examples by such old-timers as Bellows, Benton, Davis, and Landeck and by such newcomers as Bartlett, Bosman, Longo, and Winters. The installation is divided by theme - one showing how printmakers have viewed New York City - and by artist, with several small one-person shows. Another section is devoted to trial and working proofs.

One also becomes aware, while viewing these prints, of the problems museums face in attempting to build truly representative graphic collections. A little research only underscores this fact. The list of prints acquired to date by the museum reveals some startling omissions. The Whitney owns no prints by Whistler or Cassatt, two of America's most significant printmakers, who should not be excluded even if they worked a few years earlier than most of the artists in the museum's holdings. Pennell, Duveneck, Shahn, Frasconi, Gwathmey, Wayne, Milton, and Pearlstein - to name only a few of the most noteworthy - are also not included. And others, like Marin, Baskin, and Lasansky, must do with only one or two examples each.

The print committee obviously has its job cut out for it. One can only hope it will be made somewhat easier by gifts from collectors owning artists' prints not represented (or underrepresented) in the Whitney's collection.

As for the exhibition, it will remain on view at the Whitney Museum through Nov. 25.

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