New Mexico's fountainhead of printmaker's art

The year 1960 looms large in the history of contemporary printmaking, for it marks the date Tamarind Lithography Workshop, under its founding director June Wayne, set out to put that medium back on its feet. Its goals were multiple: to create a pool of master printers; to develop American artists, working in many styles, into masters of lithography; to accustom artists and printers to intimate collaboration so that each might become responsive to the other.

It also wanted both to extend the expressive potential of the medium and to restore prestige to lithography by creating a collection of extraordinary lithographs, and to stimulate an economic climate in which the art might survive.

Tamarind quickly realized these goals. During its first 10 years in Los Angeles, it printed more then 2,900 lithographs for a roster of distinguished artists who had come there from all parts of the world, established new standards of excellence, and greatly expanded the range of the medium.

Its international reputation was further enhanced in 1970 when it became a division of the University of New Mexico here. Since then, Tamarind Institute, under the directorship of Clinton Adams, has continued to train master printers, to collaborate with artists in the production of fine prints, and to publish the work of established painters and printmakers.

For its 25th anniversary last month, Tamarind decided to celebrate with a major commemorative print exhibition (through March 25); a three-day symposium on lithography's past, present, and future; and the presentation of an award to an outstanding member of the print community.

``Fifty Artists/Fifty Printers'' brought together 50 lithographs by as many artists, each of which was printed by a different printer trained at Tamarind. Its catalog reads like a veritable Who's Who of contemporary American artists and of the highly skilled and dedicated men and women who print for them. All are individuals of distinction, and their work, as represented by this excellent exhibition, pays tribute not only to the high quality of lithography today, but to the ideals and training methods of Tamarind as well.

The symposium featured papers by six specialists on the history, nature, evaluation, and technical procedures of lithography, with a special emphasis on a few of the medium's lesser-known masters. This was followed by a panel discussion on the future of lithography moderated by Clinton Adams, in which most of the symposium speakers took part. And that in turn was followed by an open discussion among three master printers and the audience on lithographic printing.

I for one was sorry to see the conference end, for there was a great deal more I wanted to find out about the collaborative process between artist and printer -- as well as about color lithography itself. Even so, the three days were well spent. I learned more than I had expected about the medium, saw many excellent prints, and was able to add my congratulations to the many received by Gustave von Groschwitz for being awarded Tamarind's first annual Citation for Distinguished Contributions to the Art of Lithography. Considering his 50-year professional involvement with prints as museum director and curator, the honor was well deserved.

As was to be expected, opening night festivities for ``Kandinsky in Paris: 1934-1944,'' the Guggenheim Museum's final exhibition of three devoted to the artist's life and work, were well attended. Almost everyone, from dealers and curators to painters and museum directors, showed up to see the first major museum exhibition ever to focus exclusively on Kandinsky's Paris period and to view the more than 200 paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints, and documents that survey the full range of his late work within the context of other artistic, cultural, and intellectual developments of the time. In the course of the evening, they also saw important examples by Kandinsky's contemporaries, including works by Albers, Arp, Klee, Mir'o, Mondrian, and Picasso, and had the opportunity to ask questions of some of those responsible for the exhibition. It was obvious from their reaction that the show was a huge success and that most were grateful for the chance to see so many of the pictures Kandinsky painted in a Paris suburb during the last decade of his life. A large number of these late works are relatively small and were more elegantly and pristinely fashioned than most of his earlier paintings. Among them are several executed in mixed media on cardboard. These average 16 by 22 inches in size, among the loveliest and most successful of all his images.

The reason for this, I believe, is that they best represent his rather modest talent, with its native tendency toward the somewhat precious and decorative rather than the more incisive, solid, and monumental type of painting practiced by the truly major artists of the century. Despite Kandinsky's grand vision of what nonobjective painting could accomplish and the theories he developed to bring that vision to actuality as art, the vast majority of his post-1920 works register less as significant art than as carefully rendered two-dimensional illustrations of his theories.

The exceptions are the more modest, subtly romantic, and exotic smaller works he produced at various times throughout his career, but most particularly from 1942 until his death in 1944. These represent Kandinsky as he really was as a painter, not as he tried to become through theory and willpower. Looking at these images, one cannot help being impressed and charmed by his imagination and sensibility -- even though one also cannot help feeling that when all is said and done, Kandinsky was never able to rise above being a relatively minor -- if altogether engaging -- modernist painter.

After its closing at the Guggenheim on April 14, this very important and provocative show travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where it will be on view from June 8 through Aug. 11. After that, it moves to the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts in Vienna, opening there sometime during the fall of 1985.

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