American screenprints - and some modern Chinese paintings. Exhibition traces progress of medium from early debates to today's positive enthusiasm

PRINTMAKING, despite its long history, has been limited during most of its existence to only a few basic techniques. Etching, engraving, and the woodcut dominated the field until the invention of lithography in 1798 and that medium's rapid rise to popularity shortly thereafter. And then, another century or so had to pass before a new era of technical expansion took place. Screenprinting, also known as silkscreening and serigraphy, was among the first reproductive techniques to add a new dimension to 20th-century graphic art. Although its invention cannot be dated precisely (1916, however, seems a likely date), it is known that the new medium was first utilized for purely artistic purposes by Guy Maccoy in 1932.

It took a while, however, for it to catch on. Serious debates, in fact, were fairly common during the 1930s, '40s, and early '50s as to whether a screenprint could even be considered a work of art. But all that eventually came to an end with the emergence of Pop Art and screenprinting's enthusiastic acceptance by such artists as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns.

In order to trace the history of American screenprinting and to pinpoint some of its highlights, the National Academy of Design here has mounted an exhibition of 41 outstanding screenprints by 37 artists. Drawn almost entirely from the collection of Reba and Dave Williams, they range in time from very early works by Maccoy and Harry Sternberg to more recent prints by Warhol and Edward Ruscha, and in style from the crisply representational (Robert Gwathmey, Marguerite Zorach) to the totally nonfigurative and abstract (Edward Landon, Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann).

The exhibition's main focus, however, is on work produced during the 1940s, a time when screenprinting was fighting its major battles for critical acceptance, and when artists were not yet fully aware of the medium's potentials.

There is, as a result, an engaging earnestness and naive awkwardness about many of the prints executed during that decade that is not only charming in its own right, but also oddly appropriate to the medium as it was then perceived.

I doubt that anyone will ever again produce works like Harry Gottlieb's solemn and somewhat ominous ``The Factory,'' for instance, or Bernard Steffan's frankly regionalist ``Haying''; Hugo Gellert's propagandistic ``Winning the Battle of Production''; or Mervin Jules's folksy ``A Hit'' - and I for one am sorry for it.

By the 1950s, the situation had begun to change, and before long, such artists as Dean Meeker and Mary Corita Kent were not only taking full advantage of every technical device screenprinting had to offer but were also finally beginning to win critical and popular approval for the medium itself.

All this and much more is fully detailed, both in the academy's excellent exhibition and in the show's illustrated catalog.

At the National Academy of Design, 1083 Fifth Avenue, through Dec. 6.

A new gallery for recent Chinese art

Everyone must know by now that the People's Republic of China has relaxed its restrictions pertaining to the creation of art. Relatively few Westerners, however, have seen any of the paintings or works on paper that have resulted from this new freedom.

This is particularly unfortunate since so much of this art is of high caliber and represents interesting and frequently highly successful attempts on the part of numerous younger, and occasionally even older, artists to come to grips with a wide variety of Western painting styles and techniques.

The situation is improving, however. Some of what these painters have produced can now be seen in New York, thanks to Robert A. Hefner, an Oklahoma businessman who not only received permission to assemble a major show of Chinese paintings here last spring, but who has also just opened a gallery devoted exclusively to recent Chinese art.

The Hefner Galleries' opening exhibition presented the work of 32-year-old Wang Yidang from the Shandong Province in China. His extraordinarily precise and lyrical portrait and figure studies were executed in a style that fused elements of 15th-century Flemish and Italian art with a linear approach that was purely Chinese. Everything about his paintings was crisp, uncompromisingly ``realistic,'' and remarkably effective.

The gallery's current show features Ai Xuan, a slightly older painter who specializes in Tibetan subjects that are worked up in meticulous detail. His paintings, which were influenced somewhat by Andrew Wyeth, are more broadly conceived and executed than Wang Yidang's, and are considerably warmer in spirit.

In fact, one senses that he cares for his subjects as people, and doesn't view them only as interesting characters bundled up in heavy clothing and set against the rugged landscape of Tibet.

At the Hefner Galleries, 1020 Madison Avenue, through Nov. 7.

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