AMERICAN art owes a debt of gratitude to Reeves Lewenthal, the founder of Associated American Artists (AAA) here. Without him, Grant Wood almost certainly would not have produced the 19 lithographs - roughly half rank among the masterpieces of mid-20th-century American graphic art - that he made between 1937 and 1940. In 1933, Lewenthal contacted several prominent American artists with a revolutionary idea: He would commission them to create original prints, which AAA would publish in editions of 250 impressions and then sell through the gallery or by mail order for $5 each. The lithographs were to be printed by George Miller in New York, the etchings by Anderson Lamb in Brooklyn. All printing would be done by hand, with Miller and Lamb receiving 25 cents per impression, paper and ink included.
Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Wood accepted, and they were soon followed by, among others, Raphael Soyer, Don Freeman, Peggy Bacon, and Gordon Grant.
In 1934, Lewenthal had several lithographic stones shipped to Wood in Iowa. Since Wood, however, needed both instruction in the technical aspects of lithography and encouragement to tackle a new medium, his first print, ``Tree Planting Group,'' was not published until 1937. It did well. In AAA's January 1938 catalog, both it and Wood's ``Seed Time and Harvest'' were listed as sold out.
Encouraged by this success and increasingly delighted by the medium, Wood requested more stones. They were sent, and by the end of four years he had produced the 19 lithographs on which his printmaking reputation rests.
All 19 prints, together with a trial impression for a preliminary version of Wood's lithograph ``March'' (c. 1939) are on view at Associated American Artists. All except one are for sale, but at prices considerably higher than those listed in the late 1930s catalogs.
``Family Doctor,'' for instance, is the most expensive, at $7,500, ``Midnight Alarm'' the least expensive at $2,500. Considering, however, that every impression is pencil-signed by the artist and is in very good to excellent condition, these works are bargains, even at these prices.
That is especially true if one takes their quality into account. ``January,'' ``February,'' ``July Fifteenth,'' ``Shrine Quartet,'' and ``Sultry Night'' are among the finest American prints of the 1930-55 period, and ``January'' will almost certainly end up as one of the outstanding American prints of the century.
The reasons for that are apparent when looking at the prints:
First, Wood was a ``natural'' as far as lithography was concerned. His draftsmanship, compositional approach, and sensitivity to tonal nuances and contrasts were ideally suited to the medium. Second, he was a thoughtful and conscientious craftsman who treated printmaking as seriously as he did painting. And third, Wood's subjects were perfect for the neatly composed, exquisitely designed black-and-white images he favored.
Every step of producing a print was carefully controlled. Wood first discussed his ideas with Lewenthal over the telephone. The latter always accepted them, partly because he genuinely admired and trusted the artist, but also because Wood had such difficulty starting new projects that any enthusiasm on his part was to be encouraged.
Next came a detailed preparatory drawing, which was transferred onto the stone before being shipped to the printer in New York. Miller pulled a few trial proofs, showed then to Lewenthal, then sent them to Wood. The artist, after signing the one he approved, returned it to Miller to use as a guide for the printing of the entire edition.
Slow and cumbersome though the system might have been (lithographic stones are very heavy and easily broken), it worked remarkably well. Not only was Wood pleased with the results; he also liked the idea of making art available to the public at very low prices.
In a 1938 letter he wrote, ``I am so thoroughly convinced of the value of the five dollar original lithographs as the most effective means of producing an art-minded public for the future, that I would be delighted to sign a long-time exclusive contract with AAA tomorrow. A contract based on the five dollar print - depression or no depression.''
For four of his prints, however, AAA doubled the going rate to $10 each. These were decorative, hand-colored lithographs depicting fruit, vegetables, and flowers, which were designed by Wood in 1939 and colored by his sister, Nan Wood Graham, who had posed a decade earlier for the figure of the woman in ``American Gothic.''
Although considerably less impressive than his other prints (they are now priced at $4,000 each), they nevertheless caught on and were soon favored by the public if not by the critics.
Wood's strongest graphic work, however, was in black-and-white, and it is for these images that I wholeheartedly recommend this show. It's entirely possible, in fact, that art history may decide he was at his best in five or six of these simple, warmly human, and beautifully designed prints.
At Associated American Artists, 20 West 57th Street., through Feb. 3.