By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 27, 2009
For printmaking fans, I have some good news and some bad news.
First, the good news. There are two print exhibitions by big-name artists on view at area museums: "Matisse as Printmaker" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and "Editions With Additions: Working Proofs by Jasper Johns" at the National Gallery of Art. The bad news? The Matisse show feels more like drawings, and the Johns show feels more like paintings.
That's really bad news only for print purists, who tend to focus more on technique than the average Joe. For those who derive their pleasure from simply looking at good pictures - but who may not be able to tell the difference between an etching and an aquatint -- the shows still have plenty to offer.
Let's start with Johns. The show features many of the contemporary artist's most iconic imagery. Two prints in "Editions" feature bull's-eye targets, a favorite subject of Johns's paintings, along with marks made in chalk, ink, collage, watercolor and graphite. Those stray bits are the "additions" referred to in the show's title: metaphorical fingerprints -- and, in at least one case, an actual fingerprint - that reveal a restless artist constantly fussing with his product. Called "working proofs" (or test prints that the artist would continue to fiddle with), these pictures could easily be thought of as sketches, intermediate steps on the way to a finished work. Not satisfied with the way something looked? Johns would have at it with a pencil or paintbrush, scissors, glue or crayon. In other words, they're private pictures that have found their way into the public forum. The National Gallery of Art is, for the first time, calling them done.
So what do they show us? No, not the printmaking process. (Sorry, traditionalists.) In the words of curator Ruth Fine, what we're allowed a glimpse of in "Editions With Additions" is not the artist's studio, but his head. This isn't a show about working, but about thinking.
In a similar way, "Matisse as Printmaker" documents a journey rather than a destination. Each print, as the wall text tells us, "may be thought of as a pause along a path." As with Johns, the works feature several of the French artist's pet themes, including the reclining nude. Over the course of several decades - and several printmaking techniques -- we can see a subject transformed again and again.
Although Matisse (1869-1954) experimented with many ways of working (chunky woodcuts here, richly shaded lithographs there), the best works in the show -- indeed, the most Matissian ones -- are those that highlight what the show calls the artist's "economy of line."
Several aquatints, monotypes, linocuts and etchings feature this wondrous visual shorthand. In "Siesta," an entire woman's torso is rendered in 21 squiggly lines (count 'em). The head of a sleeping man in 17. A fish swimming in a bowl takes all of six.In the Johns show, you can almost hear the artist's mental gears churning. At times, he comes perilously close to worrying a piece to death. "Matisse as Printmaker," on the other hand, is a quieter show.
That's because, rather than documenting a process of printmaking, or even thinking, it's a show about looking. A kind of looking that is intense, direct and almost uncomfortably sensual.
As Matisse was known to say, "A cake seen through a store window doesn't make your mouth water as much as when you enter and it's right under your nose."
The story behind the work:
Among the recurring subjects in "Matisse as Printmaker" is the artist's own face. There are six self-portraits on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, including two versions of a 1900-1903 etching and a 1944 lithograph.
What's interesting is that, as closely and as tellingly as Matisse was able to peer into his subjects' faces - even his own - he was self-conscious when someone else was doing the looking. As the French photographer Brassai once noted about Matisse, whom he had shot, "He searched for himself in his portrait and had difficulty finding himself -- if he appeared austere, he was belying his nature; if shown laughing, it looked like caricature."