Was it the students who gave this exhibition its dual focus, one on great canonical works, another on exuberant, indulgent exercises in the form? “Print by Print: Series From Durer to Lichtenstein” is an exuberant reintroduction to the power of the print, offering a rare chance to focus on material most often encountered in excerpts, and reproduced in books.
Durer’s “The Apocalypse,” a set of woodblock prints made near the end of the 15th century, helped establish the artist’s international reputation, and it’s easy to see why. The lines are heavy, dark and organic, the structure of the image as architectural as any grand altarpiece. Yet you can sense Durer finessing the essential bluntness of the woodcut form, grappling with the basic question of how much data one could, or should, stuff into an image. This emerges as a theme of the exhibition, the density of information, and one of the pleasures of the show is how that density determines the viewer’s relationship to the image, down to the physical distance from which the print wants to be seen.
Lichtenstein’s 1969 “Haystacks” series is based on Monet’s paintings of haystacks from Giverny, exploring changes in light and atmosphere throughout the day and through the changing of the seasons (most of them painted in 1890-91). Lichtenstein’s trademark benday dot treatment, however, isn’t concerned with atmosphere but with the serial exploration of color. More than any other series in this exhibition, they become legible only from a certain distance, where the dots blend together and reveal an echo of the Monet. They resist close-in viewing and set up an argument with the print as a private medium, visual chamber music for solitary study.
The six panels of Ed Ruscha’s 1970 “News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues” also demand to be seen with the ceremonial distance of more public forms of painting. Ruscha self-consciously takes on a hefty subject, England, treated as a series of words in Old English typeface, silkscreened without other comment or visual context on large sheets of paper. The colors, however, are produced with unorthodox forms of dye, including squid ink, salmon roe, blackcurrant pie filling and Branston pickle, a treacly sweet brown relish essential to the production of a proper English sandwich.
If the benday dot treatment of Lichtenstein’s haystacks drives the viewer away from the image, this supplemental information about the evanescent coloring of Ruscha’s prints compels the viewer to move in and scrutinize them more carefully. And no, you can’t tell that the colors come from coffee, chocolate and other comestibles. More information isn’t necessarily more useful, just as more words — mews, pews, stews, etc. — don’t necessarily get you closer to the essence of a place.
Andrew Raftery’s 2008 series of five engravings, “Open House,” directly confronts public-private tension in the print, and the game of compelling the viewer to move deeper into the public space of the gallery (more distant from the print) and more directly proximate to the wall (the private zone of contemplation). The subject is the inspection of a house by prospective purchasers, a clever conceit in which domestic life is turned inside out, opened up for close scrutiny, made brutally public and falsified by the seller, who puts the best face on the interior of the home. The lines of Raftery’s engraving process are aggressive and precise, and finding the right distance is again essential. Seen from too close, his people look like zebras, their faces rendered with sharp, parallel lines for shading. But the precision of this technique is part of the basic virtuosity of the series.
The viewer has a basic forest-or-trees choice, a decision between the nose-to-the-image pleasure of studying Raftery’s technique, or the more distant and more humane view of his domestic scenes possible only from a few feet away. Houses are like that: Never look too closely at the paint, the molding, the floorboards. Home sweet home is a sour business if you’re a perfectionist.
This basic tension isn’t an invention of the 20th century. In older print series, such as William Hogarth’s “A Harlot’s Progress” (from 1733, these printed in 1744), you see public moralizing (about prostitution and dissipation) confined within images that reward only the long immersion of private viewing. Detail is the pleasure. Finding the data in Hogarth’s series — the cracked plaster, the hat box on the bed, the myriad small signs of decay and shabbiness — is part of the moral process of taking to heart the fate of a young woman trapped into the downward spiral of the sex trade. It compels you to spend time with the images, and with the narrative the images present, it also makes you part of the exploitation that the artist seems to decry.
These six salacious and possibly sermonizing glimpses into the world of harlotry yield a revelation: The young woman seen fresh from the country in the first plate, and hidden in a coffin in the sixth plate, is constantly on display, with no “room of her own.” She is a public conveyance for desire, with men and other manipulators constantly crowding her. The moral is once again about the tension between public and private realms of life.
The exhibition is organized thematically, with one room exploring series that are devoted simply to questions of design and another devoted to series based on war, including Picasso’s 1937 “The Dream and Lie of Franco,” a stark anti-Fascist series haunted by the same demons as his contemporaneous “Guernica”). The thematic organization doesn’t yield much fruit. More interesting, and less salient given the organization, are questions of seriality, the different ways in which a group of images relate to each other. In some cases, as with the Hogarth, a narrative imposes the order. In others, such as Johann Theodor de Bry’s 1595 “New Artistic Alphabet,” or in a set of historic playing cards with color stencil, the order is created by an external, systematic structure.
Often, the most exciting visual results come from series that seem to have no outside system, or responsibility, such as 20 etchings by Ludovic Napoleon Lepic, a French artist of the mid-19th century, who used a single copper plate to produce unique variations on a basic river scene, exploring clouds, fog, snow and other atmospheric scene changes. Here, as much as in the Monet paintings that Lichtenstein appropriates, the thing represented — a view from the banks of the Scheldt River — disappears into the background of visual play, a deliquescence of the real into the evanescent vapors of a more metaphysical river. Lepic’s series may have had as many as 85 iterations, yet it could sustain even more than that.
But the best thing about the exhibition is that it is all prints and nothing but prints. There’s no lack of variety, or color, or extremes of representational style. By focusing on the print in series, the curators have created parameters of viewing that favor the unique power of the print. The series approach helps the individual prints establish a contained, local language, within which they speak more eloquently than they ever do when seen out of context surrounded by more hectoring forms of art.
Print by Print: Series From Durer to Lichtenstein
is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through March 25, 2012. For more information visit www.artbma.org.