AMERICAN PRINTMAKERS have never had it so good. They are no longer the practitioners of a widely ignored art -- they now share billing, if not quite as headliners, with painters and sculptors. James Watrous, in his lavishly illustrated, sumptuously produced book, exaggerates only slightly when he says, "In recent years, contemporary American prints have stimulated more public interest and critical notice than sculpture while often rivaling painting in conceptual originality, technical innovation and lushness of visual and tactile display."

Nevertheless, collectors sifting through endless avalanches of prints in the 1960s and 1970s had to wait until 1980 for the first history of American work of the 20th cy. This was Una Johnson's study, American Prints and Printmakers, subtitled A chronicle of over 400 artists and their prints from 1900 to the present. Johnson's book had many virtues aside from the primary one of breaking the ice. It covered the enormous field fairly thoroughly, more so, in terms of catholicity, than Watrous' book, but the treatment was often sketchy. A Century of American Printmaking, on the other hand, is the result of prodigious research, not only on artists and art tendencies but on the entire support structure of printmaking -- the dealers, collectors, publishers, print clubs, sponsors, curators, critics, printmaking workshops and exhibitions.

Watrous tells us at the beginning: "For such a chronicle to be informative about prints, personalities, and events (while recounting) the continuity of developments during ten decades, it must be selective in its telling." Rather than list hundreds upon hundreds of artists whose reputations have risen or fallen through the years, Watrous concentrates on those he takes to be the most significant, giving proportionately less space, in general, to others. Such an approach seems logical -- the only problem it presents is the selection of the right artists and the right events.

And most of the book is confined to pivotal events. It begins with the formation in 1877 of the New York Etching Club, whose members were influenced by the "painter-etchers" in France and England. The Americans crusaded to popularize "original" etchings -- etchings as works of art rather than in their usual function as commercial reproductions (photo-mechanical halftones were not yet in use). From this solid beginning Watrous moves ahead chronologically and at some length through Joseph Pennell, John Sloan, John Marin, Edward Hopper and others, then through the regionalists Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, the WPA Federal Art Project and the rise of silk- screen printing. The story continues with the big change following the emigration of S.W. Hayter and his experimental workshop Atelier 17 from Paris to New York at the beginning of World War II, and with the interest in lithography around 1960 stimulated by Tatyana Grosman's Universal Limited Art Editions and the Tamarind Lithography Workshop of June Wayne, Clinton Adams and Garo Antreasian.

These "events" are all pivotal. But Watrous loses critical focus by dwelling at length on the national print exhibitions organized from the 1940s through the 1970s. A few of those shows had historical pertinence, as, for example, Gene Baro's "30 Years of American Printmaking," assembled in 1976 to supplement the Brooklyn Museum's 20th National Print Exhibition. But most often the shows didn't mean much -- they depended upon the willingness of artists to submit work to juries made up largely of professional technicians. Perhaps from a feeling that he should be thorough in his documentation, Watrous devotes many pages of text and numerous illustrations to prints in those exhibitions, particularly to prize winners. Wouldn't it be more important to deal with the best art rather than record the vagaries of conservative juries? Some of the prints selected and honored by prizes were particularly awful, and Watrous wryly notes, "Narrative prints with waggish airs were favored by juries . . ."

THOSE WHO exhibited least frequently in juried shows, it turns out, were painters and sculptors who made prints as a collateral activity. It is not surprising, then, that artists such as Walkowitz, Hartley, Kuhn, Avery, Evergood, Cadmus, Pollock and de Kooning, whose prints rank high on the register of quality, are not allotted a single illustration. Stuart Davis and Louis Lozowick, who produced some masterpieces, are represented by one print each, Davis by a minor one done on the WPA and Lozowick by a lithograph, not one of his best, that happened to win a prize. Contemporaries, including those whose careers go back some years, are discussed with a certain delicate precision; some are underrated, notably Frank Stella, who in recent years has been one of America's most original printmakers. But then the book doesn't come right up to the minute; it ends at 1980 to round out its century of history. One will question, also, the overgenerous representation of certain midwestern artists, even taking into account Watrous' status as Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Wisconsin.

Toward the end, the author takes on the moral issues that troubled the print world in the 1960s and 1970s. Artists, mostly painters and sculptors cashing in on their reputations or acting out of ignorance, signed reproductions made either photomechanically or by craftsmen in workshops. This practice, long typical of the French print market, was the reason for growing demands (by buyers) that the question of what constituted an original print be settled once and for all. Of course the problem was never settled to anyone's satisfaction. Watrous reports on this controversy and others, for what they are worth. One thing becomes certain, that prints are particularly open to debasement when thought of as articles of commerce.

A Century of American Printmaking has its disproportions and will raise some hackles, but everyone interested in prints and the print world should read it. It is a well-made work, not likely to be equaled in its wealth of detail, grandeur of scope and sheer narrative interest.