What is most distressing about "Recent American Etchings" at the National Collection of Fine Arts is the way these prints were chosen. Big names rule this show.
It might well have been called "Fashionable Etchings." Minimalism is represented; so, of course, are pop art, California funk, late abstract expressionism, photo realism, etc. We know that Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, et al, are admirable artists who deserve their reputations, but must we see their pictures gathered once again?
This is, in short, the sort of conventional survey that the National Collection has avoided in the past.
The show was picked by Richard S. Field of Wesleyan University. Field has discovered what he calls "a new etching revival," which he dates to the late '60s. Artists not well known, and those who specialize in printmaking, have been excluded from his show in order to admit a number of good painters who've made etchings once or twice.
He calls them "the new etchers." For once he's on the mark. Again and again he reminds us he is showing relative beginners: "In prints, (Chuck) Close has been virtually inactive . . . Robert Cottingham has not had much experience with etching . . . Robert Mangold's involvement with prints has been very limited . . . It is not surprising that (Bruce Nauman) has only executed a handful of prints . . . Prints have occupied (Robert) Ryman on only one occasion . . . (Cy Twombly's) two etchings of 1967, released in 1974, seem to be his last."
Field's catalog irritates. He tells us he has excluded "photographic imagery," though the prints deny that. He writes that Helen Frankenthaler "influenced virtually every serious painter of the 60s," as if that gross exaggeration need be stated once again.
A few works here are minor, both as art and etchings (the Mangold, the Lee Bontecou, the Rymans), though many others are first-rate. Jasper Johns as seen here is wonderful again, the Cottingham is strong, Oldenburg appears at his witty best. This show is far from ugly, but, despite its beauties, it is diminished by its dreary chic, its exclusionary tone. It continues until March 20.