Fame, as every artist knows, can be fleeting, if it comes at all. This was particularly true of the generation of American realists, many of them artist-illustrators, who came to maturity just before World War II. By the time the war was over, "illustrator" was a term of derrogation, and art wasn't "art" unless it was abatract, and preferably from Europe.
Traditional American graphics artists were further inundated by a tide of refugee innovators, including Stanley William Hayter, Mauricio Lasansky, Gabor Peterdi, Antonio Frasconi and others. They arrived and revolutionized the American print scene in the '40s and '50s, adding new vitality, new techniques, abstraction, and, most important of all, color.
A fine new show at Jane Haslem Gallery chronicles this shift in fashion from the traditional black and white prints of Martin Lewis, Louis Lozowick, Thomas Hart Benton and others in the '40s, to examples by the innovators who replaced them and ultimately fathered the print boom of the '60s.
Now, of course, resurrecting those forgotten early 20th-century Americans from post-war oblivion has become big business. Two tantalizing examples have just turned up, and tell us almost as much about the resourcefulness of the dealers involved as they do about the art.
Three years ago, Louis Andre, proprietor of Wolfe St. Gallery, 1204-31st St., NW, "got onto Harry Wickey" (1892-1962) through Alexandria print collector David Whitehead, who saw a Wicket etching reproduced in a book, and set out to learn more about him. After a long search, which included placing ads in art magazines and New York newspapers to locate work, a full-scale, museum-quality retrospective of Wickey's etchings and sculpture has now been assembled at Wolfe St. Gallery, and a catalog raisonne is being published. It is the largest Wickey show ever.
Wickey was widely known and much beloved among his New York students and colleagues, but did not have great financial success, in part perhaps because he never painted, but also because of his subject matter - which ranged from the charming barnyard sows he learned to love in his youth in Ohio, to the wrestlers, baseball players, bowery bums in New York City. Much of it was not the kind of art people wanted to take home.
Also, Wickey never worried much about selling. "If they care, they'll find the work," he once said. But it isn't easy. Wickey often pulled only one or two impressions and then destroyed or reworked the plate. His marvelous small bronzes, particularly those of streets women, and mothers and children, are equally rare. "Eleventh Avenue Flapper," surely his masterpiece, seems to have stepped straight out of a Martin Lewis etching, and exists only in this unique example. This show is a rare opportunity to get acquainted with a brand new talent from the past. Through Feb 14.
Another artist who dropped out of sight for many years is Wickey's somewhat grittier and far better known contemporary Robert Riggs (1896-1970). Though they had much in common, including a stay in Paris during World War I, and an interest in the inmates of mental instituitions, it is unlikely that their paths ever crosed. Wickey abandoned illustration early on. Riggs stayed with it to become widely known. A drug company commissioned Rigg's studies "In a Madhouse."
In September, 1937, Life magazine described Riggs as "one of the few men in the country who has won top awards for both commercial and non-commercial art. The flamboyant, 6-foot, 220-pound rehead who kept six pet snakes had just won the prestigious Pennell Medal from the Pennsylvania Academy as well as first prize at the Chicago World's Fair. The similarity of his work to that of George Bellows was made much of, particularly the prize-fight scenes. Those, and his dramatic black and white lithographs of circus scenes and city life were shown at the Museum of Modern Art and at the Art Institute of Chicago. Ad agencies paid up to $600 for a Riggs illustration.
Thirty years later, however, when Bethesda art dealer Phil Desind of Capricorn Gallery found Riggs in Germantown, Pa., the artist was living "in sheer poverty," confined to a wheelchair with an amputated leg. "I hadn't heard of him for year," says Desind. "I assumed he was dead."
Capricorn subsequently gave Riggs two major shows in the late '60s, which proved succesful enough to pay off Rigg's doctor bills and then some. "I want to thank you for all you have done for me," wrote the artist in a letter to Desind in March, 1969. "You save me from the poor house, and I'll never forget it." The next year, Riggs was dead.
Moore College of Art in Philadelphia held a memorial exhibition, but apart from Capricorn's persistent interest, that was the extent of the revival. Capricorn is currently showing a choice, but small selection of Rigg's striking, sometimes slightly surreal, black and white lithographs. It makes one wish for a fuller treatment of this artist, including some paintings, soon.
Perhaps the most acclaimed of all American printmaker-illustrators during the '30s was author, explorer, architect and political idealist Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), who illustrated or wrote over 200 books. His reputation waned only briefly during the McCarthy era, when he was called to testify before Congress in connection with alleged Communist sympathies. He was given the Lenin Peace Prize in 1967.
An avowed socialist, Kent's "Workers of the World, Unite!" is among 50 of his best known wood-engravings and lithographs currently on view at the Bethesda Art Gallery. I have never found Kent's prints very interesting, except for his self-portrait, but I am obviously in the minority. His fans are legion, and his market strong. There is even a publication called "The Kent Collector" which, incredibly, has been pusblishing bi-monthly since the 1930s.
Though the "Five plus One" show at the Corcoran last year failed to make the point, Ann Purcell's current solo at Pyramid clearly establishes her as a strong and able abstract painter. Working in a mode that crosses color painting with abstract expressionism, Purcell manages to combine bold forms with delicate color to achieve moodt abstractions. Though Purcell's facility sometimes leads her into a certain Frankenthaler-inspired "stylishness," the work, in the end, is too attractive to argue with.
Gallery Arts, Inc., which opened in November, upstairs at 3017 M Street in Georgetown, is showing recent work by New York artist Carole Clark Stein.
Stein makes collages, the largest and least interesting of which are constructed from squares of color-stained canvas which are then glued, in a grid pattern, to a large piece of unstretched canvas. Offering more to look at, however, are the small collages made from cut-up reproductions of famous works of art. This work has its charms, and the idea has possiibilities, but they have only begun to be explored here.