Too many works of abstract art, even deeply moving ones, seem a little mute. Those of Irwin Kremen -- on view through March 25 at the National Collection of Fine Arts -- are remarkable exceptions. There is a song within them, a contrapuntal music, evocative, elusive, delicate and distant. In them one perceives high intelligence at play.
Kremen makes collages. He says he "paints with paper" and with "bark, seeds, ashes, Styrofoam, electrical tape, paint, rust, sandpaper, wire, felt... wasps' nests, Plexiglas" and more. A professor of psychology at Duke University, he is, with this exhibit, "going public" as an artist. His work is very good indeed.
His designs are not informal. His collages, with their subtle and subtly contradicted parallels and grids, might well appear chic were they not so small. Most of them are tiny, no larger than your palm. They also are protected from too much refinement by the strains and cracks and fadings of the weathered papers that he lovingly collects from kiosks, lampposts, walls.
He studied at Black Mountain, as did Rauschenberg and Noland. His good friends include dancers Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Though he teaches in the South, good ole boys may find his work a bit hoity-toity, perhaps too European. Like the painter Robert Motherwell who, in his collages, eschews Lucky Strike and Camel packs in favor of Gauloises, Kremen flirts with affectation. The words and bits of words one reads in his pictures usually are Italian or French.
His titles, too, seem slightly arch; "Tegna III," "Eo Ipso," "Dalle Mura di Roma III." But his beat-up bits of paper lend his little pictures a refreshing tartness that balances their sweetness as well as a virility that holds their prettiness at bay.
The oldest of these works was made when Irwin Kremen was already 41. No youngster could have made them. One feels years of thought behind his fine and refined art.
The Kremen show was organized by Janet Flint, the NCFA's curator of prints and drawings. She also is responsible for "Gabor Peterdi: Forthy-five Years of Printmaking," which will be on view there through April 29.
Kremen has but one technique: He attaches papers. Peterdi has engraving, etching, drypoint, many more. "I can say without much exaggeration that I have made prints with practically every known process in graphic art."
Peterdi, who was born in Hungary, has, for nearly 20 years, taught print-making at Yale. His works drone on a bit. They are a little too insistent. "Look at this technique. and this one, and at this one, too," they seem to say. His pedantry dilutes the passion of his art.
Peterdi is at his best when he confronts nature, "the flowers of my garden, the arid rocks of the West, the sea, the sun, the wind and the rain." When he no longer concentrates on etching baths and metal plates, when he sees "Angry Clouds," winter snow drifts, weeds or the surf of the "Pacific," his hand seems to dance as if to a sort of wild music rarely heard in school. Peterdi has made more than 300 prints. At one time or another most of them have been exhibited in Washington at Jane Haslem's gallery, 2121 P St. NW.