"I have carved a series of 24 woodcuts this winter," wrote painter Max Weber in 1920 to his colleague William Zorach. "The average size is small, about 2x5 inches . . . toward the last few my eyes began to hurt."
"My God," Zorach replied; "they can enlarge any one of your woodcuts a hundred times and have a great sculpture!"
Zorach was right. Weber had produced a series of tiny woodblock prints that were monumental in form, despite their minuscule size. Filled with allusions to the primitive art Weber so admired as a student in Paris, the images are among the highlights of the illuminating show of 105 Weber prints opening today at the National Collection of Fine Arts.
Though best known as one of the first American painters -- with Arthur Dove, John Marin and Mars -- den Hartley -- to bring Cubist and other avant-garde ideas to New York before the 1913 Armory Show, Max Weber (1881-1961) also explored various printmaking media, and produced during his lifetime 100 graphic images, most of them woodcuts and lithographs. "Max Weber: Prints and Color Variations" proves them to be at least as original and inventive as his paintings.
Prints are generally used to produce multiple images, but Weber used his to produce single images, each a variation on subjects such as Mother Love, Reclining Figure, Feast of Passover or Meditation. A profound spiritually, the result of his Jewish, Russian-immigrant background, pervades much of the work.
In each case, Weber applied the color to the block with his fingers, and a single impression was made. Sometimes he printed more than once on the same piece of paper, superimposing one color upon another; sometimes he turned the block 180 degrees and printed again, producing a patterned effect. The result is often a surprisingly broad range of mood and impact.
For example, an image printed in black, "Crouching Nude Form" of 1911 appears as a stark line drawing, very different in effect from the rounded, sensuous figure produced by a multi-color impression from the same block in 1928. Weber often reprinted earlier images, notably in a suite of 43 prints commissioned by Abby Aldrich Rockfeller in 1928, now housed at the Museum of Modern Art and on loan here. The Rockfeller variations are among the most beautiful he produced.
It is amusing to note that Webster carved his first set of woodblocks in 1919 out of the sides of a basswood box that had contained honey, a gift from them are all shown side by side in this fine installation. Organized by guest curator Daryl Rubenstein; the show also marks the publication of her catalogue raisonne of Weber's prints just published by the University of Chicago Press. The exhibition continues through Oct. 5.