"Robert Natkin: Prints and Painted Prints," the little exhibition that goes on view today at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, never shocks the viewer. But it showers him with pleasures. Natkin's wholly abstract pictures -- with their dapplings of subtle light, fogs of textured color and many sweet surprises -- are as busily melodious as a day in early spring.
Natkin is perhaps best known for his large and luminous color field paintings. (One is at the Hirshorn in a gallery nearby.) But here he's represented by two sets of lithographs, some of which he has painted over and totally transformed. There are 26 pictures in this show; all of them were made in the last three years.
These are not challenging, demanding or major works of art. They are pictures for the hedonist, more pretty than profound. One should look at them unhurriedly, as one might view the drift of clouds or the flow of wind through grasses, for their beauties unfold slowly. They urge the mind to reverie and suggest the pace of daydreams. Some of them, the darkest ones, have the colors of the night; others suggest sunlight muted by moist mist. Natkin likes to sprinkle them with unexpected accents -- a little snakelike squiggle, a row of colored dots, a fingerprint, an oval, a lazy figure 8. Those little marks refresh. One notices them suddenly as one might the song of some unseen bird.
Scholars will find none of these pictures entirely original. They suggest too many precedents -- the early Cubists; pointillism's colored dots; the marching bands of color employed by the stripe painters; Hans Hofmann's floating squares; Jules Olitski's atmospheres and his hand-brushed edges; and other sources, too.
One can only guess at how these works were made. Natkin seems to have applied his thick acrylic paints and lithographic inks not only with the brush, but withbits of cloth: cloths with open weaves, dish towels perhaps, or swatches of old tweed, or old sleeves torn from sweaters. One looks into his colors as one might look into the sunset through a series of screen doors.
Though Natkin, 50, was born in Chicago and trained there at the Art Institute, his work shows no trace of the eccentricity of so much Chicago art. And though he moved to New York many years ago, his non-electric colors never call to mind that city's shadowed darkness. These are not urban pictures. With their many hidden treats, their floral hues and twinklings, they are landscapes of a sort. Their modesty compels. One suspects these prints and painted prints would be a treat to live with. They will remain on view through June 14.
The Hirshhorn, in conjunction with "Egypt Today," is also showing 13 little statues by Mahmoud Moukhtar (1891-1934), Egypt's best-known modern sculptor. These smoothly modeled images of water carriers, maidens and Egyptian fellahin date from the 1920s and the early 1930s, and reflect their time. They are symmetrical, formal, streamlined; their style is one-half Old Egyptian, one-half Art Deco. Moukhtar was born to a peasant family in a Nile delta village, but spent 10 years in Paris and was awarded prizes there in the French salons. He seems to be a sort of academic nationalist.His small and handsome show will close April 26.