TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ago Tatanya Grossman, then 52, lured painter Larry Rivers to the living room of her home in West Islip, Long Island, to make a lithograph. This event has become justifiably famous in the latter-day history of American print-making. It marked the improbable beginning of an outstanding enterprise, Universal Limited Art Editions, which did much to set the tone and standards for the business of artists' prints that burgeoned in the 1960s and 1970s.
To date, ULAE has produced nearly 700 editions by 28 artists. Numbers, however, are not the principal ULAE story. Quality is. Rivers has referred to the "gentle fury" of Grossman's perfectionism, pursued initially despite the apparent handicap of her lack of formal training. (She and her artist husband, Maurice Grossman, had emigrated to New York in 1943 to escape the Nazis; she founded the workshop after he suffered a heart attack.) Critic and print curator Gene Baro has characterized the cottage in West Islip, where the garage was converted into the main work space, as a place where "quality is not so much a credo as a mania."
The anniversary has been celebrated with exhibitions across the land, including a comprehensive show of ULAE's artists' books last spring at the University of California at Los Angeles and smaller ongoing shows at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Locally the Fendrick Gallery, which has handled ULAE prints for many years, has mounted a handsome exhibition of some 50 images, on view through July 31.
Part of Grossman's success is due to the intensity of the collaborative enterprise, and part to the inspired sort of pickiness with which she selected the artists. The Fendrick show includes ULAE prints by Jim Dine, Sam Francis, Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg and Rivers, among others. Dine, Johns and Rauschenberg are particularly well represented.
One of the chief pleasures of the show is to be able to compare again the very different sensibilities that make each of these artists in his way a preeminent graphic artist: Dine the superb technician, celebrating everyday objects, not without a touch of acid; Johns the cataloguer of his own limited set of images, redeemed by an almost excruciatingly exquisite esthetic conscience; Rauschenberg the ceaseless experimenter and inventor of a contemporary iconography that is Whitmanesque in scope.
Simply because many of his best prints are here, Johns steals this exhibition. Probably hundreds of dense texts have been written to explain the allure of Johns' work, which, despite this mountain of exegesis, remains cold, distant and somewhat maddening. The basic question remains, how could an artist be so secretive and so repetitive and still be so good?
"The secret sits in the middle, and knows," as Frost wrote, and maybe, in Johns' case, the secret is enjoying a wicked laugh. But the compelling beauty of the images cannot be gainsaid. As recently as four years ago Johns did yet another version of his famous Savarin can filled with paintbrushes, initially a painted bronze sculpture made in 1960, and the six lithographs in the set are about as good as art can get.
The Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW, is open Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
A certain chemistry must exist among the artworks in a summer group show to make it more than just a happenstance gathering to pass the time. The invited group show at the Foundry Gallery, celebrating its 10th anniversary, is a good example. Because the mixture of works is, in the main, provocative, the show has an extra spark. There's a sort of hidden theme here: Dark grays and blacks (tension-filled boxes by Linda Therne Smith, dense totem-like drawings of shirts by Hugh Williams, hallucinatory architectural drawings by Marilyn Mahoney) play against a most surprising array of colors (dry and brilliant in Marie Ringwald's extraordinary watercolors, soft and giving in a portrait by Virginia Jannotta, hard and glimmering in abstract paintings by Judy Bass).
And there are good things that don't fit the theme: sculptures by Joe Walters, pointedly political (and all-white) ceramics by Bonnie Collier. The gallery, 641 Indiana Ave. NW (second floor), is open from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. The exhibit continues through Aug. 21.