At 85, Werner Drewes doesn't waste time being polite. He'd rather be in his studio than chitchatting about his retrospective at the National Museum of American Art, and he'll tell you so.
"I don't think there's ever been a day when I didn't paint, draw or make prints," he says, hands stacked impatiently on a gold-topped cane -- his only concession to age. This day will be no exception if he can help it.
It is by no means his first retrospective -- or even his first show at the National Museum of American Art. There have been dozens of exhibitions over the years -- and over the world. But "Werner Drewes: Sixty-Five Years of Printmaking," with 110 woodcuts, intaglios and lithographs, constitutes the most complete survey of the 750 black-and-white and color prints he has produced since his student days at the Bauhaus, running up through work produced last year in his Reston studio.
The show also sketches out a remarkable life in art. A pioneer abstractionist, Drewes has been part of some of the greatest art movements of this century, from the Bauhaus in his native Germany -- where he studied with Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky -- to his immigrant years in New York, where he was a founding member of the Abstract Artists' Group in 1937.
Technical supervisor for the New York WPA Graphic Arts Project, he also worked in etcher Stanley William Hayter's famed Atelier 17 when it was transplanted to New York from Paris. When La'zlo' Moholy-Nagy set up the new Bauhaus in Chicago, Drewes was there. With the death of Moholy-Nagy, he went to teach at Washington University in St. Louis, where he remained for 20 years and remarried after the death of his first wife. After retirement, the family settled first in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and in 1972 in Reston.
Though world-shaking fame has never overtaken him, Drewes has always survived, made a living and built ever-widening respect for his work over his long career. "I was lucky," he explains. "I learned to like teaching. After all, I had three boys, and they all wanted to be educated." Survival thus guaranteed, he could do as he liked in his art.
An inveterate traveler since his youth -- when he and his first wife circled the globe from Spain to Latin America, the United States, the Orient and back to Germany on the Trans-Siberian Railroad -- Drewes has been exploratory in his art as well. Never settling upon a single style or medium, he has always felt free to switch back and forth from recognizable imagery (always with an expressionist twist) to total abstraction, examining various degrees of semiabstraction in between -- in painting, watercolor and collage as well as prints.
Thanks to a sensitive and telling installation by curator Martina Norelli, the show makes this point early on by juxtaposing two prints made in 1929 -- a drypoint of Marburg and an etching of Frankfurt -- each landscape done in a very different style. In the 1930s, after his arrival in America, he continued to make the method fit his mood, creating slashing, semiabstract woodcuts that reflected the high drama of the changing New York and Chicago skylines as skyscrapers and bridges sprouted. In 1944, in one of several oblique references to Nazi repression, came the dramatic portfolio of 10 total abstractions titled "It Can't Happen Here," said to be among the first wholly abstract prints made in America. They were made, says Drewes, "in praise of freedom, and of a place where abstraction was permitted -- if not welcomed."
Since then, the variety has continued, but with new concentration on color woodcut abstractions like "Warm Emphasis," in which emerges his special gift -- tutored by Kandinsky -- for using abstract forms and colors to conjure specific feelings. As winning, however, are the recognizable landscapes and works such as "Still Life With Eggplant," rendered in rich, deep purples, and chiseled from a block of wood with all the intensity of sculpture. Drewes says he has no preference as to medium. "In the early years, when I was an architecture student in Berlin, I made woodblock prints to keep alive and show my travel impressions. It was very common in those days, and you didn't need a press."
But woodcuts are clearly the medium in which he has produced his strongest work. "I like to cut," he admits. You can tell that in the four self-portraits, made over the decades, which introduce this show. Carried away with the sheer pleasure of carving, he wickedly exaggerates his own aging process, while capturing the intense face, the pursed, sensuous mouth, the shock of white hair.
Three paintings are also on view, representing the 1,000 he has made, but they lack the power and finesse of his graphic work. Of recognition, Drewes says, "I can't complain -- so far as the prints are concerned. But not in painting. I never really had the opportunity to show them."
This is not a flashy show, but then Drewes is not a flashy artist, and the rewards are quiet and intimate. "I never felt very gifted," says Drewes. "And I don't think I am -- I mean in the same way as Picasso, who was a child genius. But you want to do certain things, so you work on it."
Drewes continues to work on it -- every day -- with results that equal and often surpass in expressive power anything he has done before. "I'm especially pleased with this room filled with new work," he says. He has good reason to be pleased: one of his most recent prints, "Tilting Power," has just been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. It is among several of his prints showing concurrently at the Bethesda Art Gallery.
The show at the National Museum of American Art comes from its own extensive collection of Drewes' work, and will continue through Dec. 24. It is accompanied by a fine catalogue, as well as an illuminating videotaped interview with the artist, produced by the Greater Reston Arts Center.