Those who love the graphic arts the subtlety of lithographs, the vigor of the woodcut, the bite of the etched print -- ought to pay a visit to the 1986 Members' Exhibition of the Washington Print Club, now on public view at the National Museum of American Art. Survey exhibitions are often rather dull affairs. This one is a treat.
It teaches useful lessons in how to put such shows together. One: Offer a vast sea of images to choose from. Two: Select a set of ground rules; make them strict but not too strict (this year's show is limited to prints made by Americans, and only those who did figurative art). Three: Give the job of choosing to a skillful connoisseur (in this case Martina Roudabush Norelli of the National Museum's staff), and then turn her loose.
Frances Fralin's searing show of photographs of war was picked in such a way, as was the "Night Prints" exhibition that Ruth Benedict, the Print Club's president, chose some years ago from the huge collection of the National Gallery of Art. Norelli surveyed more than 60 Washington collections before she picked the 70 images on view.
Her exhibit ranges widely. It covers a whole century and surveys various media: lithography in black and white, lithography in color, woodcuts and linoleum cuts, wood engravings, serigraphs and drypoints and many kinds of etching. And yet it is not scattered. It is made of many little shows tied to one another by rich internal rhymes.
One could draw a show of thick-thighed nudes from Norelli's exhibition or a handsome show of show-biz scenes. The latter would include "Tumblers" by Robert Riggs (a 1934 lithograph lent by Leonard Topper); "Star Burlesk" by Reginald Marsh (a 1933 etching lent by Alice and Herschel Horowitz); Yasuo Kuniyoshi's "Cyclist" (a 1939 lithograph lent by Mr. and Mrs. Murray Lebwohl); "Circus No. 3: The Wheels" of 1929, a Harry Sternberg etching and aquatint (lent by David and Eleanor Whitehead); and, if one wants to push the point, George Bellows' "Billy Sunday," a 1923 lithograph (lent by Joseph Chek) that shows the preacher raising hell.
"Pets and Other Animals" might well be the title of a third subshow. This one would include the house cats that appear in prints by Peter Milton, John William Winkler and Peggy Bacon; the tiny, curious mice in Mark Leithauser's 1974 etching (lent by J. Fred Beamer); a Thomas Hart Benton bull; and the striped and white-fanged beast (it's a tiger or a bear) that is dancing, or attacking, in Richard Bosman's color woodcut of 1982 (lent by Joshua P. Smith).
Of all the small internal shows Norelli has arranged, perhaps the strongest is the one that deals with the tough times of the '30s. This would include Mabel Dwight's "Derelicts" (a 1937 lithograph lent by Sherwood B. Smith Jr.); Chet Lamore's "Miners" (a 1934 color woodcut lent anonymously); Clare Leighton's "The Bread Line," a fine wood engraving cut in 1932 (it was lent by Barbara D. Bates); James E. Allen's "Coal Heavers," circa 1935 (lent by Michael J. Ettner); and Albert J. Webb's "Warming Up," a hard-luck urban scene of 1936 (also lent by Ettner).
Though we associate such gritty images with the days of the Depression, such subjects are much older. And they are with us still, as Norelli's show makes clear. She has rightly included a 1918 Martin Lewis aquatint, "Above the Yards, Weehawken" (lent by Richard A. Epstein), and Jacob Kainen's "Pedestrians," a drypoint (lent by Betty Ross) that though made in 1955 harks back to the '30s. Also on display is a Red Grooms subway scene of 1971, which reminds us that Manhattan life, at least life in its subways, is still pretty rough.
Jacob Kainen, who did as much as anyone to encourage print collecting in this city, also is represented as a lender. The rare 1924 Arthur B. Davies aquatint and drypoint he's provided, in some passages abstract, in others almost photographic, is among the most impressive pictures in the show.
Other handsome works displayed include Mary Frank's "Woman With Arched Arms," a 1977 monoprint (lent by Joshua P. Smith); Rockwell Kent's "Self-Portrait (or It's Me O Lord)," a 1934 lithograph (lent by Mona E. Dingle); Martin Lewis' backlit "Shadow Dance," a 1930 drypoint with sandpaper ground (lent by Richard A. Epstein); and Karl Knaths' "Figure in Abstract Landscape," a color monotype, circa 1919-1920.
Norelli has selected many famous artists -- among them Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Mary Cassatt, John Sloan and Rockwell Kent. But she also has selected many unfamiliar printmakers, Louis John Rhead, for instance. Rhead is represented by a lithographed magazine cover from 1895 (lent by Joseph A. Haller). The scene it depicts is both charming and incongruous. A Roman or a Grecian maid is seated on a marble bench paying no attention to the anachronistic boats, 19th-century gaff-rigged sloops, sailing in the distance.
The Washington Print Club was founded in 1964. It now has some 300 active members. This biennial exhibit, the 11th in a series and the seventh held at the National Museum of American Art, does them proud. It will run through Sept. 7.