The new prints of Franz Gertsch strive for monumental grandeur, but do not quite achieve it. Nine are now on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. They may well be the largest colored woodcuts ever made. They yearn to overwhelm you, but fall a little short. Something in their spirit is picky-picky at its core.

The young women Gertsch portrays wear earrings big as basketballs. Their pretty, staring faces are nearly eight feet high. But the Swiss artist who produced them is a miniaturist at heart.

Gertsch's markings are minute. He attacks his planks of sanded pear wood, of lime wood or of pine, with little sharpened gouges, nicking at the wood until he has produced a million tiny pits -- pits that are as numerous, and about as interesting, as so many Benday dots.

His color range is tiny too. Though his giant portraits march across the wall like vast color-field paintings -- here's a red one, here's a blue one -- they are oddly airy, oomphless objects. Here is young "Natascha" in heavy pumpkin-orange, and here she is again in royal blue, or aqua, or dull tomato-red. Natascha appears seven times. Her expression never changes. Gertsch's pictures feel like monochromes. They feel like photographs as well.

Gertsch is a photo realist. That means he makes slides, projects them onto his wooden planks, and then, with vast precision, copies what he sees.

You'd think he'd find his process unbearably boring, but Gertsch, 60, is a student of Chinese tai-ji, who seems content to nick away, pecking at the wood in Zen-like meditation. His images don't matter much. He might as well be copying blown-up photographs of vases, apple trees or horses. Better European portraitists who do not use the camera -- Lucian Freud, for instance, or Avigdor Arikha -- often let us feel the breathing presence of their sitters. But Gertsch only lets us feel the presence of his slides. Natascha, Dominique and Doris, the young women he portrays in enormous, blown-up head shots, seem to have been chosen only for their prettiness. They reveal nothing of their souls.

Gertsch -- you have to give him this -- is admirably careful. Though his nicks are uneraseable, he avoids mistakes. And he employs the best materials. His vast sheets of heavy, ink-absorbing paper are handmade, of mulberry and linen, by a most accomplished master, one Iwano Heizoburo, who holds the honorific title "National Treasure" in Japan. Gertsch purchases his colors in a small shop in Kyoto, and mixes his own inks.

This, writes Rainer Michael Mason in the catalogue, is how Gertsch makes his prints. First, his hand-nicked wooden block is placed on trestles in his studio. Then Nik Hausmann, an assistant, coats it with wet ink. Then a sheet of paper is placed against the block and rubbed "with the lens of a large convex magnifying glass by a team made up of the artist, his wife Maria, Nik Hausmann, and usually the reptile specialist Juerg Kretz... . In order to annul the specific gestures of each one (circular and/or crossed movements, etc.) the 'printers' relieve each other every quarter of an hour at the sides of the {woodblock}, until all the ink has permeated the paper."

Three blocks are required, one for the "photograph," a second for an overlay that exaggerates the highlights, and a third for the background. It's slow and careful work. Usually the printers pull just one print a day.

The thought of that team hard at work conjures up an image of traditional Swiss watchmakers at their time-consuming business. This one polishes the jewels, this one tightens the steel springs, that one cuts the wheels and the cogs, or puts the parts together. Gertsch may work with pear wood and the finest handmade papers, but his pictures taste of metal. The making of his portraits is like the making of machines.

Most European woodblock prints are the size of pages. These are the size of walls. The roughness of woodblock printing is one of its chief virtues. No wonder the expressionists were attracted to the medium. But Gertsch's hand-rubbed images are not expressionist at all.

It might be said that these vast prints play nice conceptual games. You could argue that they counter the gargantuan with the intimate, color-field abstraction with photographic representation, the scale of the book with that of the billboard, or the look-Ma!-no-hands coldness of photo-realist imagery with the warmth of patient labor. But none of this really matters much. Give me Duerer's woodcuts any day, or Barnett Newman's fields of pure color, or the portraits of Chuck Close. Gertsch's methods feel obsessive. The prints now at the Hirshhorn are numbingly repetitious. When one thinks of all the time and work involved in their production, one wonders why he bothered.

Franz Gertsch: Large-Scale Woodcuts will remain on view through Dec. 16.