Prints have traditionally been the lowest rung on fine art's ladder in terms of status and price. Compared with a painting, the various products of the printmaker's art, such as etchings, woodcuts and lithographs, are relatively inexpensive to make, can be reproduced in quantity and are thus priced lower than one-of-a-kind artworks.
In the 16th century, when etching was developed and rapidly gained acceptance as an art form in its own right, printmaking was also a democratic enterprise. Prints made the work of extraordinary artists such as Rembrandt, indisputably the greatest etcher of all, available to ordinary people.
But in the 20th century, particularly during the postwar era, the printmaking equation has changed, reflecting broader shifts in the technology, philosophy and economics of art. As the exhibition "Sequences: A Collection of Prints" at Numark Gallery demonstrates, the key variables of printmaking--originality, affordability and reproducibility--remain the same, but their respective weighting has changed significantly.
"Sequences" is an impressive show drawn from a portfolio of diptychs and triptychs by an all-star cast of 29 contemporary artists, including Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Dan Flavin, Nan Goldin, Julian Schnabel, Sol LeWitt and Richard Long. Edition Schellmann, one of the world's leading print publishers, produced the exhibition, which premiered last summer at Schellmann's gallery spaces in New York City and Munich. The prints are from an edition of 60 and are of uniform size, approximately 20 by 16 inches.
The idea was to celebrate and explore the concept of the series, which has played such an important role in contemporary art. And the show does that in fine fashion. LeWitt's three woodcuts, titled "Wavy Lines on Gray," exemplify the subtle, lyrical variations that a great artist can create from a handful of flowing curved lines. Bernd and Hilla Becher's black-and-white photographs of blast furnaces in Germany, such as "Hochofen, Ilsede/Hannover," which is reproduced here as a duotone offset lithograph, are also variations on a theme, in this case the abstract shapes and complex systems found in heavy industry.
What the viewer doesn't see are artists exploring printmaking as a medium. Instead, they use prints largely to disseminate the imagery for which they have become known. Rosemarie Trockel is a case in point. She represented Germany at this year's Venice Biennale with an installation that featured a vast video screen showing a person's eyes and a room filled with cots where visitors could nap if they wished.
"Sequences," however, has nothing so bold. Trockel is represented by "Falling Blue, Rising Red," a pair of softly radiant photogravures that look like swatches from pastel sweaters and call to mind the garments and paintings knitted from wool that earned her a reputation as one of Germany's most original and interesting artists. The prints are a lovely and relatively affordable way to acquire some of Trockel's work, but one has to think that an artist of her caliber could really push the printmaking envelope if she wanted to.
For a number of reasons, most big-name artists seem to use limited-edition prints mainly as an entry vehicle for collectors and a means of generating income with a minimal investment of time and labor. In effect, the prints are a form of merchandising. But the modern buyer, unlike his 16th-century counterpart, is no longer paying to own a small piece of the artist's skill as a craftsman.
Since the end of World War II, an artist's ideas, actions, personality and persuasions have come to mean as much or often more than his artistic skill. Christo and Jeanne-Claude are an example of this supremacy of ideas over craftsmanship. The couple didn't actually wrap the Reichstag or set up the "Running Fence, California" that is depicted in this exhibition. They came up with or promoted the ideas, arranged financing, got the necessary permits and organized and supervised the work.
And, like the other artists in the show, they didn't make the prints on display. Master printers in Zurich and Hamburg did the actual production in collaboration with the artists. This is necessary, in part, because printmaking has become technically quite complex. For example, Peter Halley's pair of silk screens, "Somebody, Nobody," are printed in as many as 23 colors and are embossed. It takes a wizard printer such as New York-based Alexander Heinrici to do that.
This doesn't mean that today's top artists are incapable of making prints. But it takes time and effort. Even gifted etchers sometimes find the process of scratching the image onto the metal plate with a needle tricky and tedious. Other printmaking technologies can be just as unforgiving.
In a society where time is so scarce, life moves so fast and the superstars of contemporary art can make so much money from painting, sculpture or installation, printmaking's status isn't likely to change. For people with a decent disposable income, it's an affordable but not cheap way to buy original art by famous artists.
Maybe color printers and digital technology will spark a renaissance, although it seems more likely that they will further erode artists' desire to practice more traditional forms of printmaking. Maybe someday an artist will come along who commands the vision and technical mastery to make prints using the familiar methods that go beyond the status quo, that elevate the art form to a higher level. But don't bet on it. Rembrandt set that bar astonishingly high.
Sequences, at Numark Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-628-3810, through July 30.
CAPTION: Sol LeWitt's woodcut triptych "Wavy Lines on Gray" shows the lyrical variations that a great artist can create from a handful of flowing lines.
CAPTION: Bernd and Hilla Becher's photographs of blast furnaces in Germany include "Hochofen, Ilsede/Hannover."