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Prints With/Out Pressure


When dealer-collector Samuel Putnam Avery established The New York Public Library’s Print Room in 1900 by a major gift, he advised the first curator, Frank Weitenkampf, “It is desired that this print room contain as complete a collection as possible of the results of the graphic arts as practiced in America.” Weitenkampf and successive curators followed Avery’s instructions, and gifts and purchases in the first half of the 20th century represent a virtual history of American printmaking.

Etching dominated American printmaking in the first decades of the 20th century. Until the 1930s most American artists seemed unaware of or indifferent to the earlier innovative woodcuts of Gauguin, Munch, and the German Expressionists, yet by the end of that decade Will Barnet, Louis Schanker, and Werner Drewes had found in the relief print a medium that served their expressive needs and individual “modern” styles. By the 1940s, encouraged by their example and the legitimacy given to the woodcut by the Graphic Arts Division of the Federal Art Project, a number of artists had begun to exploit the artistic possibilities of the relief block.

Woodcut and wood engraving, as practiced with exquisite craftsmanship by Fritz Eichenberg, Lynd Ward, and Grace Albee, were still favored for pictorial book illustration, and for prints commissioned by conservative print clubs and societies. However, from the 1940s through the 1960s the relief print increasingly intrigued artists whose work encompassed a broad spectrum of artistic points of view and styles, including various kinds of realism, surrealism, expressionism, and abstraction. Critics noted that relief prints were growing in scale and painterly effects, the better to rival the power of increasingly monumental contemporary painting. Artists like Leonard Baskin and Misch Kohn, working large wood blocks, tapped the expressive potential of black and white. Milton Avery often limited his palette to black, but then played with the effects possible by varying inking, pressure, and simple color combinations, while Seong Moy, Antonio Frasconi, and Adja Yunkers printed with multiple colors for dramatic impact. Not limited to wood or linoleum, Boris Margo and Edmond Casarella were among those who—inspired by the contemporary innovations in intaglio techniques fostered by Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17, and the technical experimentation encouraged by the WPA workshops—utilized new and nontraditional printmaking materials, including celluloid dissolved in acetone, Lucite, and cardboard.

A survey of the prints added to the Library’s Print Collection in the 1940s through the 1960s documents this renaissance in the relief print: given the breadth and depth of these now-historic holdings, there were only modest gaps to be addressed in recent years. Many of these prints were given by or acquired from the artists themselves at or near the time of creation; others came from a handful of adventuresome New York galleries that dealt in contemporary prints, including Grace Borgenicht, the Contemporaries, and Weyhe Gallery. Some were purchased from the International Graphic Arts Society, an organization that commissioned prints for sale to its membership at modest prices. Still others came to the Library through gift and bequest from Una Johnson, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Brooklyn Museum, who (along with the Library’s then print curator, Karl Kup) championed many of these artists through exhibitions, monographs, and her highly influential Brooklyn Museum National Print Annual Exhibition.

In 1951, in her column for Art Digest, the critic Dore Ashton praised the Library’s “refreshing interest in America’s contemporary printmakers.” This interest, apparent in the selection of American relief prints on view here, is a confirmation and validation of the Print Collection’s long-standing commitment to the graphic arts in the United States.

Ann Aspinwall, Margaret Glover, Nicole Simpson, Roberta Waddell
Staff of the Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs

This exhibition has been made possible by the continuing generosity of Miriam and Ira D. Wallach.

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