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American Screenprints celebrates the art form



At the Museum of Fine Arts

through Sep. 29.


THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS' exhibition American Screenprints: 1930s-1960s traces the history of the artistic screenprint from its modest beginnings in the Great Depression-era government-funded artists' workshops to its glorified use in the Pop Art Sixties.

The American artistic screenprint developed in the 1930s as a response to the French pochoir, a favored watercolor and stencil process of the Art Nouveau era and the Art Deco Twenties which enabled artists to achieve more vibrant colors. Watercolor stencil prints, such as William Hentschel's fanciful "Pink Fish" (1930), and Konrad Cramer's pochoir prints, "Vase of Flowers" (1935) and "Still Life" (1935), are included in this exhibition to show the influential roles these early forms had on the development of the silkscreen print.

In 1932, Guy Maccoy, a former shower curtain printer, made the first artistic screenprints. Screenprints were ideal during the Depression because materials were cheap, equipment was portable and the prints could be done in the artist's own studio. Eventually, Maccoy, along with his wife, artist Geno Pettit, would criss-cross the country selling prints from their trailer home. However, it wasn't until Anthony Velonis established the Silk Screen Unit of the Graphics Section of the New York City Works Progress Administration Art Project (WPA) in 1938 that the artistic screenprint burst into full bloom. Generally, the WPA followed stencil prints in trying to create the illusion of watercolor or oil paintings, sometimes even using heavily textured paper to resemble "painterly" impasto@#@#yes, this is a real word. it means the "painterly application of layers of pigment." --debby (and I did have to look it up, so don't feel so bad.). Henry Shokler's half-nude, "Katherine" (1941), is a good example of a painting-life print.

Louis Lozowick was first to make a screenprint for the WPA. His only screenprint, "Roofs and Sky" (1939), portrays a landscape with a futuristic tower, the Empire State Building and a factory. Most prints of the late Thirties and early Forties, however, were socially charged or had a populist flavor in their images of typical city or country scenes. Hyman Warsager, a WPA artist, shows the Civilian Conservation Corps at work clearing a beach in "Gathering Logs" (1938). WPA artists Elizabeth Olds in "Dead End Beach" (1940) and Harry Gottlieb in "The Old Quarry" (1939) communicate the idyllic playfulness of country life, while Leon Babel's "Balcony" (1938) and Leonard Pytiak's "Standees (Garbo and Gilbert)" (1940s) depict crowds at mass entertainment centers in cities.

Anthony Velonis shows a lovely city night scene in his "6:30 PM"I know it's not style, but it's the title. --debby (1938) and demonstrates the versatility of the pro-film stencil method with a tree's intricately detailed branches. Elizabeth Olds' great satirical piece "Adoration of the Masters" (1940) shows people standing in stark awe while viewing Botticelli's "Venus on the Half-Shell."

Artists in the Forties typically veered away from the popular Depression-era colors of dark green, dark brown and grey, choosing more vibrant colors, particularly reds. Harry Gottlieb's color variations

on "Untitled (Military manoeuvers at an abandoned mine)" (1940-1942) move between fiery reds and more muted hues. Brilliant colors light up the skies in Bernard Steffen's "Dawn Confab" (circa 1940).

The Fifties gave way to Abstract Expressionism and a preference for calligraphic black and white patterns and monochrome. An odd collection of squiggles and blotches compose Konrad Cramer's "Guitar" (1949). Ben Shahn's black and white "Peterson" (1953) was inspired by William Carlos Williams' poem of the same name and his "Lute and Molecules No. 1" (1959) has ball-and-stick chemical molecules floating around a huge distorted lute. Edward Landon's "Hall of Giants" (1950s) is in typical black and white, but his "Hall of Fame" (1951) explodes with color. Other works are more surreal, engaging in copies of the same image across the print, as in Joe Jones' "Headlights and Taillights" (1950s) or in "Architectural Cadences" (1954) by Charles Sheeler.

The Pop Art Sixties revolted against the all-too-personal nature of Abstract Expressionism and revelled in the banality of mass media and advertising. Artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Edward Ruscha, among others, exploited color for the maximum potential. Ruscha's "Standard Station" (1966) in stop-sign red demonstrates the classic irony and ambivalence towards American society typical of Pop Art. Curator Clifford A. Ackley comments on "Standard Station," asking, "Is it an icon of the glories of American progress and laissez-faire economics set against a golden sunset glow, or is it a symbol of greed and economic exploitation seen against a backdrop of deadly smog?"

Two prints from Andy Warhol's iconic "Marilyn" (1967) are also included in the exhibit. One glows in hot pink, magenta and yellow while the other, in contrast, is black and grey. Robert Indiana's simple print "Love" (1966) is familiar from its jaunt onto stamps several years ago. Roy Lichtenstein's experimental contributions, the iridescent photosilkscreen print "Shadowplay" (1967) and his shadowy "Untitled (Still Life with Glass and Sandwich)" (1964), are absolutely astounding.

Other works seem more like modern paintings, such as Josef Albers' "SP-III" (1967) and "SP-V" (1967), a series of monochrome squares nestled inside each other. Jackson Pollock's "Untitled" (1951) is a reproduction of his painting entitled "Number 22."

American Screenprints: 1930s-1960s, 72 prints in all, stands as a remarkable tribute to an art form which has become such a great part of popular culture today.