PRINT January 1981


American Prints and Printmakers: A chronicle of over 400 artists and their prints from 1900 to the present

Una E. Johnson, American Prints and Printmakers: A chronicle of over 400 artists and their prints from 1900 to the present (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, 1980), 366 pages.

We have a strong literature of technical how-to books on prints for the artist and the student with many contemporary works reproduced and some examination of how they were made, but not how they came to be made. We have monographs and notes or essays in exhibition catalogues. At the Brooklyn Museum, Gene Baro’s 30 Years of American Printmaking (1976) went beyond most catalogue efforts. At the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Riva Castleman’s 1980 “Printed Art: A View of Two Decades” (the 1960s and ’70s) includes some Americans, but is focused on an international scene. A connoisseurship of the prints of major 20th-century American artists is developing, but there have not been enough scholars to put together a broad literature of American prints.

Una Johnson has taken a giant leap forward with American Prints and Printmakers. She has staked out the ground, chronicling the period of 1900 to 1975. Her book is a compendium of biographies, a modern Lives of the Artists that traces various art movements, the development of the modern print workshops and comments on individual prints. There is an enormous amount of detailed information, but the clarity of her writing style and the interest she evokes make the book accessible to the general reader, as well as the scholar. The book has a large format with a generous number of black-and-white photographs and color plates. I could quarrel with some of the print selections; for example, a little Elie Nadelman drypoint is enlarged too much and badly cropped, but on the whole, the book is of high quality. Johnson’s words do not shy away from negative appraisals or sharp insights into the lives and works of the hundreds of artists she describes. It is a herculean task made possible by her long career as a noted scholar and print curator. Artists looked to her over many years for her “National Print Exhibition” series at the Brooklyn Museum.

This needed text may yet become a battleground. Artists in the East cannot understand why so much space is given to artists who live across the Hudson River, but artists from “out there” say thebook is Eastern establishment. Academics have said that the book is not complete enough for the scholar. Market-tied curators and dealers feel that not enough space is given to “name” painters who make prints, and that too much space is given to the art of regional printmakers. One artist told me that there were too many short biographies (though he did not suggest that his should have been cut).

Without other books on the subject, too much is demanded of Una Johnson. To imply that the book is filled with second-rate artists criticizes the American print scene more than Johnson’s choices. She searches out threads of development, and makes her judgments regardless of publicity given or withheld from the artist. A progression of art events comes through accurately from the welter of individual appraisals. Well-known printmakers such as J. A. M. Whistler, Joseph Pennell, John Sloan, Edward Hopper or Stanley W. Hayter are given only a little more space than lesser-known artists, as is Una Johnson’s practice with the artists of the ’70s.

Forty-five women artists are included,from all periods. Too briefly dealt with are the WPA artist workshops and the development of print workshops in America. When Johnson writes of regionalist art, she characterizes it “as a faint echo of the Mexican achievement.”

The section on the 1940s and ’50s begins with the most charismatic and significant printmaker of the time, Stanley W. Hayter. There was a very strong Surrealist impact on New York in the ’40s. Artists arriving were Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, Matta, Joan Miró, Kurt Seligmann and Yves Tanguy. Most had been involved with Hayter in Paris. Jackson Pollock worked at Atelier 17 in New York in 1944–45; Hayter’s powerful, abstract line engraving must have been attractive to him. Louis Schanker began teaching woodcut at the New School in 1940 alongside Hayter’s intaglio shop. Woodcuts grew in size and color in the work of Leonard Baskin, Antonio Frasconi, Worden Day, Seong Moy, Carol Summers and Adja Yunkers. Hayter’s intaglio print revolution was carried on by his students, Mauricio Lasansky, Gabor Peterdi and Karl Schrag, through a further generation of printmakers and the wider circle of painters and sculptors. Hayter’s linear esthetic gave way to a more painterly experimental esthetic and a return to lithography in the ’60s.

Johnson writes a chapter on innovative uses of print, especially three-dimensional sculptural relief effects. Various embossing techniques are used in a dramatic sculptural way by Omar Rayo and a raised linear series by Josef Albers. The metal collage prints of Rolf Nesch and the plaster relief prints made at Atelier 17 were adapted by John Ferren, Louis Schanker and Michael Ponce de Leon.

Professional graphic workshops blossomed in the ’60s and ’70s along with the growth of the print market. The new technology was built on the old. The ’60s growth in lithography began with June Wayne’s Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles and Tatyana Grosman’s Universal Limited Art Editions on Long Island, but there were many other shops. The Abstract-Expressionist artists turned to printmaking in the ’60s, as did the younger Pop and Op artists.

Johnson quotes Dine: “I make prints because it is another way of talking . . . Prints are the reason for some of my paintings. Lithographs take enough time, more than anything else I do, so that they make me think about everything.” In the 1960s and ’70s, prints became a major undertaking of the “major” artists. This phenomenon ran across movements. The American print workshop became a powerful machine, waiting, suggesting, soliciting action from all artists. Sophisticated print publishing groups developed networks of gallery outlets; prints became “things” in which to invest. The growth in the teaching of printmaking made print a part of the vocabulary of many of the younger-generation artists.

Una Johnson’s print chronicle ends in 1975; it has little to say about monotype, papermaking and artists’ books, the fastest growing areas of the last five years. The most striking aspect of the book is Una Johnson’s vision of the print field. Her scholarship does not distinguish between the famous and the obscure. She gives attention to the unfashionable, and only gives as much space to well-known artists as she feels they deserve. This major text should encourage others to add to its scholarship. It is a handsome, intelligent book.

Robert Broner teaches at Wayne State University and is an artist and printmaker.