Los Angeles

Picasso Prints, Albers Lithographs

Printmaking has provided Picasso with as potent an auxiliary medium as drawing, collage, sculpture, and writing. At once peripheral to the main core of painted production—oils producing the major motifs for graphic reproduction––his prints are also essential to these theses, and, at their most concentrated, high caliber individual statements.

The sequence of sixty years of work in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition impresses by its staggering volume. Through some 540 examples, less than one-fourth his total production, a clear comprehensiveness of the broad range of differing techniques is achieved. Beginning with the first etchings, drypoints, and an engraving of the Blue, Rose, and Cubist periods, continuing on through the isolated woodcuts of 1905–06, the first lithographs of 1919, the etched book illustrations and suites, the attempts with aquatint in the mid ’30s, the first linoleum cut of 1939, the extensive use of aquatint sugar-lift from the 1942 Buffon animal series, fully half the show is taken up with the total involvement with lithography dating from 1946, and the full exploitation of linoleum cuts from 1951 and 1959.

Disappointingly, to judge solely from a scant panelful of a bare dozen sparse, light, and tidy examples, Cubism could be incorrectly but still easily dismissed as an aberration from Picasso’s main intent—the depiction of a morphology and mythology of human and animal forms. Cubism of course supplies the system of intellectualizations controlling and correcting each turn of the line and each arbitrary placement of tone. Cubism is the inspiration and the rationale for the distortions, rearrangements, and multiplications of forms. As well, Cubism provides structure; a mode of subdividing the picture surface and for unifying the composition.

Whereas Picasso’s paintings from 1920 to 1940 moved from a lumbering neo-Classical to a curvilinear Surreal or metamorphic style, his gravures maintained a designed and abbreviated classic drawing style for nearly as long a period. Individual prints with themes of the Graces, bathers, toilettes, mothers and children, and the series of artists and models for Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece (1931) are incisively accurate. The volumes are described in a flowing single weight contour which blends spontaneity and clarity. The complicated overlaps of the thirty Metamorphoses illustrations appear to be fully realized before their actual execution or are an amazing performance in a complex additive process, one stroke begetting the next. This latter series is remarkable for the shifts in anatomy, expressive and distorted, but fully creditable and handsomely recalling their Greek prototypes.

The Vollard Suite of one hundred prints (1930–37), concentrated between 1933 and 1935, comes at a particularly crucial period. Immersed in sculptural activity, the prints deal primarily with relaxed but highly ambiguous situations involving a model, a sculptor, and a sculpture. This subject for a figurative artist represents the eternal triangle of the source, the medium, and the creation, as though Picasso were working out in visible form the interchangeable nature of these relationships. To be noted in these suites is the gradually increasing role played by the bull and the Minotaur as protaganists in varying dramas of creation, sensuality, destruction, and abandonment. Bullfights appear more frequently, specifically the bull attacking a horse, and then ridden by a subdued female matador, a theme related to the rape of Europa. In the last of the Vollards the sculptor’s place beside the lounging model is taken by a Minotaur, who later is seen in dying positions, or makes other appearances as that in the unusually dark The Blind Minotaur Led Thru The Night, and again ominously threatening in Minotauromachy, regarded as Picasso’s single most important print.

The violent imagery continues and intensifies in the double comic strip attacks, The Dreams and Lies of Franco and the Weeping Woman (1937), related to Guernica. The nightmare malaise and the creatures created, not by the sleep of reason but by tapping of the subconscious, are turned to social statements. They set a standard for the depiction of personal as well as universal outrage and grief, and reduce the socially conscious attempts by others to mere narrative and illustration.

Picasso’s post-World War II production of lithographs, the broadly handled brush or the spontaneous crayon doodle usually replacing the structural line, are less high in quality but not uninteresting. The subject matter is isolated and casually chosen. In treating multiples of objects or figures the compositions are slack if not random. His wholehearted pursuit of extremes of line thickness and quality and value orientation produce a characteristic shock which, once recognized as the master’s touch, holds little further attention. In view of the artist’s advanced age, to say that the last twenty years offer restatements but little cohesion or innovation is not a condemning evaluation but simply an observation. Woman in an Armchair, Head of a Young Woman (1947), Head of a Bull Turned to the Left and Black Figure (1948), David and Bathsheba (the fourth and seventh states, 1947–49), The Toad and Woman in an Armchair, No. 1, From the Red Plate (1948–49), represent fewer than a dozen prints of some one hundred and fifty that rise to the height of “memorable” over and above “the characteristic.”

To be considered all the more amazing is his recovery of strength in the progressively recut (by himself) and multicolor linoleum prints. The largest and most complex group deal with the iconic double-viewed female head in tans, brown, and black, and those with rather piercing color. Several, of matadors, seen previously, locally, are sorely missed. The shapes are bold, knitted solidly together, marvelously twisted and decorated. Here the false moves are fewer and the number of successes higher. They supply a more fitting capstone to the monumental career of the most innovative graphic giant of our century.

The newest lithographic sets of Josef Albers continue the ever-constant, ever-changing suspensions of the Homage to the Square. The Squares are as final and closed a system as the Targets of Johns and an exact opposite to the open nature of neutral and regular apertures their vaguely referential arrangement suggests. The core is solid, inert and intense. The frames contain this center, sealing it hermetically as much as they radiate energy outward. The sensation is of flow and return, pulsation and recharge, a system of perpetual motion and continuous fluctuation. The attention is held predominantly at the center, and (the artist is correct) the work of art looks at you. With variants of the simplest shape, Albers has infused a seemingly static arrangement with meaning by recognizing that equality of surface tension can produce an energizing disequilibrium having a highly iconic character.

Shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before the exhibition’s international circulation, the prints again call attention to the masterly printing work attained by Kenneth E. Tyler and the craftsmen of Gemini Ltd. It is instructive to observe, from the accompanying display material (grid and pattern layouts, color samples and proofs, and cancelled plates) that the artist denotes the center square as “A” and the subsequent frames “B” and “C” out to the edge, and that the plan is transformable to a set of dots on graph paper indicating the corners of each shape and division. Though alternately ambiguous visual readings are possible, the placement then of the center upon a vertical axis is revealed as the controlling device. The economical use of the graphic marks indicates a method of reductive thought, as well as clearly relating to Albers’ experiences in the reproduction of his work on a commercial basis and its execution by others. His industrial design experiences at the Bauhaus and later mural commissions point up the working out of visual sensations in manufactured materials and industrial processes. In the 1920s for instance, he was totally occupied by the creation of stained glass windows, glass paintings, and later a sandblasted treatment of this substance. His didactic, exhaustive, and carefully gauged investigations into the relationships of line, shape, and color, certainly of transparency and opacity, can be attributed to his instruction and creations during this period. The preferences in his architectural projects for glass, brick, marble and metals like stainless and tooled bronze, and the use of the palette knife to produce a uniform textural surface in his paintings reflect a striving for the permanent at an austerely aristocratic level. His is opulence achieved through the refined treatment of hard and/or durable materials. Precision of idea must be equaled by precision of craft.

The three variants include for the first time in Albers’ work a white line (the unprinted and exposed paper) contained within one of the three differing color areas. The effect of the linear division is to produce the sensation of two close colors where only the single one exists. This Albers accomplishes to the extent that the color assumes a darker or lighter nature when compared with its neighboring sequences. The range of colors extends through either a value gradation from dark to light, through an analogous sequence, or in fewer cases, from a “pure” color to a mixture with its complement. The sequence is therefore clear in its graduated steps, but not predictably so; or relatively close in value, achieving a richness of saturation. Offhand the effectiveness of the line is more easily observed in the former clear step series. (One is forced to hedge, for the plexiglass-covered prints were directly facing a gauzy curtained floor-to-ceiling window. It may just be that the works deserve a better location than a hallway.)

A pronounced and unavoidable fluting illusion––the optical lightening of the edge of one color boundary when against a darker color––appears in several. The intense color chromas, too, come as a surprise, particularly the magenta version, in the light of Albers’ subtle, overlapping transparencies of greys and yellows in the previous Day and Night (1963) and Midnight and Noon (1964) suites. Though recognizing their differences, the White Line Suite almost ranks with its predecessors as equal if not superior to the best of his oils.

––Fidel A. Danieli