Printmaking explored: The American Dream

 

The British Museum is exhibiting recent additions to its print collection that celebrate contemporary innovations in the medium.  ‘The American Dream: Pop to the Present’ presents a rich display of different US artists’ work from the last half century, beginning with the expected Warhols and Rauschenbergs before turning to the experimentations of Conceptualists and Minimalists – and also engaging with the political and social use of printmaking.

The range of techniques is fascinating and impressive.  Alongside the instantly recognisable ‘Flags I’ (above, 1973) by Jasper Johns – though here in screenprint form, using thirty-one different screens to create a pseudo-painterly effect – Jim Dine’s series of etched Paintbrushes (above, 1973) are more subtle, but full of charm with their dancing bristles against an ink spattered background that epitomises the debris of the creative process, the artist’s studio.

Ed Ruscha’s slick and witty screenprints – such as the iconic ‘Standard Station’ (above, 1966) – and his lithographs ‘Made in California’ and ‘Ooo’ which experiment with dripping pigment onto the stone plate to create colour saturated words in space, comment on the advertising and consumerism of sixties California.

The woodcut or linocut may seem a more primitive printing method in comparison but the results are no less distinctively modern.  Wayne Thiebaud’s ‘Gumball Machine’ (above, 1970) celebrates another ubiquitous Amercian consumerist icon, while further on in the exhibition Vija Celmins’ ‘Ocean’ (below) – a woodcut which took the artist a year to create – is so accomplished that one has to peer closely to convince oneself that it is not a photograph.

Beyond the minimalism of Donald Judd et al, we return to figuration and an interesting series of portraits by Chuck Close who experiments with paper pulp in his portrait of Keith Hollingworth (1981); the features are formed from a grid of small round pieces of dyed paper pulp in varying shades of grey.  A similar technique is used in ‘Phil Spitbite’ (below, 1995) – a portrait of composer Philip Glass – with the squares of the etched grid each filled by spitbite aquatint.  Another portrait of Keith, ‘Keith/mezzotint’ (1972), reinvents the antiquated method of mezzotint, rarely used since the 19th century, which involves rubbing back or burnishing the light areas from a textured (and therefore ink-holding) metal plate. Close was so pleased with the cumulative effects that this technique revealed that he allowed the grid guide to remain and this fed into his later work.

The accidental, revealing the hand of the artist or the flaws in the materials, was embraced by others too; indeed, ‘Accident’ (below, 1963) is the title given to one of Rauschenberg’s famous lithographs displayed here.  Producing some of the largest ever single plate lithographs – notably his magnificent ‘Booster’ (1967) and ‘Sky Garden’ (1969) – his ambition at one point got the better of him and the lithographic stone broke in the printing process; Rauschenberg not only made this a feature but even added some stone chips at the bottom to exaggerate the effect.

What impresses elsewhere – in the massed ranks of Marilyns or electric chairs by Warhol as well as in the careful, pale geometricism of Josef Albers (below) – is the exceptional choice of colour juxtaposition.  For all their brazen simplicity, the effect is striking, beautiful and perfect.

The second part of the exhibition addresses the political, both serious and satirical, from Jim Dine’s photo-etching with stencil colour ‘Drag – Johnson and Mao’ (below, 1967) to Warhol’s green-faced portrait of Richard Nixon above the scrawled incentive to ‘Vote McGovern’ (1972) and the feminist and race-related statements of Ida Applebroog, Kara Walker and Louise Bourgeois, among others, all making a powerful, unmistakable statement in the most simple pictorial terms.

The final gallery attempts to bring us up to date – most successfully perhaps by reintroducing Ed Ruscha, whose 1960s screenprints summed up the optimism of Pop Art and the American Dream.  Here, ‘Standard Station’ reappears, this time drained of colour, a simple embossed white image, a ghostly shadow of the high hopes of yesteryear.  Accompanying this are a couple of rusty signs riddled with bullet holes (‘Dead End 2’, 2014) – in fact they are mixographia prints on handmade paper, another extraordinarily effective technique – that seem to spell out the disillusionment in Trump-era America.

For prints currently for sale – including woodblock prints, etchings, aquatints and pochoir prints – please visit: https://www.kittyhudsonart.com/prints-1 

 

Mayfair Meandering: Avigdor Arikha and Keith Arnatt

Self Portrait hand on head 2003 drypoint

Midway between lunch in Soho and Green Park tube I detoured down Albemarle street on a gallery trawl.  My first port of call was Marlborough Fine Art, where I found a retrospective of Avigdor Arikha’s paintings and works on paper dating from the mid-1960s until his death in 2010 (‘Self-Portrait Hand on Head’, drypoint, 2003, above).  The gallery represents the artist’Samuel Beckett Seated, etching, 1972s estate and has curated a concise exhibition representative of the many different mediums and subjects that attracted Arikha after his return to figuration in 1965.
Having begun as an abstract expressionist in the 1950s this was quite a sudden about-turn, which is attributed to the artist’s friendship with Giacometti whom he met after settling in Paris in 1954.  Certainly Arikha’s etchings and drypoints reflect something of Giacometti’s austerely monochrome style with their layers of nervously jagged marks creating tight and psychologically penetrative portraits.  Robert Hughes described Arikha’s works as having an “air of scrupulous anxiety”.  The adoption of printmaking went hand in hand with Arikha’s return to figuLe Pain 1976 etchingration, as if in turning away from the abstract he felt the need to turn away from the loose painterly qualities of oils to in a definitive and decisive manner. Looking back on his abstract period, Arikha recalled “I was quite successful as an abstractionist. But I started painting my own set of forms over and over again. Finally, it repulsed me.” His portraits – mainly himself, his wife and his great friend Samuel Beckett – are precise, with an intimacy and directness that makes one feel almost uncomfortable (‘Samuel Beckett Seated’, etching, 1972, above right).
Alongside these are studies of trees and flowers in soft drypoint or sugar lift aquatint, and still lifes such as ‘Le Pain’ (etching, 1976, above left) or a pair of shoes that in their isolated centrality seem to deserve the status of ‘portraits’ too.

Jerusalem Bread 1981 oil on canvas

Trees at Evian 1997 Sumi ink

Orange tie folded 1975 watercolour

By the early 1970s, Arikha began painting again, but continued to experiment with different materials.  The greater part of the hang alternates his charcoal drawings – soft, loose, expressive but ascetic portraits – with drawings in Sumi ink, paSleeping nude and indian rug 1985stels and oils that range from the human figure to still life and studies of natural forms (‘Jerusalem Bread’, oil on canvas, 1981; ‘Trees at Evian’, Sumi ink, 1997; and ‘Orange Tie Folded’, watercolour, 1975, above; and ‘Sleeping Nude and Indian Rug, 1985, left).
All have a contemplative stillness that turns the trivial – a piece of toast sitting on the grill, a jacket carelessly strewn or a glimpse through a doorway – into something abundant in meaning.  These are almost surreal in their awkward simplicity, their latent anthropomorphism, speaking of a wealth shared history with poetic concision.

A dead leaf 2002 - pastel on board

A little further up on Grafton Street Spruth Magers is showing the photographer and conceptual artist Keith Arnatt. ‘Absence of the Artist’ focuses on Arnatt’s work between 1967–72, key years in which modernism began to be replaced by a more sceptical post-modernist ‘dematerialisation’.  For Arnatt, at the forefront of this movement, this took the form of site-specific or time-based performances, which he recorded by means of photography.

KAR_Install_Absence_of_the_Artist_SML_2015_08

As the title suggests, Arnatt’s work questions the role of the artist. “He thought there was a governing idea of art as driven by a central figure – the artist – and he was interested in what happened if you made that person disappear,” explains Matthew Arnatt, the artist’s son.  This is explored in literal terms in ‘Self Burial’ (1969, below) in which a sequence of nine photographs documents the gradual disappearance of the artist into the ground.

self burial 1969Arnatt wrote of this:

An interest in illusion (and delusion), in the sense of creating a false impression runs throughout much of my work. For example, the ‘Self Burial’ photographs create the illusion that something is happening to me’

‘… it is true to say that the apparent absurdity, or silliness, of Self Burial is an important part of what I liked about it … And I also rather liked the slightly Chaplinesque quality of the photographic sequence— the fact that it shows me just standing there whilst something quite alarming seems to be happening to me (a metaphor for my condition as an artist?).’

A Line Made by Walking 1967 Richard Long born 1945 Purchased 1976 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P07149

A self-parody-cum-postmodernist-critique perhaps – but with a good dose of self-indulgent wit. A more interesting investigation of illusion and perception is ‘Mirror lined pit (grass bottom)’ and its companion piece ‘An invisible hole revealed by my own shadow’ (1968-9) which trick the eye, the ‘invisible absence’ of the pit only revealed by the artist’s shadow, which is yet another absence. Performance art – by nature transitory and preserved only through photographs and documentation – gained status during the 1960s and 70s, and Arnatt’s work is closely related to land art such as Richard Long’s ‘A Line Made by Walking’ (1967, above left). In this photographic piece the artist, though absent, records his physical presence within the landscape.  It was a radical new approach and hugely influential in expressing contemporary concerns with impermanence, motion and relativity.

Keith Arnatt ~ Art as An Act of Retraction (Eating His Own Words) -3

While Long’s work is ultimately reflective, and expresses a quietly powerful, elemental dialogue between man and nature, Arnatt takes radical ‘dematerialisation’ to ridiculous levels.  ‘Is it Possible to do Nothing as my Contribution to This Exhibition?’ is a perverse and pointless pseudo-philosophical text. However, on the adjacent wall hang a series of eleven photographs representing Arnatt eating various bits of paper (‘Art as an Act of Retraction’, 1971, above right); the final frame contains the words in list form: ‘Eleven Portraits of the Artist about to eat his own words’.  Perhaps a repentant acknowledgment of the lengthy and pretentious tract…

Absence of the Artist 1968

As a photographer, Arnatt’s talent is undoubted.  And he is at his best here in the witty, quasi-surreal images that hark back to the visual puns of Rene Magritte, such as the eponymous ‘The Absence of the Artist’ (1968, above) – a sign bearing these words, pinned to a stone wall – and ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self’ (1969-72, below).

Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self 1969-72 Keith Arnatt 1930-2008 Presented by the artist 2000 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T07647

The show is sparse.  In fact, any fewer works and it would hardly justify the title of exhibition. Perhaps this is standard for the presentation of ‘conceptual’ art?  But, having first come across his work at The Photographer’s Gallery exhibition in 2007, which considered his later career from 1972-2002, I have always considered Arnatt an inspiring photographer, and while interesting in revealing his early work, this display did not do justice to his considerable talent in this field.