There is a fascinating cultural breeze riffling through some of America’s most esteemed museums. In February the Philadelphia Museum of Art announced an upcoming exhibition on Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950, which aims “to provoke.” This week, the National Gallery of Art launched its 75th anniversary with the first comprehensive exhibition to survey 300 years of American life, not through art-to-the-manner-born, but through prints—a “democratic artistic medium” that is inexpensive, widely accessible, and easily distributed. xxxxx
Three Centuries of American Prints from the National Gallery of Art draws from a collection that began when the museum opened in 1941; the first print acquired, James McNeill Whistler’s 1894 lithograph “The Long Gallery, Louvre,” was donated by Ellen T. Bullard. As often happens with collecting initiatives, the print collection grew sporadically and at random until the last quarter of the 20th century when, as curator Judith Brodie writes in her catalogue essay, it “grew by leaps and bounds.” From 1,900 prints in 1950 the Gallery’s print collection grew to 12,000 by 2000; in the past sixteen years, the collection has escalated to 22,500.
Right: Kara Walker, ‘No World,’ 2010, from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, etching, aquatint, sugarlift aquatint, spitbite aquatint, and drypoint, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Donald and Nancy deLaski Fund, 2015.
Artistically, the print collection has consistently reflected a dynamic resonance and timeliness, partly because, unlike its collections policy regarding paintings and sculpture, the Gallery has always acquired prints by living artists. Today, contemporary relevance is also emphasized by “a concurrent increase in the number of works by African American and women artists.” (Catalogue, pp 285-286)
Beyond pure aesthetics, this exhibition evokes a cultural narrative of American history. The Gallery argues that because prints “offer us a record of the tastes, ideals, anxieties, and aspirations of their makers and their audiences,” this democratic medium provides particular insight into “how people have responded to the social, cultural, economic, and political demands of their time and place.” And because prints are well-suited to quickly convey images of contemporary events to a wide audience, they have “often been a forum for social commentary or criticism” (Introductory Gallery wall text).
One of the earliest prints is an engraving of the Boston Massacre by silversmith and patriot Paul Revere—a broadside that became a call-to-arms in the Colonies; two centuries later, there is a poster by the undercover feminist collective Guerrilla Girls asking, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists…are women, but 85% of the nudes are female” (Catalogue, p. 267, above, left).
Right: Frances Flora Palmer, ‘A Midnight Race on the Mississippi,’ 1860, color lithograph with hand-coloring, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Donald and Nancy deLaski Fund, 2012.
The exhibition is organized chronologically, beginning with the “Transatlantic Exchange” of the 18th century. British prints were imported for colonial audiences eager to know the latest fashion and trends in painting; American prints flowed back to Britain, where the indigenous peoples and pastoral landscapes sparked endless fascination about the New World. But with Paul Revere’s depiction of the 1770 “Bloody Massacre” in Boston, colonial prints took on a fervent political identity. The next gallery, “Expansion, Conflict, and New Markets,” shows how prints of the post-Revolutionary decades focused on marketing the expanding nation as “a fertile subject for artists who collaborated with explorers and publishers” to depict the West’s possibilities to Eastern audiences. Commercial publishers like Currier & Ives used their new steam-powered presses to mass distribute lithographs of historical scenes, genre pictures, and sentimental vignettes. New magazines such as Harpers Weekly used illustrated engravings of current events, notably of the Civil War, to enhance their circulation.
Left: Mary Cassatt, ‘Woman Bathing,’ 1890–1891, drypoint and aquatint, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mrs. Lessing J. Rosenwald, 1989.
In the second half of the 19th century, “The Artistic Print” supplanted the didactic and reportorial prints that had dominated the market from the Revolution through the Civil War. In London, American expatriate James McNeill Whistler championed “art for art’s sake.” In such works as “Nocturne,” he revived the art of etching, long prized for its ability to convey the immediacy of drawing. Similarly, Mary Cassatt—a financially independent American expat living in Paris—was inspired by Japanese prints and created such intimate prints as “Woman Bathing.”
The next section is devoted to “The Armory Show” of 1913. The American artists whose works appeared in that groundbreaking exhibition—including George Bellows, Childe Hassam, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Maurice Prendergast, Charles Sheeler, and John Sloan—all have prints represented in the Gallery exhibition. John Marin’s “Woolworth Building (The Dance)” conveys the joyful energy of urban modernism, while Peggy Bacon’s “Frenzied Effort” captures the new and independent opportunities opening to women, as depicted in this sketching class at the Whitney Studio Club.
Right: John Marin, ‘Woolworth Building, No. 1,’ 1913, etching with monotype inking, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Avalon Fund, 1981.
The “Looking Up, Looking Down” gallery is devoted to New York’s emergence as the financial and commercial hub of the nation. Soaring skyscrapers contrast with rough neighborhoods, as represented by Charles Sheeler’s “Delmonico Building” and George Bellows’ “A Stag at Sharkey’s.”
The rise of popular culture in the 1920s and ‘30s is conveyed in Reginald Marsh’s “Eltinge Follies” and William H. Johnson’s “Blind Singer,” while the section on “Great Depression and Mass Distribution” illustrates both the impact of New Deal programs for artists and the rise of a significant cultural exchange between US and Mexican artists. The vernacular style became popular, and as Thomas Hart Benton declared, it was a time when art was “not something for the few, but for all.”
Left: George Bellows, ‘A Stag at Sharkey’s,’ 1917, lithograph, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Fund, 1956.
At midcentury, the artistic impact of World War II is represented by artists like Jackson Pollock and David Smith who championed the direct emotional expression of abstraction. There is also a section devoted to “POPular Culture!,” a movement that emerged from commercial art and embraced media-generated popular culture, politics, and current events. Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein adopted “cool” familiar subjects and used the mechanical techniques of newspapers, magazines, comics, and advertising both to subvert tradition and to mirror the realities of contemporary life.
Right: Andy Warhol, Marilyn, ‘1967,’ screen print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Reba and Dave Williams Collection, Florian Carr Fund and Gift of the Print Research Foundation, 2008.
The final section is entitled “Pluralism” and focuses on the post-1960s rise of cultural and artistic diversity. Rather than a single approach, artists pursued an “eclectic, pluralistic spirit.” Among the artists represented are Richard Diebenkorn, Chuck Close, Richard Serra, and Kiki Smith. The exhibition closes with Kara Walker’s “no word” print, which uses her signature silhouette style to depict the transatlantic slave trade, a recurring subject in her work. One fascinating print in this gallery is Martin Puryear’s “untitled” 2001 etching of a curved-back elephantine creature: it catches the eye particularly in its glimmerings of Puryear’s humongous “Big Bling” sculpture that is about to go on exhibit in Madison Square Park (May 16, 2016 through January 8, 2017). “Big Bling” is a multi-tiered wood sculpture wrapped in fine chain link fence, with a gold-leafed shackle—the “bling”—anchored near the top. At 40 feet high by 38 feet wide and 10 feet deep, it is Puryear’s largest outdoor sculpture to date.
Left: Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Sweet Dreams, Baby!,’ 1965, screenprint, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Roy and Dorothy Lichtenstein, 1996. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.
The exhibition catalogue is a superb entity in its own right, with a wide range of nationally-recognized historians and curators contributing essays in categories devoted to “Colonial Era to the Civil War,” “Reconstruction to World War II,” and “Post-World War II to the Present.”
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art and will be at the Gallery in Washington, DC, from April 3, 2016 to July 24, 2016. An international tour is planned to the National Gallery, Prague (Oct. 4, 2016-Jan. 5, 2017) and Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, Mexico City (Feb. 2, 2017-April 30, 2017). The catalogue is available at www.nga.gov/shop
Amy Henderson is a cultural historian in Washington, DC.