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Preview: “Nightfall: Prints of the Dark Hours” at VMFA 

A deverse new print collection explores the feelings associated with nighttime

click to enlarge Realist American painter and printmaker Edward Hopper’s etching “Night Shadows” (1921) features a single figure walking in the middle of a New York street at night.

Realist American painter and printmaker Edward Hopper’s etching “Night Shadows” (1921) features a single figure walking in the middle of a New York street at night.

It was December 1974. Gerald Ford was in the White House, Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” was on the Billboard top 10 and a young Seagram Co. executive named Frank Raysor bought his first batch of prints at the Sotheby Parke Bernet gallery in New York.

For $200, the budding collector, born and raised in Richmond, bought a mixed lot by artists he’d never heard of. “This was in the days before the Internet,” he recalls, chuckling, “so I had to use the Encyclopedia Britannica to find most of the artists’ names.”

Priority one was building a solid print reference library to begin training his eye to become a better connoisseur. “I knew nothing about prints,” he says. “I needed a catalogue rainsonné of artists I was interested in so I could select with knowledge of their work.”

Early on, he didn’t have the goal of displaying the prints. Pieces were randomly hung in the hallway of his New York apartment until it was covered. Subsequent purchases never saw daylight. They were immediately stored in closets, then in boxes, under beds and finally in 1996, in the adjoining apartment purchased solely for art storage.

Despite an uninformed start to diving into the fine art print pool, Raysor managed to amass more than 10,000 original prints. They span five centuries in all major printmaking media from Europe and the United States. Today, that collection resides at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Part of the beauty of such an extensive collection is the curator’s ability to create exhibitions focusing on a particular artist, period or theme. “Nightfall: Prints of the Dark Hours,” the latest installation, pulls mostly from Raysor’s holdings, demonstrating how artists employ a range of printmaking techniques such as mezzotint, etching, engraving, woodcut and lithography to render contrast between light and shade, as well as the atmospheric effects of light.

“It’s a poetic show about feelings, not thoughts,” says curator Mitchell Merling while he makes his way around the gallery. “You’re plunging into the night and coming out at the end. You experience some of the night with the artists.”

The exhibition explores nocturnes — images that evoke the night — such as luminous apparitions of the divine, dazzling pyrotechnic displays, lamp-lighted urban streets and twilight’s diffused glow over the natural landscape. Conveying a sense of darkness while drawing in the viewer requires techniques that have intrigued and challenged printmakers for centuries.

Merling hopes that the broader theme of night will appeal to more than just print devotees. “Everyone knows nighttime. You cuddle in it, you walk through the woods in it, you lie drunk in the street in it. … If you’re 21 and over, of course.”

Arranged thematically, the show moves through the threshold of light and dark with religious processions, contrasts of large and small, images of lanterns and depictions of loneliness.. Merling achieves some clever pairings, such as two fireworks scenes, one from 1650-’51 and another from 2007, both evoking the same sense of wonder. Many of the artists may be unfamiliar, but there are enough marquee names — Rembrandt, Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent — to satisfy the art curious.

For a local angle, look no further than Virginian Craig McPherson’s stunning mezzotint, “Yankee Stadium at Night” from 1983, on loan from the artist. Fittingly, the show closes with Frank Short’s “Sunrise o’er Whitby Scaur” because, according to Merling: “You’ve got to end with this, a ray of hope. We wake up after the night.”

Raysor, with his hard-earned and specialized knowledge of prints both in and out of his collection, relishes working with Merling on these exhibitions.

“It’s because of Michell’s voracious enthusiasm. It would not have been fun to park my collection in a basement and do nothing with it,” Raysor says. “I’m very fortunate my collection is in a place where it’s actively and energetically exploited.” S

“Nightfall: Prints of the Dark Hours,” through Feb. 22 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard. For details call 340-1400 or visit vmfa.museum.

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