The Virginia Museum celebrates a print renaissance. 

Fit to Print

The print has often been maligned as the insignificant stepchild in the fine-arts family. One reason for this is the process of printmaking itself. The print or an impression on paper, is less immediate than direct painting or drawing. At least one, and often many more intermediate steps go into completing a print, and, therefore, it seems further removed from the freshness of the artist's mind's eye. Another key aspect of printmaking is that the sanctity of a unique original is compromised because the work can be reproduced numerous times.

But the last few decades have seen a printing revival of sorts where more painters and sculptors have delved into the medium because of its inherently rich prospects. "Print Matters: New Works and Modern Treasures" is an exhibition of modern prints at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from the gallery's own collection. Many of these works, such as ones by Robert Rauschenberg, Jacob Lawrence and Josef Albers, have not been publicly on display for years. In addition, the show includes new acquisitions by Richard Serra, Alison Saar, Chuck Close and William Kentridge.

Significantly, almost all of the 16 artists represented are more commonly known as painters or sculptors. Take Robert Rauschenberg. He began as a painter in the 1950s and then moved into creating assemblages of found objects and photographs. It was only later in the 1970s and '80s that he began to experiment with silkscreen prints and lithography. This seems to be a similar path for many of these seasoned artists. Printmaking, in its multivalent forms, served as a technically exciting process that pushed their ideas beyond self-imposed boundaries.

It is an interesting point, and one this show clearly makes, that it took already established august artists to elevate the print to a higher level — a "renaissance" as the gallery description describes it. Regardless, the typical style of the individual artist can be discerned despite the change of medium. From Richard Estes' photorealist silkscreens, to Frank Stella's minimalist lithographs, to Allison Saar's mythical woodblock prints, the printed form does not eclipse the key characteristics of the respective artist.

Particularly noteworthy is William Kentridge's "Walking Man." A newly purchased work, this South African artist's use of linoleum cut on paper is redolent of the German Expressionist prints of Kathe Kollwitz and Max Beckmann. Employing only black forms on a white background, the large vertical print makes a bold and powerful statement. Similarly, Richard Serra's print, "D.T.E" ("Double Torqued Ellipses"), another recent acquisition, is composed of Spartan monochromatic forms. Known for his large, public sculptures such as "Tilted Arch," Serra here has attempted to capture a two-dimensional view of his sculptures through thick layers of paintstick and crayon. Despite the labor-intensive process of its making (molten paintstick pressed through an aluminum screen onto a copper plate, three hours in an acid bath, and transference to homemade paper), the large impasto black circles loom serenely, Zenlike in their simplicity.

Indeed, many of these prints belie the laborious, multitiered process of their making. Serra's work could have been done more quickly with a thick encaustic directly on paper. Likewise, Rauschenberg's cardboard boxes with meticulously produced screenprint labels could have been more easily been found in a dumpster. Why do these artists take the winding, steep back road when the highway could get them there faster and easier? Perhaps it is because that laborious process that has marginalized printing in the past is now being embraced by artists who find the journey to their finished product more interesting than the final destination.


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