It’s a print: PAM peeks inside the studio

The art museum takes a fresh and lively look at printmaking and the artistic life

 

Roy Lichtenstein, "Brushstrokes," 1967, screenprint, Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer, Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein, “Brushstrokes,” 1967, screenprint, Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer, Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Over a lot of years of dropping in regularly at the Portland Art Museum I’ve learned always to sneak a peek down the stairwell just past the entrance lobby of the main Belluschi building, at least to see what’s behind the glass shelf on the landing halfway down. Three or four pieces are usually on display there, teasing to whatever show happens to be in the lowslung galleries below, and they seem to know a sucker when they see one: they almost always lure me down. There’s something just a little secret about these galleries, which many visitors never even notice as they stride past on their way to the “big” shows in the special-exhibition galleries above. Yet some of my most rewarding moments at the museum have been down these stairs, in the calm of these intimately scaled spaces, which feel more domestic than grand: move in a few pieces of furniture, carve out a kitchen corner and a little bathroom, and you could call it home.

Chances are good that the exhibits you find down here will consist of prints or drawings, often but not always gathered from the museum’s Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, which is one of the museum’s best. That’s the case with the current show, through May 19. “In the Studio: Reflections on Artistic Life” is a selection of 66 prints drawn mostly from the Gilkey collection but also from private collectors including Jordan D. Schnitzer and Hannah Mangold, and in a few cases, loans from commercial galleries. All 66 deal with the intimacies of artmaking, from a quartet of Picasso artist-and-model pieces to a liberal selection of satiric works by the likes of Honore Daumier, Warrington Colescott, and the ever-puckish Red Grooms. The oldest work, a Daumier litho, is from 1846, and the exhibit works its way up in time to a handful of still-active artists, from Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg to Oregon veterans Jennifer Guske and Frank Boyden.

Raphael Soyer, "Young Model," 1940, lithograph, unnumbered edition of 250. The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection.

Raphael Soyer, “Young Model,” 1940, lithograph, unnumbered edition of 250. The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection.

The trio of self-portraits on the stair landing do an excellent job of forecasting the pleasures to be found downstairs. Rene Georges Hermann-Paul’s 1895 litho “L’Artiste” is almost like a carnival barker drawing in the crowds: red hair and beard, clown-like, strutting, full of vim and vigor and maybe just a little snake oil. Imagine Toulouse-Lautrec doing a circus poster. George Grosz’ 1919 etching “Selbstportrait (fur Charlie Chaplin)” is as busy as a theater boulevard yet intriguingly more discreet than the swaggering Hermann-Paul. And William H. Berkeley’s 1950 “Engraver Engraving (Self-portrait)” is compact and flowingly efficient, a few quick curving lines suggesting a figure hunched intently over a table.

I’ve been attracted to prints (and good posters, for that matter) for as long as I can recall, partly because of my fascination with the look and feel of paper and partly for democratic reasons: I like the whole concept of multiples, the idea of a lot of people experiencing or even owning a single work of art. I like that in spite of their multiplicity, prints tend to be part of a private conversation, modest in size, just right for personal contemplation. I like that a print can subtly change during its press run, and I’m intrigued by the complex dance that artistic quality, edition size, and economic worth do around one another. I like that printmaking requires both artistic impulse and meticulous craftsmanship, and that printmakers think in reverse. I even like that artists can decide, by creating monotypes, to follow through on all of the demands of the craft and yet subvert its intention by creating a singular work. Mostly, though, I like that printmaking tends to be built on the practiced magic of the line, which through most of history has been the fundamental first step in making art. A drawing is often provisional: it can be a study or a quick idea or a completed work of art. A print, in a weird way, is a more fully committed drawing. It requires a complex mechanical process, and if you’re going to go to all that trouble a line had better mean what it says.

“In the Studio,” which is chosen and shaped by Mary Weaver Chapin, the Portland museum’s curator of graphic arts, swings easily between subject and technique. Working in rigorous and realistic but definitely not photographic detail, Erik Desmazieres celebrates the machinery of printmaking in a pair of prints from 1992 and ’93: they’re almost steampunk in their caress of gear and metal. And Arshile Gorky’s 1931 litho “Painter and Model (The Creation Chamber)” – one of a very few print editions he created – mixes muse and artist so completely that you can’t really tell which is which. It seems a paean to the intimacy that binds artist and sitter in the studio, both essential to the creation of the art.

Frank Boyden, "Uncle Skulky is overcome as he leers at an exquisite exhibition of an old friend," color drypoint and spitbite with graphite, pencil, and watercolor; artist's proof aside from the edition of 14; gift of the artist to the Portland Art Museum in honor of Jean Vollum.

Frank Boyden, “Uncle Skulky is overcome as he leers at an exquisite exhibition of an old friend,” color drypoint and spitbite with graphite, pencil, and watercolor; artist’s proof aside from the edition of 14; gift of the artist to the Portland Art Museum in honor of Jean Vollum.

The relationship between artist and model is very different in a trio of nudes by Philip Pearlstein, from 1976 and 1978, that seem both the most and least intimate of the show’s studio pieces. Pearlstein and his models hide nothing, but the effect is almost clinical: these are morose nudes, frank yet demystified and desexualized. They’re a far cry from the subject of Raphael Soyer’s small and lovely 1940 lithograph “Young Model,” a scene from the back in which she sits straight-shouldered on a chair and begins to undress. The captured moment crackles quietly with anticipation and sensuality.

Few artists have ever mastered the line as well as Picasso, and the four prints here, completed between 1927 and 1968 and all showing artists and models colluding in the studio, are notable for both their economy and their quietude. They’re the antithesis of action painting, and yet embedded in their stillness is an almost bursting desire to move. Best leave the action, then, to Grooms, the rambunctious pop artist represented by five works from the Schnitzer collection, and to Action Jackson Pollock himself. Three of the pieces are Grooms’ 3-D lithos, like canny overgrown pop-up-books, depicting artists at work, including 1997’s “Jackson in Action,” based on one of Rudy Burckhardt’s 1950 studio photos for Time magazine that firmly planted abstract expressionism in the public mind. In it, Pollock, looking a little like a sailor in the chorus of “On the Town,” bends over the canvas dripping paint while a photographer stands atop a stool snapping pictures. Jackson’s a blur, moving so fast he seems to have two heads and six arms. The details are terrific, from a little skull on a shelf in the background to a Maxwell House Coffee can jammed with paint brushes in the foreground.

Charles-Francois Daubigny, "Le Bateau-Atelier" ("The Studio Boat"), 1861, etching. The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection.

Charles-Francois Daubigny, “Le Bateau-Atelier” (“The Studio Boat”), 1861, etching. The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection.

Grooms’ pieces are part of an invigorating subcategory of satiric and parody works on the artistic process, including a full corner with half a dozen masterful caricatures by Daumier. In one, critics and viewers at the Salon appear to be viewing with alarm Manet’s scandalous nude “Olympia,” which Daumier doesn’t show: It’s reflected only in the shocked looks on the visitors’ faces. The exhibit includes nine comic pieces by Warrington Colescott (Robert’s older brother), several of which provide a wry overview of the history of printmaking (Wagnerian gods and lightning bolts seem to have something to do with it), and one of which – 1991’s “Judgment Day at NEA,” an expansive caricature of selectors at the National Endowment for the Arts viewing projected slides of artworks – suggests that the days of the Salon making and breaking careers just keep on keeping on.

It’s good, too, to see a pair of Oregon artist Boyden’s prints of “Uncle Skulky,” his unleashed and thoroughly impolitic skeleton alter ego, who inevitably yields to his most venal of impulses. In one, “Uncle Skulky is overcome as he leers at an exquisite exhibition of an old friend” (2003), a jealous Skulky sees red over the profusion of “sold” dots on the gallery walls.

Still, “In the Studio” strikes me mostly as a reflection of the fusion of art and craft in the making of an industrious and personal way of life. And from that point of view the most telling work may be Charles-Francois Daubigny’s hushed and exquisite 1861 “Le Bateau-Atelier (The Studio Boat).” A small and private etching, its image just a little more than 4 by 5 inches, it depicts with great detail an intimate and cozy interior space carefully ordered with necessities from stretched canvases to a lantern and a frying pan. The river is suggested softly beyond the window, from which a suffusing light breaks through. The artist, alone in his studio, leans forward, brush in hand. He is intently at work.

Warrington Colescott, "Judgment Day at NEA," 1991, soft-ground etching, etching, aquatint and marbling, a la poupee inking and relief rolls through stencils; edition 13/20. Gift of the artists to Portland Art Museum.

Warrington Colescott, “Judgment Day at NEA,” 1991, soft-ground etching, etching, aquatint and marbling, a la poupee inking and relief rolls through stencils; edition 13/20. Gift of the artist to Portland Art Museum.

 

 

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One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I spent an hour with this show on Tuesday, and intend to return more than once before it closes, particularly to look at the Daumiers, but also Colescotts and yes, the gem of a Soyer and the Picassos. The theme attracted me, the studio, having spent a substantial amount of my childhood in the very different studios of my painter grandfather, posing reluctantly for many portraits, and my father, whose studio was in actual fact the living room of our apartment on Waverly Place. The “bateau l’atelier” in the show most closely resembles my grandfather’s and I was reminded that Monet also had a “bateau l’atelier, which was anchored on the Seine.
    Daumier was a profound influence on my father; he did a small painting of the audience at a bullfight, showing their reactions but not the action going on in the bullring and we used to play a game on the New York City subway of identifying Daumier faces in our fellow passengers.
    So I love the show, and I love Bob’s insightful and informative take on it.

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