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Gods in the Details

Early American prints from the Mayer Collection



Don't be fooled into thinking the print exhibition at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is just a collection of reproduction art work, although, in one sense, reproduction is what American Prints from the Collection of Jan and Frederick Mayer is all about.

There is an important distinction to be made, however, between the "fine art prints" exemplified by the Mayer Collection and the more generalized prints we see today of everything from Georgia O'Keeffe and Claude Monet to that bunch of cigar-smoking dogs playing poker.

A fine art print involves the artist directly, as he or she uses the particular qualities of a printmaking process -- including lithography, woodcut, mezzotint, etching, drypoint and engraving -- to carry out an artistic vision. It is to be differentiated from generic printmaking, which seeks to copy an original image -- such as an oil painting -- usually without any participation by the artist.

In doing the sort of prints found in the Mayer Collection, an artist would create an image on a stone or plate that could then be covered with ink and used to impart an "original" image onto paper. While this could theoretically be done many times, printmakers normally deface or destroy the plate after a small number of originals have been created, often fewer than 50.

Lithography, which accounts for the majority of the pieces in this show, originated late in the 18th century. The art form went through something of a renaissance in the '20s and '30s, however, owing to an increase in use by newspapers and advertisers. Like today's generic practice of reproducing posters and artwork, printmaking was considered a democratic form of art because more than one person could possess a particular image.

The collection at the Fine Arts Center this month includes 44 selections out of the 150-plus pieces in the Mayer print collection of early 20th-century works. Included in the collection are impressive prints from some of the finest artists of the time. Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Frederick Childe Hassam and Rockwell Kent are all represented here. In addition, there are pieces from lesser-known but equally accomplished printmakers like Clare Veronica Hope Leighton and Martin Lewis.

All of the prints on display are from the '20s, '30s or '40s and are significant in terms of both their artistic and historical value. Virtually all of the prints consider an aspect of rural or urban living, as it appeared to the artist. "The thing that draws this collection together is the quality of the work," said curator Cathy Wright, "and that they are so focused on American life."

A series of lithographs by Benton Spruance, titled "The People Work," gives four separate views of urban activity corresponding to times of the day. Each gives the viewer a claustrophobic feel as the "workers" are portrayed in a crosscut of subways, factories and barrooms reminiscent of an ant farm. Despite the press of humanity and the closeness of the walls of Spruance's industrial world, a feeling of isolation and loneliness still pervades the series.

Thomas Hart Benton's stylized renderings of rural America are as recognizable in print form as they are in oil. Prints like "Fire in the Barnyard" take an anxious look at tragedy in the Midwest. In "The Wreck of the Ol '97," Benton creates a compelling sense of motion as a steam engine jumps the track, spilling its engineer before it. Sitting at the crossing, a wagon of onlookers is drawn into the calamity as their horse rears, tumbling them backwards.

One of the fascinating characteristics of this collection -- and printmaking in general -- is the exquisite detail to be found in many of the pieces. While it is possible to make color prints by repeating the printmaking process with a different hue, each of the pieces in the Mayer collection is black and white. Far from making the genre boring, this seems to have forced the artists to concentrate more on the subtleties of shading and the contrast between light and dark. The effect is a bit like the difference between color and black-and-white photography, with less often yielding a richer and more evocative work.

It is a show that calls for close examination of the pieces and, fortunately, there are no railings or other obstructions preventing viewers from pressing their noses up close to the work. It might even be instructive to bring some sort of magnifying glass to cast light on the technique of several of the artists.

A fine example of this richness of detail is Childe Hassam's etching titled "Lion Gardiner House." In it the artist presents a Dutch colonial home set in a copse of what appears to be mature elms. The detail of the trees and the house is striking but the intricacy of the shadows of limbs as they play on the roof and walls is what makes the print so fascinating. Tiny lines become progressively more numerous and dense as the shadows deepen. The combination of straight and squiggled lines yields a complexity that challenges the eye.

The printmaking medium also suited the architectural style of Howard Cook. His lithographed rendering of the Washington Bridge in the '30s contrasts the angularity of the bridge's support work with the graceful curving lines of the span stretching into the distance. Again, shadow is an important part of the print as distant ironwork twists into tree forms upon the water.

Some of the most richly done pieces in the show are the wood engravings of Clare Leighton. Born in London in 1899, Leighton immigrated to the United States in 1939. Her bold, close portrayals of laborers and their machinery have been compared closely with the "New Objectivity" style.

In her print titled "Threshing," thick smoke from the threshing machine melds into the sky as animated workers caper around and on top of mounds of hay. One laborer tips back a cylindrical bottle in the lower right corner as a more enterprising man wields a pitchfork at the top. All of Leighton's prints use exceptional detail to create an understanding of the American way of life of the '30s.

Wright and Assistant Curator Judith Burdick have done a wonderful job of laying out the history surrounding these pieces in wall placards around the gallery. There is an example of a lithography stone from Colorado College and full explanations of the various printmaking processes available.

This is an exhibition that is as informative as it is enjoyable, representing a complex art form many know little about. If you are already familiar with print work, then you will appreciate the skill of the artists represented in the Mayer show even more. If you are not familiar with printmaking processes, then you will come away with an understanding of a historical art form that is experiencing something of a resurgence. In either case, you will leave this worthwhile show with a better appreciation of early 20th-century American history.

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