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A Century on Paper: Prints by Art Students League Artists 1901-2001

 

On view through June 21, 2002, A Century on Paper: Prints by Art Students League Artists 1901-2001 provides a generous sampling of works by major graphic artists associated with the League, including John Sloan, George Bellows, Will Barnet, Harry Sternberg, Martin Lewis and Robert Kipniss.

The exhibit also displays some recently recovered prints by League instructors and students from the first half of the twentieth century. A trove of portfolios, packed with prints and drawings from the 1890s-1960s, was discovered in early 2000 in a long-forgotten closet at the school. These included prints by students of Joseph Pennell in the 1920s, Depression-era works by Barnet, Sternberg, and Philip Evergood, and an early silkscreen by Louis Schanker. (left: Howard Cook (1901-1980), Manhatten Bridge, 1930, woodcut, 17 1/2 x 8 9/16 inches, Courtesy of The Old Print Shop)

Assembled from the League's permanent collection, with loans from individuals and print dealers, the exhibit presents works by artists who taught or studied at the League, as well as those who made significant numbers of prints after studying there. The exhibition is arranged chronologically, revealing stylistic and technical developments over the course of the century, and offering an overview of American social and cultural history as seen through artists' eyes.

Since its inception in 1875 as a democratic collective of artists, the Art Students League has employed renowned professional artists as instructors, including William Merritt Chase, Paul Manship, Reginald Marsh, Hans Hofmann and Jacob Lawrence. Modeled after the 19th-century French atelier system, the League grants teachers creative autonomy in their studio classrooms, allowing students to enroll with instructors of their choice. The school's list of renowned alumni includes Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Cadmus, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollock and Roy Lichtenstein.

Early Years and Ashcan Influences

One of the nation's first etching classes was established at the League in 1907, at a time when few formal opportunities to learn the craft existed in this country. In 1922, Joseph Pennell, known as the "dean of American printmakers," set out to build a graphic arts department at the League. Within two years, as a result of his efforts, students could study etching, lithography or woodblock. Internationally honored for his etchings and lithographs, Pennell is represented in the exhibit by The City, Evening (1909) a mezzotint that typifies the views of Old World cities favored by collectors early in the century.

American printmakers soon replaced landscape and genre subjects with a focus on the contemporary human scene. John Sloan's etching Connoisseurs of Prints (1905) humorously captured the spectacle of a gallery opening, with wealthy collectors inspecting works on display. Such images offended academic art circles and announced a shift to the candid treatment of urban subjects that would earn Sloan and like-minded artists the label "Ashcan School." George Bellows, who taught painting at the League, also cast an unflinching eye on contemporary life. In The Murder of Edith Cavell (1918), he dramatized one of the traumatic events of the First World War. Cavell, a Red Cross nurse, was executed for aiding the Allied cause in Belgium, in spite of the care she gave to German soldiers. Bellows spotlighted the young woman descending a staircase of a military prison to meet the German firing squad waiting below in the shadows. By the 1920s, artists such as Howard Cook and Kenneth Hayes Miller were documenting the decade's prosperity in prints of ambitious building projects, busy shops and frenzied nightlife. League print instructor Eugene Fitsch reflected the excitement generated by the new "talking" movies in his Broadway Night - John Barrymore in Sound (1929).

Depression-Era Works

One of the pillars of American printmaking, Will Barnet, arrived as a young student at the Art Students League at the dawn of the Depression in 1931. Hired as the League's professional printer in 1935, he later taught graphics and then painting at the school up until 1978. One of the recent finds at the League was an early student work by Barnet purchased for the school's collection, Fulton Street Fish Market (1934). This lithograph of long-skirted woman at a fishmonger's stall recalls another time in New York and speaks of Barnet's keen interest in Daumier's work.

Another major printmaker of the Depression Era, Harry Sternberg galvanized generations of aspiring printmakers with his passion for social issues and a rigorous approach to graphic work. A teacher at the League for decades, Sternberg inspired young artists like Blanche Grambs and Charles Keller to address themes such as the nobility of labor and the despair of unemployment. Sternberg's 1935 serigraph, Steel, captured the epic scenes he witnessed on a year-long sabbatical spent with the coal miners and steel workers of Pennsylvania. One of the recently recovered prints, Steel suggests the de-humanizing aspect of industrial labor in the robot-like appearance of its figures. Sternberg's interest in the life of the American working man led him to join labor struggles for fair treatment while using his art to depict abysmal workplace conditions. (left: Harry Sternberg (1904-2001), Steel, ca. 1935, silkscreen, © Estate of the Artist, Collection of the Art Students League of New York)

Birth of Abstraction

At mid-century, many printmakers were exploring abstraction, as reflected in Dorothy Dehner's engraving, Montebanks with Charms (1955), in which figures are reduced to elegant geometric forms. Terry Haass, who studied at the League in the late 1940s, is represented in the exhibit by an elaborate, abstract etching superimposed with printed cutouts. Concurrent with these developments, Social Realists such as Reginald Marsh continued their prolific careers. One of the League's most prominent instructors in the 1940s, Marsh was known for his New York City scenes. In his engraving of two young women dressed for a day at the beach, Marsh conveyed the breezy summer weather rustling through their hair and clothing. Also on view from the 1940s is a rare, untitled lithograph by noted sculptor and printmaker Louise Bourgeois. Will Barnet printed several lithographs for Bourgeois, who was enrolled in a League painting class at the time. Drawing with a crayon on the lithographic stone, Bourgeois portrayed a woman seated at a desk in a room enlivened by patterned walls and shadows playing across the floor. An open door reveals a dog resting outside. The image suggests a sense of comfort and perhaps the tension between the creation of art and the distractions of the outside world.

Decades of Upheaval

League-affiliated artists who registered the violence and moral issues of the 1960s and 1970s are also represented in the exhibition. Sigmund Abeles etched a searing protest in his Gift of America Series #3: Vietnam with Helicopters and Kids (1967). The devastation and panic of war emerge as helicopters advance and a crying child's face is framed in the crosshairs of a gun. Famed woodcut artist Antonio Frasconi, whose work has often focused on injustice, addressed the controversial handling of prison riots in Law and Order - Attica (1971).

Robert Rauschenberg commented on society through its news headlines and photographs in a work like the silkscreen Surface Series from Currents (1971), also on view. The print reflects his groundbreaking work in collage and the Pop Art interest in mass media. In the 1960s and 70s, artists like Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist, who is represented in the UBS PaineWebber exhibition by Star Towel Weather Vane (1977), often introduced painterly techniques into printmaking, working with master printers at specialized workshops such as Tamarind and Gemini G.E.L. Garo Antreasian, one of the key figures at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, studied for a summer in the late 1940s with Will Barnet at the League, and his untitled, hand-painted abstract lithograph is included in the exhibition.

Recent Works

A current instructor at the Art Students League, Michael Pellettieri took a rooftop vantage point and portrayed the structural patterns of city buildings under snow in Winter '78 (1980). The scene has an extreme quietness about it, with snow falling softly and a lone tree struggling to survive the winter amidst the tightly packed buildings. Prints by recent students Rica Bando, Masaaki Noda and Maki Hino display outstanding work in the diverse media of lithography, silkscreen and mezzotint, underscoring the breadth of disciplines and creative persuasions at the Art Students League. One of the most recent works on view is a brilliantly colored abstract etching by master printer Bob Blackburn.

The exhibition culminates with nine prints by past and present League print instructors that make up the school's Twenty-First Century Print Portfolio. The collection commemorates the League's 125th anniversary in 2000 and includes recent prints by Will Barnet, Harry Sternberg and Michael Pellettieri. Also represented are Robert Kipniss, whose haunting mezzotint Illuminata (2001) depicts a forest of slim, leafless saplings shining through the darkness, and William Behnken, League instructor and president of the Society of American Graphic Artists. Behnken contributed an aquatint still life of seashells, Of Land and Sea, to the portfolio.

 

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