Exquisite printmaking craft and an array of imagery that sustains a respectful awareness of historical precedent, while opening new doors of personal perception, marked this exhibition mounted by artists of the venerable SAGA, in February of 2012 . For nearly a century its printmakers have held meetings at their address on Union Square, in New York City, and many SAGA members are in fact proud New Yorkers, drawn to the inspiration and art market of the Big Apple. Brief stories of their works follow.
Landscape engages certain printmakers. Vast, brooding skies hover above a dark ocean in the Romantic, Journey of Three, by Michael Hew Wing, a small mezzotint redolent of the cloud-portraits of Constable and Stieglitz. His Pillar and Face both present skies of broken clouds that mask a half-hidden moon, with a mystery like a seascape by Caspar David Friedrich. ‘Round the Town, a meticulously crafted, aquatint etching by William Behnken, is a bird’s-eye vista of skyscraper-studded Manhattan. An evening glow over the tower-tops is elegantly captured, as are spotlight-effects of lighting ‘round Columbus Circle. Lithographs of the 1930s touch this stylized subject, but Behnken replaces the transparencies of those historic lithos with a personal, dense, and granular etching-ink. A past president of SAGA, Behnken will be honored by the group later this year with a dinner ceremony. Scepter, an aquatint etching by Barbara Minton, captures a little urban nook. A humble, stony baluster supporting an iron fence at the sidewalk becomes a dream-like, phallic, magically alive, scepter-and-orb, suited to a mythical giant, for a conflation that Max Ernst would enjoy.
Craft sings out its perfect practice in a few prints. A great range of qualities in a lyrical city-scene, Marcy Avenue, etched by Joe Essig, enliven three realms -- the dark railroad tracks below, where a heavy stench of axle grease and creosote hangs in the air, only to play against the bubble-light church dome reaching skyward, albeit a dome metaphorically dwarfed by two skeletal steel-truss towers. Above these constructions of today soars the lightest sweep of feather-clouds, Nature triumphant. Cherries and Blue Ribbon, by Marion Lerner-Levine, a still-life of gardening books, is an aquatint ą la poupée, where traces of transparent color are inserted into open areas wiped clean on the plate by a doll-like clutch of gauze. Each print of the edition is unique, though all contrast a dark area of wide ribbon bordered in blossoms, with delicate veils of color. Hand to Mouth, is a large print by Shelley Thorstensen, current president of SAGA. It dreamily evokes and superimposes both male and female frontal torsos, with a surreal sensuousness. The musical, contrapuntal play of smoky hazes of color and crisp accents of line, evinces a masterful meld of technical procedures, etching, relief, and mezzotint. A chalice, in faint silhouette, levitates in bright light where the heart might lie, echoes the vase-form of the torso itself, seizes the sacral. This suggests traditional prints of the somatic chakras of India and the glowing, sacred heart of Jesus.
A stark color-lithograph by Tomomi Ono, Day and Night Sky, frames an empty, infinitely deep space, a cosmic enormity where myriad planets seem the size of mere raindrops, caught by a gust of wind upon a windowpane. Pale orbs fade into invisibility on the light ground, but gleam brilliantly against the darkness, perhaps a metaphor as to where hope lies. The open vastness of Ono’s vista contrasts utterly with the teeming, choked elaborateness of the mythic phantasmagoria, Drowning Saturn, a stone-lithograph by Amir Hariri, a pullulating, intricately drawn anti-war statement, his exercise in a nightmarish horror vacui. Starkly different as well, is the uninhabitable, claustrophobic space trapped between sleek, blade-like pointed leaves and twisting ribbons, in a silk-screen print by Masaaki Noda, Forefront. Perhaps this is the realm of insects among grass-blades in an anime film, or quotes from spiraling sheets of steel, shaped by Antoine Pevsner or Max Bill. Noda’s symbolic colors have the hard sheen of anodized metal. Almost There, a complex print, in intaglio, soft-ground etching, and mezzotint, by Merle Perlmutter, curves space, as though by a fish-eye camera lens, aimed within an architectural interior that speaks of the 1920s of LeCorbusier. The sweep of bending walls, delicately toned and smoothly textured, suggests that a metamorphosis is underway, as though a catalogue of architectural motifs -- hallways, cabinets, doorways -- were being flexed by enormous forces.
Some prints illustrate little stories. At the Window, by Ellen Nathan Singer, shows a reticent woman’s half-length figure, flattened and framed above an orange-colored handrail, its vertical spindles cutting across the green steps of a 19th-century brownstone. Dominant in the design is rhythmical color, much of it subdued, redolent of the prints of Vuillard, in their earth-tones and grays. This is a small color-woodcut made with multiple blocks, where pattern speaks rather than psychology. Florence Putterman offers the mock-heroic story, Captain Caleb Loses His Hat, a simply made lino-cut, that comically plays with the idea of a great drama at sea, a parody on an 18th-century sea-captain who may or may not have existed. We take a bird’s eye view of him, as he lounges against the coaming of his little boat. His companion oddly wears a spherical glass helmet of recent date, while a vortex swirls the sea all about them, with little but comic-book menace. Her Encounter at Sea, shows a lone woman diver plunging headlong into wavy waters, crowded with four colossal fish and two large rodent-like creatures, one clinging to a bit of flotsam. Have the rats deserted a sinking ship? As though we didn’t know. Putterman presents allegories, the latter one with a brute power that recalls the giant fish and diving man of Max Beckman. A story told by Steven Walker’s Composition in Red and Blue, done in the etching, aquatint, and woodcut processes, is his homage to the appropriated images of Robert Rauschenberg, and perhaps to the chronicles of Anselm Kiefer, albeit in a brighter palette, in the mode of Hans Hoffman. Its dense surface has received multiple passes of the press, registering dramatic fragments of faces and lettering, in a lush visual tapestry. Repeated woodcuts of glamour girls’ masks, cuts of a man in a fedora, some five imprints of the Marlboro logo, and two images of an open-truss bridge in Manhattan, all share an evocative goal.
Variety of conceptual approach and sheer technical mastery place these hand-pulled prints at the pinnacle of the SAGA endeavor, a pleasure to behold.
Glenn F. Benge
Dr. Benge is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Temple University. His wide-ranging research currently studies woodcuts to the early printed books cited and quoted in, The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch.