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The many masks of modern art

This will be about the beauties of black-and-white, the excitements of drawing, and the thrills of technique. It will also be about the nature of graphic art, and the relative scarcity of a true graphic vision.

Alan James Robinson's ''Armadillo Walk'' is an etching, which means that its image was drawn with an etching needle on a copper plate covered with a ground of wax and resin. Wherever the needle scratched through, the copper was exposed. The plate was then immersed in an acid bath where the exposed lines were attacked by the acid, creating grooves in the plate. After removing the ground from the plate, the plate was inked and gently wiped so as to leave ink in the grooves, and to allow any desired tones or smudges to remain on the surface of the plate. Paper was then placed over the plate and run through a press. The ink was absorbed from the grooves, resulting in the lines of the etching, and surface tones resulted from the ink left behind on the plate after wiping.

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I wasn't present when the first impression was pulled, but I can imagine how the artist felt. He must have been curious, for he could not have known exactly (having drawn it on copper) how it would look in black-and-white. Or, for that matter, in reverse from his original drawing. He probably was also somewhat excited. I suspect this was one of this young artist's best prints to date, and it must have been a special thrill to see its velvety blacks, crisp lines, subtle tones, and brilliant whites emerge as the paper was gently pulled from the plate.

Even so, I'm certain he was not quite satisfied, and that he made subtle alterations on every future impression he pulled. That could have been done by wiping the plate differently each time to vary the darkness of the tones, or by picking out more - or fewer - whites with tiny swabs of cotton or cloth (or by scratching them out with a razor blade). It could also have been done by allowing the blacks to bleed over some of the etched lines or areas, or by texturing the plate's surface by smudging, scraping, stippling, or burnishing it in different ways.

Although Robinson had many such technical devices at his disposal, it is a measure of his talent and sensibility that he chose to utilize only a few. In the impression reproduced on this page, he made particularly good use of white by giving it dramatic emphasis against subtle grays and very powerful, dramatic blacks. And by making it the ''color'' of the Armadillo's most formidable-looking claws.

He did several other things as well. By subtly modulating the toned area in front of the animal's head, he suggests the presence of light that gently illuminates the face. And by highlighting the topmost curve of the Armadillo's back, he gives its body volume, and causes it to stand out three-dimensionally against the top black band.

But there's more, including a marvelously dramatic interplay between the crisply executed lines of the head, legs, feet, and tail and the smudged and textured areas of the creature's front and rear body plates. And then, to top it off, he drew the ground as a series of mildly wavy lines that throws the armadillo into even greater dramatic relief.

Now, one could say that all this is merely a matter of technique and craft, and that any skilled printmaker could produce a print as good as this. That is true - to an extent. This print is the result of technique and craft, and any skilled printmaker should be able to reproduce it. But to have conceived and executed it originally is another matter entirely. After all, the artist's technical skills and knowledge of craft were totally at the disposal of his creative sensibilities and imagination. It may have required skill to draw these forms and details, and to manipulate its tonal dramas, but that is not what this print is ultimately all about. What makes this etching so effective is the manner in which the artist orchestrated every one of its elements to create an image of exceptional integrity and impact. It's an image, by the way, that stands out in my memory with greater clarity than almost any of the other hundreds of new graphic images I saw during this past year.

True graphic art, be it an etching or any other form of printmaking, is as distinct from a painting or a watercolor as a mime's mute performance is from that of a vocal actor. Or, to put it another way, a print is to a painting as a sonnet is to a short story or a novel. And if anyone wants an example, I recommend he study the etchings of Rembrandt.

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Rembrandt's etchings are every bit as powerful and profound as his paintings - and yet they seldom measure more than six inches in any direction, are entirely in black-and-white, and often consist of only a few lines and tones. Their power results from a process of creative compression and distillation that takes the fullness and weight of Rembrandt's greatness and boils it down to its crucial expressive essence.

All his prints lack is color, and yet we don't miss it - any more than we miss not hearing Charlie Chaplin talk in his early silent films. In some forms of art, less is definitely more. And that is very much the case with prints.

Etching, in particular, can speak volumes with a minimum of means, and with a breathtaking simplicity and directness that can make a colorful painting appear overly opulent or gross. I know of nothing more movingly beautiful than a clear impression of an etching by one of the great graphic masters such as Rembrandt or Goya. And there are literally hundreds of superb etchings printed during etching's Golden Age (roughly between 1870 and 1920) that are enough to cause any print devotee's fingers to twitch, and his eyes to gleam.

More etchings were probably produced during those fifty years than during the preceding two centuries. And, thanks largely to Whistler and such excellent etchers as Haden, Zorn, Pennell, and Cameron (to mention only a few), their overall quality was remarkably high.

Even so, we've forgotten the names of most of the good etchers who worked during that period. And have even forgotten the names of some of the very best. Mention Muirhead Bone's superb etchings, for instance, to anyone but a true print specialist, and the response will almost certainly be a blank stare. And that's too bad, because Bone created some of the most subtly beautiful etchings ever made. And he isn't the ony one we've packed off to undeserved oblivion. I could, without any effort, list a dozen excellent etchers hard at work between 1870 and 1920 who are totally forgotten by the public today. And could then, with a bit of research, add the names of at least twenty more.

Now, in a way that's understandable. We have an abundance of artists, and can only keep track of the truly exceptional ones. But even taking that into account , it's obvious that we have been overly negligent, for some of these etchers were among the truly exceptional minor artists of that period.

But what's even worse, we've also been negligent in acknowledging the quality of some of the best graphic artists of our day. In our eagerness to accept any and all reproductive methods capable of giving us modified facsimiles of well-known artists' paintings, we've shunted aside many of our better printmakers whose one goal is to produce original prints that neither violate the genius of their particular medium nor deny the cultural realities of the day.

Alan James Robinson is such an artist. He has already produced a few excellent prints, and will, I'm certain, produce many more. In return, we can learn to appreciate his special art - and to differentiate between an original hand-pulled print and something mechanically run off.

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