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Finest in floral paintings; and premier book on printmaking

Flowers have long been a favored subject in art. Leonardo, Durer, Delacroix, Renoir, Redon, among many others, drew and painted floral images. And the art of the Far and Near East has celebrated the beauty of flowers for hundreds of years.

Flowers have not, however, been particularly popular subjects in American art - especially during this century. It probably has to do with American's preference for ''serious'' subjects and for a more purely formal approach to painting, and with their feeling that flowers are too pretty and colorful for the rather solemn business of creating significant art.

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Since flower paintings are so out of fashion, I've been both surprised and delighted by the various museum shows devoted to this kind of art that have popped up over the past year. Of them all, none have been as welcome - or as carefully researched - as ''Reflections of Nature: Flowers in American Art,'' currently on view at the Whitney Museum here. Its 110 paintings and drawings by 45 artists run the gamut from plant drawings made by John White, who accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh on his 1585-86 exploratory expedition to the New World, to recent works by Ellsworth Kelly, Joseph Raffael, and Jennifer Bartlett.

The exhibition is set up chronologically and thematically, and moves from early botanical studies through still lifes, landscapes with floral details, and flower paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries and on to modern flower art since 1900. Outstanding among the earlier works are Martin Johnson Heade's ''Two Fighting Hummingbirds and Two Orchids,'' John Henry Hill's ''Calla,'' Fidelia Bridges's various watercolor and pencil studies of plants, and Winslow Homer's ''Flower Garden and Bungalow, Bermuda.''

The star of the show, however, is Georgia O'Keeffe's ''Jack-in-the-Pulpit'' series of paintings. Each successive image (there are six in all) brings the viewer closer to the flower without blurring the focus. The result is an impressive and haunting display of painterly magic. What starts out as a somewhat stylized but otherwise straightforward depiction of a flower becomes, in the final image, a dramatic ''abstract'' rendering of the flower's pistil.

Demuth, Burchfield, Gorky, Sheeler, and Joseph Stella are also well represented, and there is a lovely 1945 oil by Stamos that proves once again how good a painter he is.

This handsome and delightful exhibition was assembled by Ella M. Foshay, and will remain open to the public at the Whitney Museum through May 20. An excellent new book on American printmaking; Books on the history of American printmaking are relatively rare and tend to be one-sided. Either they argue that most, if not all, of America's best graphic work was done before 1940 (when Stanley William Hayter moved his famous print workshop ''Atelier 17'' from Europe to New York), or they claim that little or nothing of real quality was produced here before Hayter's arrival - and that America's truly important prints were not produced until such artists as Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rauschenberg began translating their paintings into large-scale graphic images.

Dozens of good to excellent printmakers have been assigned to art-historical oblivion by various authors on the basis of stylistic affiliations, and others, often of no higher quality, have been elevated to major stature primarily for representing the ideas and attitudes these authors insist are the correct ones.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the names of Thomas Moran, Joseph Pennell, Martin Lewis, Stow Wengenroth, Mauricio Lasansky, Leonard Baskin, Sam Francis, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Chuck Close, David Becker, and William Weege very seldom appear together in a book on American printmaking. And that print collectors with dozens of color prints by very recent artists on their walls may never have heard of Joseph Pennell, John Taylor Arms, or, for that matter, Peter Milton.

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All the more reason, therefore, to welcome James Watrous's ''A Century of American Printmaking: 1880-1980.'' Not only does this book discuss all the above artists (and many more), it also gives a full, fair, and clearly written account of what really has taken place in American printmaking during the past century.

Watrous starts off with introductory remarks about the state of printmaking in Europe and America during the latter part of the 19th century and ends some 300 pages later with two particularly valuable chapters: One assesses the state of contemporary printmaking and the other details controversial practices and continuing innovations among our newer American printmakers.

In between, he discusses almost everyone of interest or importance in American printmaking, be they artists, teachers, curators, dealers, critics, master printers, or art historians. He examines the various print clubs that sprang up in the early decades of this century; the various responses American graphic artists received from the public over the years; the state of printmaking during the Great Depression; the influence, both as artists and teachers, of Hayter and Lasansky; the changes that resulted from the introduction of new techniques andpractices after World War II; the recent print explosion; and the methods and ideas of literally dozens of widely divergent graphic artists.

The book is handsomely put together, richly illustrated in both color and black and white, carefully researched, and just about the best work on its subject I've seen. (Una Johnson's 1980 ''American Prints and Printmakers'' falls considerably short of this book.) My quarrels with it are minor, although I'm certain that etchers Reynold Weidenaar and Louis Rosenberg would not see their exclusion as such, and Frank Stella would be surprised to learn that he died in 1982.

I do have one major objection. None of Stella's magnificent recent prints are included. The only one reproduced dates from 1967, and is in black and white. Even accepting the fact that Stella's very best prints were produced after the book's cutoff date of 1980, there is still no excuse for excluding his later color prints - especially since lesser artists are better represented in the book than he. Stella, after all, may well turn out to be the most important American printmaker of the century.

All that aside, however, I highly recommend this book. It can be ordered from the University of Wisconsin Press, 114 North Murray Street, Madison, Wis. 53715. The price is $40 (clothbound).

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