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A sympathy for streets

Character can be found in scarred and pitted rocks and boulders, in gnarled and weather-beaten pines and oaks, and in the faccades of old buildings, as well as on the faces of men and women. Artists, in particular, have noted this fact and have taken excellent advantage of it.

Rembrandt's depictions of windmills and trees, thatched farm buildings and ancient castles, rickety bridges and antique clothing, reveal the same character and depth we find in his most moving figure studies and portraits. And the paintings of Bruegel, Durer, Ruisdael, Palmer, Friedrich, and Van Gogh make no distinction between things and people as far as character is concerned.

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In our own century, artists as diverse as Schiele, Soutine, Ernst, Albright, Burchfield, and Wyeth have treated objects as though they were as expressive as human beings. And in the graphic arts, we'll find dozens of printmakers whose specialty was giving life to everything from uprooted trees to run-down storefronts, abandoned warehouses, and rusty fire escapes.

High on the list of printmakers who focus their attention on old buildings and streets is Armin Landeck, an etcher and engraver who started his career in 1927, and who is still going strong today. Any exhibition of 20th-century architectural prints that claims to be representative must include at least four or five of his works. And any show whose theme is the depiction of character through brick, wood, stone, or steel will have to include Landeck as one of its stars.

He is a past master at transforming dots, lines, and sharp tonal contrasts into brooding, gently melancholy urban landscapes that stand as mute evidence of the living that has taken place within them. The ravages of time and weather on roofs and walls are as essential to his vision as are the wrinkles and lines of age in Rembrandt's etched studies of beggars and prophets. In his prints, one can almost feel the soot on chimneys, or the grease on long unwashed windows. He never ignores the feel of a place or a thing.

That is not all that interests him, however. He may be concerned with the precise tonal and textural differences between old and new brick, and fascinated by the way a dim light creates odd patterns on a darkened stairwell, but these interests never interfere with his deep and long standing passion for structure and design.

This has been particularly true since the early 1940s, when a brief period of study with Stanley William Hayter led him to a more overtly geometric approach to printmaking. For a time, in fact, it looked as though his pursuit of pure form might overwhelm his talent for rendering and depiction, but the realist in him won out - at least to the extent that his prints now represent a near-perfect fusion of the real and the ideal.

His best images project a tension, a drama, between the actual and the abstract, between a remarkable grasp of place and a powerful feeling for black-and-white design. In such works as ''Restaurant,'' ''11 West 11th Street, '' ''Stairhall,'' and ''Manhattan Moonlight,'' we sense that these contradictory creative impulses have just met head on - and that each has met its match.

It is this dynamic interaction of opposites that gives Landeck's best etchings and engravings their impact and that has led to their at least partial acceptance in a period when most successful prints are very large (if not huge), brightly colored, thematically provocative, and often quite decorative.

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Dramatic and eye-catching as this quality may be, however, it only partly explains the staying power of his outstanding pictures. To really understand what makes them so rewarding, we must probe deeper, and allow ourselves to identify with his subjects as we would with character studies of some of our more interesting fellow human beings. Only then will we really sense the artist's deep affection and sympathy for the old, run-down buildings and streets that make up so large a part of our urban communities.

Landeck treats the decaying or merely unused architecture of the past with dignity and respect - but with very little sentiment, and with absolutely no sense of despair or ugliness. Even in the midst of demolition, tenements and warehouses retain what in humans would be called their pride. That sturdy, resilient spirit is evident throughout his graphic production.

It was present in his early etchings of Europe and the Near East; his panoramic views of New York City, which first won him fame in the 1930s; the studies he made of the countryside and of his studio; every one of his masterworks of the 1938-52 period; and most emphatically, in the excellent - if few - prints he has produced during the past decade.

When all is said and done, and we look beyond Landeck's technical expertise, the warmly evocative or dramatic nature of his subjects, the subtly romantic implications of his essentially people-less cities, we are still left with a quality, an aura, that is difficult to define.

I finally discovered what it was when I met Landeck himself. He and his prints represent an attitude toward life that is warm, sympathetic, discreet, dignified - but above all, gentlemanly. Which is not a bad combination of qualities, it seems to me, to find in a man or in a work of art.

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