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Bridges of metal and ink

AN original print -- as opposed to a drawing or painting -- is an image made at one remove from the artist's hand. Sometimes it is this fact, rather than the raison d'^etre of a print as repeatable, which motivates and intrigues a printmaker. Rolf Nesch (1893-1975), a German-born, adoptively Norwegian artist whose printmaking ventures extended the notion of the print in numerous ways, was clearly absorbed by possibilities other than mere multiplication. His later prints were in small editions, rarely more than 10 impressions taken from one plate, and sometimes each impression was markedly different in tone or coloring. In this manner a deliberate ``uniqueness'' occurred, and Nesch approached the idea of a ``monotype'' or single-impression print. (The plates also began to interest him, and they became works in their own right.)

His technical innovations were aimed at producing qualities of texture, construction, and delineation impossible in any other medium. The character of his images was therefore often defined by their nature as prints: their light-and-shadow, nuances, edges -- their slightly depersonalized imagery of smudge, block, or striation -- could only be arrived at by a process of inked plate being pressured into contact with paper and so made to deposit its mark.

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In this way, prints for Nesch became an end in themselves, and not just a means. In his striking 1932 series inspired by Hamburg's bridges, the viewer feels the artist has reinvented a print language out of girders and trusses, arches and roller-coaster construction: For him these engineered elements serve new purposes, far removed from the support of rails or roads.

Here is no attempt to depict recognizable urban monuments, no topographical configuration. The bridges have prompted print design and print perspectives, have suggested an almost sculptural involvement of the viewer in the spaces of the printed image, have provided the artist with forms and movements heroic in scale and freeing to the vision; and the results are not so much images of bridges as``abstract'' images, powerful in shape, line, and direction.

Nesch had made an inadvertent discovery earlier when a metal etching plate had been left overlong in the acid -- which ate holes through it. Printing from this plate, he found these holes resulted in brilliantly white shapes, almost in relief with new kinds of ink-defined edges. So he began deliberately to drill or cut holes in his plates. He also started to build on their surfaces, with additions of copper wire, mesh, netting, and soldered tin. Such experiments demanded heavy, strong paper to receive the ink and considerable pressure to transfer it. ``Elevated Bridge, R"odingsmarkt'' and ``Elbe Bridge III,'' both recently exhibited at the British Museum, London, impressively show the arresting effect Nesch could produce by means of such inventiveness -- always at the service, of course, of a vital imagination.