Thursday, May 1, 2008

Gray Matters

Maybe its the rain we've been having--it just seems like there has been a lot of gray lately. Gray skies over a gray city. I don't mind it actually--it's like walking around in a pencil drawing. And there are spots of bright color whenever one stumbles upon a pot of tulips outside a restaurant, or someone's technicolor raincoat. Or the girl with hot pink hair I saw standing outside Sotheby's the other day. I had just come from a lecture on the Fauves, learning about how Matisse's paintings of women with blue skin and green hair had shocked people back then. Think if they lived now.

Yesterday I had a chance to see the show of Jasper Johns works at the Met, entitled Gray. Apparently he once said it was his favorite color. A lover of gray myself, I found some things to like in the exhibit, though I can't say I loved it all. He was certainly a very talented, prolific, and intelligent artist, but I'm not interested in a gray canvas with one piece of string draped over the front of it. I did like this lithograph, though, being a sucker for prints. I also like it when artists make art about art--this is an image of paintbrushes in a can. The crosshatched background is a pun on a fundamental drawing technique, and the red handprint symbolizes man making his mark (artistic impulse=life-force=blood? hmmm.)

I majored in printmaking in college, but just kind of stumbled into it. Nobody ever even mentioned prints in art history classes. I could count on my fingers the number of really good prints I'd seen before I was mostly done with school and ready to graduate. I remember during one of my classes--it was a critique of our latest piece--the teacher suggested I go look at the work of a particular artist. But another student vehemently disagreed, saying to the teacher that my artistic vision would be jeopardized by exposure to other artists. He was afraid my work would become derivative and I would lose my naive originality, I suppose. I don't remember being influenced by any artist during those college years, but now I wish I had been at least given the opportunity. Instead, I remained oblivious, and muddled through, trying to be this amazing artist while hardly even knowing what it was that a printmaker could do.

I wish my teachers had shown me the prints of Benton, Cassatt, Whistler, even people like Johns, Frankenthaler, and Katz. I say this because I feel like I stumbled through most of those art classes, trying to find my style, but not even aware of the possibilities of my medium. I didn't know the power that I had at my fingertips. If I had seen a Harold Altman lithograph of Central Park, or an intaglio by Reginald Marsh, or a woodblock print by Lynd Ward, then I would have known what was possible. I would still never have acheived that perfection, but I would at least have had an idea of what I was striving for. They should have given a "history of prints" class, or maybe I should have been more curious, and sought out books on printmakers. I just didn't know.

But now I can make up for lost time and study prints to my hearts content. In fact this evening I attended a preview of Bloomsbury Auction's first print sale. They are a relatively new auction house in New York, specializing in books and other works on paper, in a beautiful location on 48th Street. The upcoming print sale is a solid group of mostly modern works, from early 20th century American pieces to Murakami. It even includes some really odd woven fabric images by Chuck Close. My favorite lot by far is the group of 8 prints by Alex Katz. (The gray man you see is one of these.) His iconic flattened figures, seemingly ordinary people isolated in space, are actually the exact thing I've been trying to achieve in woodblock prints for the past 7 years or so. I wonder how my work would be different if I'd seen Katz's work years ago? Can art ever really be pure? Is an artist ever better or worse for having studied the work of another artist?

This is what I thought about as I stepped out of the colorful Bloomsbury showroom into a coal-gray night, opening my umbrella against the steely rain.

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