Last Saturday my wife Ellen and I attended a tour of a newly-opened exhibition at the Mitchell Gallery of St John’s College in Annapolis. A Century on Paper: Prints by Art Students League Artists will run through 17 April. It deserves a visit from anyone interested in the long run of American printmaking.
The 69 prints (by 66 artists) that comprise this show are arranged chronologically. They represent each decade of the twentieth century, from 1905 to 2001, affording an opportunity to stroll through the century observing the tremendous changes, both technical and aesthetic, that characterized the period. The early twentieth century was a time that saw the burgeoning of printmaking as an artform in America, just as it was fading away as a means of illustration and commercial art. The printmaking program at the Art Students League began with etching classes taught by Charles Henry White, who had met Joseph Pennell in Venice in 1901; after White’s death, Pennell himself came to the Art Students League and worked to expand the program. This show can be seen as a tribute to his lasting legacy.
Even at the beginning of the century, though, the skill level of the artists represented here was high. The works are beautifully drawn and beautifully executed. The early prints, from the first decade of the century, are quite narrative, some of them satirical. With the arrival of Pennell, the urban landscape became an important theme—Pennell’s Standard Oil Building of 1923 is included in this exhibition—alongside themes of travel and labor. With the stock market crash of 1929, the Depression and its effects came to the fore, partly under the influence of the WPA: as we walk through this exhibit, we can sense the artists struggling, even into the 1950s, with the tug-of-war between patriotism and the Cubism that many were attempting to master. In the second half of the century, we see the diversion of the art impulse into many streams, with the major American art movements represented.
And, throughout the century, the movements are represented in this exhibition by major artists. I had not realized that the Art Students League had been responsible for such a roll-call of important printmakers, from John Sloan and Joseph Pennell, through Harry Sternberg and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, to Sylvie Germain-Covey and Michael Pellettieri.
For me as a printmaker, one of the interesting progressions illustrated by this exhibit is that from monochromatic prints in the classic printmaking media—etching, drypoint, woodcut, lithograph—to the multiplicity of colors and the wide array of techniques available to today’s artists. On any level, thematic, historical, technical, or aesthetic, this is a rewarding show. I plan to return to it several times, and to combine a visit with another to the Maryland Federation of Art show, Works on Paper, which also includes some interesting prints, at the Circle Gallery on State Circle in Annapolis.
The Mitchell Gallery is open Tuesday – Sunday, 12:00 – 5:00 pm. There is no admission charge. [Image courtesy of The Art Students League: James Allen (1894-1964), “The Connectors,” c 1940, etching.]