All About Prints | Review by Jill Conner
All About Prints breaks past the wide-spread assumption that prints are less valuable, and a more affordable alternative, to the purchase of an original work of art, like a painting or sculpture. While that is partially true, this show opens up the long history of print making and reveals the fact that not only were these images intended to be low-cost for easy purchase but they were also designed for quick dissemination to a broad audience. Deborah Wye, Chief Curator of the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books at the Museum of Modern Art, points out the central role that prints still have in the work of contemporary artists like Christian Marclay and Swoon. Artists throughout history such as Albrecht Duerer, Rembrandt, James McNeill Whistler, Edward Hopper, Kara Walker, Jacob Lawrence and Ellen Gallagher have also explored this as a form of commercial art. However the most interesting facet of this program is the role that the print-making process played throughout both America and Mexico during the 1920's and '30's.
While unemployment swept throughout the mid-Western states, union strikes became more frequent. Moreover, the American population that lived on both coasts was largely unaware of the hardships that had developed throughout the central United States. The WPA was begun by President Roosevelt in 1935, to put unemployed Americans back to work on public projects, but in near-by Mexico, prints thrived where a revolution was underway. Emotional illustrations were passed out in large volume, with the hope that the economic and political struggles of this vast country, located south of the American boarder, could be seen around the world.
Will Barnett discussed his own personal engagement with these life-changing events and stated that American artists were doing their greatest work in the 1930's, which is true given the Red Scare that developed nearly 20 years later. Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros held strong sway over artists who wanted to join the cause for workers rights and social justice, to get the word and image out together. Barnett first worked as a printer for Jose Clemente Orozco and later became the Master Printer at the Art Students League, where he specialized in lithographs.
Although the American Abstract Expressionists took print-makers by surprise, the medium returned with a new focus on popular, consumer culture. Robert Rauschenberg, for instance, created prints that showed images of events as they occurred, an early pictorial suggestion of real-time. Andy Warhol took the print out of the realm of politics and couched it more closely to fashion and consumption. Despite this revival, however, the American print genre will most likely not possess the same degree of political muscle as it did during the early half of the 20th-century.