Big Prints from Rome

2RC Editions: Tradition and Innovation in Contemporary Printmaking.
Ebria Feinblatt
Curator of prints and drawings
Los Angeles Country Museum of Art


Cthat contemporary printing is an international activity is not a new observation. But Western prints have historically been an international commodity since they first appeared in Europe on the verge of the XNUMXth century, with their inevitable spread as the most wearable of artists 'and culture-bearers' models.

An exciting assemblage of prints such as the present one, composed of works by Italian, Spanish, Belgian, Swiss, French, English, and American peintre-graveurs, created and printed in Rome, re-emphasizes the cultural unity of the Western world - a unity which serves as the universal model since several of these artists figure among the leading print-makers of our time.

To those who know, love and collect contemporary prints, the congeniality of this collection comes as no surprise. With few exceptions, abstraction is their unifying factor. Yet abstraction comes in numerous forms, to be apprehended on different levels, stimulating the spectator to his own interpretation. But although connected by the framework of a common language, the artists among themselves demonstrate an astonishing variety and diversity of technical and formal means.

One of the most obvious factors in the contemplation of these prints is their relationship to their makers' work in the vehicles of painting or sculpture. In this connection, it is well to recall that up to the mid-'fifties, printmaking largely observed its distinctions of character insofar as the separation of its particular processes and its relatively conservative size were concerned. In brief, print techniques were generally straightforward, easily recognizable, and the scale of prints relatively modest. With the 'sixties, however, boundaries between printmaking and other forms of art exploded, and from then on artists working in the graphic medium have been involved in the most creatively experimental procedures with the resultant expansion of print techniques and aesthetic frontiers. Some critics have questioned whether the amplifying and transforming of the historic print techniques, increasing enlargement, and emphasis on grand scale, have not carried some prints to the point of loss or decline of the traditional "graphic" power which characterized them for many centuries. In short, have the character, concentrated effects of the black and white, for example, and the special qualities of being fixed on paper from a hard, inked matrix been suppressed in the development of contemporary prints?

Proof to the contrary is supplied by the Big Prints from Rome. In this striking constellation of works the dominant technique is etching and aquatint, sensitive methods requiring the bite of the plate by acid. With this intaglio combination, Studio 2RC has been able to produce prims as diverse as Alberto Burri's and George Segal's at one end of the spectrum, and those by Giacomo Manzu and Graham Sutherland at the other. Thus, the somber variegated "craquelure" of Burri's Gretta Nero, made from cast bronze plates, and Segal's starling monumental body-modelled color prints have been brilliantly executed through intaglio, the latter ones by-means of soft-ground etching which demonstrates the great range and versatility of the medium. As a printmaker Burri is a case apart because as a painter he innovated the use of non pigmentary material such as tar and burlap introducing the vocabulary of decay and destruction into his art. Thus while we are prepared for an extension of his vocabulary in his prints, the presence of his rightly colored ondulant and spidery silkscreens produced concurrently with his distressed images bespeaks another language which seems to carry us from the page into an unknown realm.

In contrast to prints requiring the use of special plates or others whose materials challenge the resources of the press, are Giacomo Manzu's pure line etching in his Lovers and Inge series, which must inevitably evoke thoughts of Picasso's Sculptor's Studio. The great Italian sculptor's prints, closely related to his figure drawings, are in most of the works of these series enriched by aquatint with delicate passages and accents of color. Thematically related is Manzu's recent large print, Reclining Girl, where the line's electric tension expands under the infusion of color. Another contrast is Graham Sutherland's black and white triptych, Bees, with its deeply bitten lines and striking images, enclosed as by large, decorative columnar letters.

It is obvious that in many quarters painting and printmaking are both tending toward the dimensional, while in others, the surface becomes the area for different systems of abstract patterning. Worth recalling is the fact that in the classical world, the term for work in any material that was raised, embossed, engraved, chased, cast or cut was sculptura. With the exception of the planographic processes, namely lithography and silkscreen, the other print techniques, executed by means of cutting into the block, plate, or other surface, are related to carving and thus basically akin to sculpture rather than to painting. The impression of the plate on the paper is the "cast", so to speak, of the original raised or sunken relief. But the paper adds a subtle change which cannot be found on the naked plate which was only rarely considered an end in itself.

Among the sculptors represented in the exhibition, Arnaldo Pomodoro's language of stringently denticulated sequential forms is vividly concentrated in the dense plates of his inked, embossed technique: He employs plaster plates and epoxy resin· molds, creating the embossment by enormous pressure. His powerful prints are like "stelae" on which the finely "mechanical" cunieform has been hammered out with almost computer-like precision·. Another sculptor, Eduardo Chillida translates his block-like constructions into interlocking black and white forms, retaining their dimensional monumentality, with surfaces palpable by the etching technique. The Swiss Max Bill, architect as well as painter and sculptor, observes the geometric facets of abstraction in the shifting planes of his optically changing shapes, while Pietro Consagra in a new technique spaces his controlled, plastically suggestive designs over the entire plate. Producing prints at different intervals for over a quarter of a century and exploring facets of various processes, etching, soft-ground, lithography and cast paper relief, the American sculptor Louise Nevelson has in her recent graphic work achieved a high degree of refined spontaneity. This is evidenced in the brilliant torn paper effects of these intaglios, sometimes combined with silver foil, newspaper or mylar, which create a dynamic collaged surface, reminiscent of the artist's superbly original wood sculpture.

Never directly involved with the execution of a print, Alexander Calder produced his only autograph etching at the 2RC Workshop in 1972 when Valter Rossi provided the American sculptor with colored acids with which Calder drew his bold, playful design with its mobile imagery on the zinc plate as he would in preparing a gouache on paper for translation into a graphic work. Also revealing the close participation of the artist himself, the etching with aquatint by Henry Moore in the exhibition are among the most powerful color intaglios of his career. Through the relief created by the bitten technique, reinforced in some parts by the use of drypoint, Moore was able to achieve the equivalent, in the feeling of weight, to the monumentality of his sculpture. Pol Bury's print is a pure, large grain aquatint in brown and orange tones, in which a number of shaped plates were used. As a result, the brilliantly precise and delicate overlay· of colors endows the sharp, geometric forms with a sense of slowly unfolding and shifting movement.

While, as might be expected, sculptors often approach printing largely in terms of transporting dimensionality, painters generally tend to extend their style into prints according to their own personal idiom. Thus the seemingly improvised handwriting of the COBRA painter, Pierre Alechinsky, continues the motifs of his vivid gestural expressionism. In contrast to this aesthetic, there is the formal moderation of Piero Dorazio, one of the founders, together with Pietro Consagra, of the “Forma Uno” group. Dorazio's most recent works are printed on long and narrow sheets like streamers. Through their luminous levels of transparency, obtained from different applications of aquatint, the bands now overlapping, now separators of pure color move with an intriguing visual rhythm.

Giuseppe Santomaso, Afro e Victor Pasmore lavorano nella tradizione dell’astrazione classica. Le lastre dei veneti sono superbamente eleganti, la sensualità del loro campo sereno elaborata da passaggi sobri e delicati di fine acquatinta. Questo processo è stato impiegato nelle stampe da Afro per articolare i contorni delle sue forme astratte; tre morsure di acquatinta erano necessari per gli accenti più scuri. Piuttosto che espandere la composizione sull’intero campo dell’immagine: Pasmore sviluppa un’immagine più compressa, la sua componente centrale sembra crescere organicamente dall’elemento che lo racchiude. Al contrario, lo scultore e pittore americano, Alexander Liberman, si è completamente allontanato dal suo severo stile geometrico dell’ultimo decennio, per dedicarsi alla pittura. Gli audaci tagli di colore dei dipinti sono trasposti nelle stampe in una dichiarazione personale e formale altrettanto vigorosa.

Alcune delle ultime stampe di Sam Francis lo mostrano mentre guarda il mondo come attraverso un reticolo, composto da varie profondità e definizioni, intrecciandosi e segmentando il regno della sua miriade di forme membranose e fluttuanti dai colori intensi. Francis ha realizzato le sue prime incisioni sotto l’egida della 2RC. Non è improbabile che l’esperienza con gli effetti di creazione del rilievo di questi processi abbia avuto una certa influenza nell’indirizzare il suo lavoro più recente nel mezzo del monotipo con o senza goffratura.

Belonging essentially to the geometrically simplified abstract tradition, but extending into the more illusional realm is the well-known work of the Hungarian-born Victor Vasarely. One of the most consistently geometrically oriented contemporary printmakers, some of his prints incorporate the use of hyperbolas as well as straight lined shapes, with the curving planes resulting in optically deceiving projections. Vasarely's work is devoted to emphasizing the color interactions of his precisely calculated geometric forms in an effort to stress greater recognition of visual perception. The exciting fields of Vasarely's careening, space permutating compositions conform to our impressions of modern science's excursions into the solar system.

Come dimostrano queste stampe del laboratorio 2RC, rinfrescanti diversità, procedure tecniche complesse e nuovi orizzonti estetici sono tra le caratteristiche che contribuiscono al loro fascino. La loro vasta presenza sfida il dominio della pittura, i loro metodi di calcografia: il dominio dei processi planografici. Che si tratti di concentrarsi su un singolo elemento come il tratto gestuale, la diffusione di un grande macchiato o l’energizzazione della superficie in vari modi, la multiformità dell’invenzione grafica e la consistenza di queste stampe riflettono la poesia visiva sfaccettata del nostro tempo. La disponibilità di tali opere creative a tutti gli amanti dell’arte oggi è una circostanza fortunata, derivante non solo dalla continua esplorazione da parte degli artisti delle potenzialità della stampa, ma anche dall’esistenza di maestri stampatori per realizzarle.

Fondata circa diciotto anni fa a Roma da Valter ed Eleonora Rossi, la stamperia 2RC è stata determinante per promuovere l’uso da parte degli artisti delle tecniche d’incisione sia in Europa che negli Stati Uniti. Sebbene la mostra presenti una selezione del lavoro prodotto dalla 2RC, il catalogo allegato è progettato per fornire la documentazione della produzione totale del laboratorio fino ad oggi. In questo modo, la storia delle stampe le cui edizioni sono state a lungo esaurite viene preservata e un compendio dei risultati e dei contributi della 2RC all’arte della stampa contemporanea viene reso disponibile come strumento di ricerca e piacere visivo.