Block Heads

The Drawing Studio surveys the recent history of art prints

In the beginning, in 1504, Albrecht Dürer created "Adam and Eve."

In an engraving he created them, and he saw that they were good. He set them in a lush Garden of Eden bursting with fruit trees; and he filled the garden with birds of the air, and everything that creeps upon the earth, cattle and cats and snakes and mice.

Much, much later, 500 years later, Eric Avery re-created the German master's "Adam and Eve" in a woodcut print. Avery's first man and woman stood in the same lovely poses as Dürer's, but their Garden of Paradise was no longer good.

Plague-carrying rats, swine infected with deadly flu, and pestilent birds crowded around the mother and father of the human race. Dürer's fruit trees were gone, supplanted by urban blight. A jet plane soared across the sky, leaving a trail of pollution behind. The earth was rent in two, and filthy waters rushed in. Adam and Eve were each marooned in a patch of slime, and their skin was pockmarked and ready to fall from their bones.

Avery's disturbing woodcut, "Paradise Lost," almost 3 1/2 feet square, is a highlight of The Drawing Studio's exhibition The Rise of the Print: Midcentury Masters of American Printmaking, a sumptuous show of handmade prints of every kind, from engravings to lithographs, from woodcuts to etchings.

Avery's undated contemporary work is steeped in art history, drawing explicitly on one of the most famous art prints ever made. The difference between his piece and Dürer's can be accounted for in part by the time period that produced their makers.

The German artist (1471-1528) was working in the heady early years of the Renaissance, and his art expressed his joy in the beauty of the natural world and his optimism about the future.

By contrast, Avery, born in 1948, is living in an age of anxiety. He's not only an artist but a psychiatrist, privy to the melancholy of his patients. He studied art as an undergrad at the UA and medicine at the University of Texas in Galveston, where he's now a professor of psychiatry. The bio appended to his artwork in this 26-artist show also reveals that after his residency he took himself to Somalia in 1979 and worked as the medical director of a refugee camp.

There he saw "thousands of human beings starving to death ... (and) to record the terrible sights he had seen" he took his medical scalpel and sliced into wood. He printed the images he had carved on paper, and these chronicles of suffering became his first woodcuts.

The text surrounding his putrefying Adam and Eve describes 14 modern plagues afflicting humankind, from AIDS to measles. Avery argues that these killer diseases are fairly new in human history, and arose only after the introduction of agriculture and the cohabitation of people with animals. A rare combination of public health treatise and classical technique, his "Paradise Lost" is both lamentation and art.

As such, it proves one point that curator Andrew Rush is making with the show: Printmaking is an art form equal to painting and sculpture. But despite its exalted lineage—Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya and other eminences were famed for their prints—printmaking didn't really come into its own in the United States until after World War II, Rush says.

Printmaking had already undergone a revival of sorts during the Depression, when the Works Progress Administration paid artists all around the country to create handmade artist prints. (A sterling collection of WPA prints is in Tucson's University of Arizona Museum of Art.)

But the years after the war—this show covers 1950 to 2010—saw a Renaissance in the art form. Displaced émigrés brought European ideas and experimentation to print workshops here, and universities flush with students funded by the GI Bill rushed to create new art programs.

One of the most important centers for printmaking was the Iowa Print Workshop at the University of Iowa. Its founder, Mauricio Lasansky, a wartime transplant from Argentina, nurtured generations of printmakers. His 1955 "Self-Portrait," a color etching, is a deft and sure profile in black and white. The marvelously drawn hands and the face are lightly tinted in flesh. It testifies to his robust confidence in the art he was making.

Lasansky, now in his mid 90s, trained a number of artists in the show, including one of the youngest, his grandson, 40-year-old Richie Lasansky. Now based in Brooklyn, where he runs his own print studio, the younger Lasansky is the very model of the printmaker-artist. He incises his images directly on the plate, makes his own ink and prints his own prints.

His "Clare's Monkey," a black-and-white engraving, is a portrait of the animal's face, complete with all-knowing eyes. The subject is a bit clichéd, but Lasansky's technique is a wonder: Blank white space alternates with beautifully drawn lines of every possible mutation, from pale curves to dark cross-hatching.

An earlier Lasansky student, Wanda Miller Matthews (1930-2001) got her master's at Iowa before establishing a workshop in Boulder, Colo. She specialized in color intaglio. Her "Between" is a haunting townscape. The peaked roofs of the houses form a geometric tangle in the foreground, while the Rockies rising up beyond are only faintly seen. A yellow light in an attic window burns brighter than any other color in the piece.

Another family tree of American printmakers was spawned by Englishman Stanley William Hayter. He ran an experimental print shop in Paris, but he fled for New York in 1940, after the Nazis occupied France. He re-established his Atelier 17 at the city's New School for Social Research, and for 10 years proselytized for the creative possibilities of the print to artists from Miró to Pollock.

The print, he maintained, should not be prized simply because it can be had in multiple editions; messily made with inks and papers and presses, each is a work of art with inimitable traits.

One of Hayter's students, Garo Antresian, born in 1922, helped co-found the famed Tamarind Workshop, at locations in Los Angeles and Albuquerque. Antresian is a master of lithography, a printing technique that allows for color and detail, and he promulgated his methods to legions of students at the workshop and in his book The Tamarind Book of Lithography.

With their delicate networks of colored lines, arcs, tangents and triangles, his geometric minimalist pieces offer a distinctly different aesthetic from the Lasanksy school's. "Untitled: 81.6.2B" has a velvety black square set in white; "Untitled: A80.14.11A" has a triangle filled with raised dots floating on black and gray.

Most of the artists in the show have also been teachers, and Rush himself directs The Drawing Studio's school. A co-founder of Rancho Linda Vista, he also pioneered the printmaking classes at the UA, where artist-psychiatrist Avery studied.

Rush's own distinctive works reveal a mastery of etching techniques. They are traditional views of Italian buildings and countryside, but they're exquisitely rendered, with alluring transitions from line to shading, from light to shadow.

In his wall notes for the show, Rush lauded Gutenberg's invention of printing around 1438. Not only did it allow for the dissemination of texts. It permitted printmaking artists like Dürer—and his descendants—to reproduce their art endlessly. As Adam and Eve's God might have put it, the printing press and all its permutations allowed artists to go forth, to be fruitful and multiply.