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"Singular" Sensation

An exhibition at the MFAH highlights the overlooked art of printmaking

Printmaking has been the redheaded stepchild of the art world, never getting the same attention and respect as sculpture or painting. But art critic, art dealer and filmmaker Peter Blum wanted to change that. In 1980, he began publishing prints from a broad range of contemporary artists with the objective of creating what he considered "exhibitions in boxes." Instead of publishing random single prints by the artists he selected, he'd ask them to develop projects utilizing multiple prints; even the portfolio boxes would be individually designed for each edition.

In 1996, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston acquired all of the prints and books published by the Peter Blum Edition from 1981 to June 1994. The Edition threw in all the related materials they owned -- preliminary drawings, printing plates and proofs -- to add a behind-the-scenes look at the finished products. This year's "Singular Multiples: The Peter Blum Edition Archive, 1980-1994" has presented the entire collection, 44 projects by 23 artists in three staggered exhibitions. The largest and most interesting is the third show, which occupies the entire 25,000 square feet of the Upper Brown Pavilion.

Part of the reason his editions were so successful is that Blum never operated his own printing studio -- he could work with any printmaker anywhere. As MFAH characterizes it, he acted like a "marriage broker," pairing artists with master printers whose methods best suited each artist's work.

Alex Katz used woodblock to print 3PM, a portrait of Peter Blum and his wife.
New York
Alex Katz used woodblock to print 3PM, a portrait of Peter Blum and his wife.

Details

Through October 15.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

It was something of a tough sell for Blum to convince sculptor James Turrell to work in prints. Turrell is best known for installations that use light to alter our perceptions and create shapes in space. (The "floating" bridge in the tunnel connecting the MFAH's Beck Building and Law Building is a Turrell work.) How in the world would you translate the drama and nuances of Turrell's three-dimensional environments into a two-dimensional print?

Blum set Turrell up with master printer Peter Kneubhler to create a series of etchings. In the hands of an extremely skilled printmaker, aquatinting can produce rich, velvety blacks and delicate tonal changes. The process involves dusting a metal plate with fine powdery particles of rosin, then heating it to make them stick. The plate is then put in an acid bath that eats away the metal in the places not protected by the rosin. Once the rosin is removed, you end up with areas of texture rather than line.

Turrell's series of aquatints, First Light (1989Ė90), depicts various geometric shapes that seem to be divined from white light. They appear to float in darkened rooms, their aquatint so finely done that it mimics even the subtle alterations of light found in Turrell's installations. The Turrell etchings have amazingly dense areas of black with beautifully subtle areas of faint light. This is so hard to do well -- the aquatints in most beginning etching classes look like the cottage cheese on the ceiling of a tract home.

Eric Fischl also collaborated with Kneubhler. His six-color etching, The Year of the Drowned Dog (1983), is incredibly painterly-looking and one of the most technically challenging prints in the show. The image began as a loose, brushy watercolor -- but translating that through the etching process was anything but effortless. The print captures the essence of the original watercolor with bright clear tones depicting the sea, the artist's enigmatic sunbathers and the prone figure of a drowned dog. But to create the same brushy fluidity as the watercolor, Kneubhler had to pull out all the stops. A cornucopia of techniques was used -- "sugar-lift aquatint, soft-ground etching, scraping drypoint and roulette in colors." The process combined etching the plate with acid and directly marking and gouging the metal. On top of that, there's a separate plate for each of the six colors.

Additionally, the work is comprised of six separate prints that are pieced together like a puzzle. The drowned dog is on one image, a man putting on his bathing trunks on another. The MFAH went all multimedia in the exhibition; a monitor beside the complete print lets you press buttons that separate out each image from the whole.

Printing with woodblock is best suited to work that uses lines and/or flat areas of color. Delicate transitions aren't an option. With woodblock, the only way to create the image on the wood is to carve, chisel, sand, drill, cut or hack the material away. It's the perfect printing technique for the work of Alex Katz, whose portraits use flat areas of color and crisp line. For 3 PM (1988), a portrait of Peter Blum and his wife, Katz worked with John C. Erickson to depict an elegant couple using one stark color on the page. Their clothes are defined by pattern and fold, and their faces are sculpted by solid areas of shadow.

The Blum archive has many carefully selected and executed projects, but they aren't all necessarily as successful as those of Turrell, Fischl and Katz. Usually, this is because the artist's work itself just isn't that interesting. This archive is a product of its time -- it reads like a roll call of '80s artists, and there are a few too many European neo-expressionists in it for my taste -- although, thankfully, that section of the exhibition has closed. But as a whole, the collection has more than its share of work that's artistically interesting and technically exquisite.

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