Every five years, Hiram Butler Gallery breaks out its all-star prints from hiding. The current iteration of that concept, simply called "Prints," reads like a Who's Who of mid-century print artists: there's Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Richard Serra and Cy Twombly, to name some of the 11 artists on display. With such big names, you'd expect some powerhouse pieces, and the show certainly delivers.
The selections range from old to new, mostly black and white works, with the rare splash of color thrown into the mix. The latter definitely helps Rauschenberg's vivid "Kill Devil Hill" stand out. The horizontal diptych lithograph, whose name refers to the site of the Wright brothers' first flight, in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, features three transient items -- a red Shop-Rite bag, a blue, translucent kerchief, and an orangish bicycle in another nod to the fathers of flight/bicycle makers. The bike even seems to be taking flight, its front wheel tilting up in the air. Though it's the blue kerchief -- a simple square, really -- that manages to anchor it all together, even as it's dissected by the print.
Another standout is an untitled print by Rauschenberg's contemporary, Cy Twombly. Notably, Twombly made the lithograph and then added scrawls of graphite by hand, making for a moody, messy and highly emotional piece.
Prints by the renowned sculptor Fred Sandback also make the cut, his minimalist yellow and black lines still attempting the same sharp angles and geometric planes as his famous yarn sculptures. Agnes Martin is another artist who works in minimal lines, though hers are more orderly and borrow from a grid, going up or across following the rules of its specific logic. A series of ten of her compositions are presented here in its own grid and logic -- three by three, with the tenth outcast lying curiously on the floor underneath when I visited. Amid all those lines, the organic curves of Terry Winters's "Section" and Ellsworth Kelly's "Melon Leaf," fittingly paired next to each other, are welcome.
There's plenty of Richard Serra to see in Houston right now, thanks to a current retrospective up at the Menil, though Hiram Butler adds one more piece to the mix. "Weight IV" is a rich, black etching that's dramatically placed right next to the glaring sunlight of the gallery's windows. Unfortunately, when framed and covered by Plexiglas, the black drawing becomes a mirror, the texture and richness of the black difficult to see past your own reflection. Of course, if the gallery could hang the print on its own, it would, but with the print vulnerable to the erratic temperature and humidity of Houston weather -- never mind the bugs -- that doesn't leave any options. These works may be powerhouses, but they're as delicate and fragile as, well, paper.
Running concurrently with the "Prints" exhibition are three rare prints by Jasper Johns. The artist is synonymous with his flag imagery, and here, the gallery has managed to pull together three of his "Two Flags" prints. The black-and-white drawings all feature twin imagery -- two flags either next to or on top of each other -- though they vary in the intensity of their drawing. A silk-screen from 1973 is so dark and near-black, it's remarkable there's even the image of a flag there at all.
"Prints" and "Two Flags" is at Hiram Butler Gallery, 4520 Blossom St., now through May 19. For more information, call 713-863-7097 or visit the gallery's Web site.