American Screenprints

Organized by Clifford Ackley, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, September, 1989)

Many of the most memorable images of the sixties were silkscreen prints: Andy Warhol‘s soupcans and Jackies, Roy Lichtensteins‘s day-glo brushstrokes on Ben-Day dots, Sister Corita‘s Flower Power messages, Robert Indiana‘s LOVE, as well as thousands of short-lived posters and T-shirts that were printed on campuses and workshops all across America. (One of my most vivid memories of the late 60s is the squishy sound of the squeegee — a rubber blade used to push ink through a square of silk — on the small, hand-made silkscreen that I used to print hundreds of anti-war posters in Boston and San Francisco.)

American Screenprints 1930 – 1960” surveys the history of artistic silkscreen printmaking from its origins in the Silk Screen Unit of the Graphics Section of the New York Federal Art Project in 1938 to its apotheosis in Warhol’s 1967 Marilyn.

The earliest screenprints aimed for a painterly effect, captured here in Leonard Pytlak‘s brushy 1940 Standees (Garbo and Gilbert), which shows moviegoers huddled together, bundled up in shabby coats in the cheap standing-room-only balcony, enraptured by an image of glamorous lovers embracing on the big bright screen. Elizabeth Olds — the first woman artist to win a Guggenheim Fellowship — used screenprint to create a sketchy, spontaneous effect in her hilarious Adoration of the Masters, which shows tourists slinging cameras, nuns, GIs, and a woman fainting with emotion in front of Botticelli‘s Birth of Venus at the Ufizzi in Florence.

Throughout the 50s, screenprints became flatter, more linear, and more abstract. Ben Shahn‘s poetic 1959 Lute and Molecules #1 shows thin dancing lines of musical notes that echo a diagram showing molecular structure. By the 60s, silkscreen printmaking had emerged as the medium ideally suited to define the cool, hard-edged, Pop art look.

Several classic 60s images are on view here — and looking better than ever. Sister Mary Corita‘s 1966 The Daisy with all the Petals Yes is a psychedelic combination of image and text: ten Yes’s spiralling around a message of peace and love. Robert Indiana‘s original LOVE is here, with the O leaning over to embrace the L. So is Ed Ruscha‘s dazzling 1966 Standard Station, which shows gas tanks lines up in a row, each one emblazoned with a winged Chevron, beneath the great cantilever of the gas station. Above it all, big bright letters spell out STANDARD, radiant and gleaming in the California light.

And so are two stunning prints from Warhol’s 1967 series of 10 Marilyns, which he published at the Factory soon after Marilyn Monroe’s death. Both are huge, iconic close-ups of her tragic, glamorous face. One is printed in ash gray, silver, and black; the other in ultra high intensity day-glo orange, magenta, yellow, and hot pink.

Looking at the two Marilyns, I kept thinking of a 470 BC marble relief upstairs in the MFA’s Greek galleries, which (perhaps) shows Aphrodite and Persephone vying for the love of the beautiful boy Adonis.

Like Warhol’s endlessly repeating Marilyns, they are fundamentally the same woman — two sides of the eternal Art-Love-Death triangle.

Silkscreens is a portrait of a medium that defined an era. But more profoundly, it’s a tribute to the power of art to exalt, console, and endure.  Marilyn, LOVE, and even a gas station gleaming in the sunlight — these images are silkscreened forever on your mind.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser

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