The Unique Print

The Unique Print: 70’s into 90’s
Organized by Clifford Ackley, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix December 1990)

In Melissa Johnson‘s Red Kantharos, Black Pegasus, a blood-red Greek urn floats on a dark grey ground like a ship on Homer’s wine-dark sea. Everything in the picture seems ancient, corroded by time, and everything is moving, except Pegasus. The winged horse is perfectly still, suspended for a moment in his timeless, soaring flight.

Red Kantharos, Black Pegasus is a monotype — one of almost a hundred unique contemporary prints now on view at the MFA in The Unique Print, organized by Clifford Ackley, the museum’s brilliant curator of prints, drawings, and photographs. Like all of Ackley’s shows, The Unique Print is subtle, generous, and profound; it unfolds gradually, revealing layer upon layer of beauty and meaning.

Printmaking is traditionally a medium capable of producing identical versions of the same image; but all the artists here use the techniques of printmaking to create images that are one-of-a-kind. Some make monotypes — improvisational prints that produce only one (mono-) strong impresssion (-type). Others create hybrids — unique combinations of media, like etchings or woodcuts that have been individually inked or painted over. Some of the prints here are dazzling technical tours de force, but this show works beautifully as a visual experience, whether you know anything about prints or not.

In monotype, there is no fixed image on the printing surface. The artist paints or draws on a printing plate, makes changes, and prints again; the final proof is an accumulation of all the changes that have been made. Pale, faded images of past impressions often cling to monotypes like shadows; they are called “ghosts.”

In Stanley Boxer‘s individually inked woodcut Furroweddusts, many layers of ink were wiped out and repainted to create a field of color as rich and luminous as stained glass. In John Chamberlain‘s sculptural  monotype from his Mizzy Dinomania series, pieces of metal, plastic, and thick, brightly colored globs of paint went through the press. Compressed onto paper, they look crashed together and melted down. Joan Snyder‘s fluid, painterly Swimmer shows a woman swimming, flowing with motion and emotion through a pool of dark blue water. Pat Steir‘s Waterfall is a watery fall of paint over a dense, ambiguous ground marked by multiple erasures and ghostly crossings-out. It has the dark, melancholy feeling of things seen through water — or rain — or tears.

Many of these exceptional prints can be read as metaphors for memory and the workings of the mind — what Walter Pater, in The Renaissance (1873) , called “that strange perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves.”  Therese Oulton‘s monotype shows ethereal, richly colored winged shapes floating on a faded terracotta sky, like birds or angels — thoughts or dreams. John Cage‘s etching The Missing Stone shows a Zen-like garden of stones that float, drift and intertwine upon a mystical cloud of smoke

Mary Frank’s monotype Persephone is a double panel; one part shows a woman sleeping, naked and voluptuous, in the dark. The other panel shows her ecstatic awakening to the sweet green earth. These gorgeous, intensely sexual images hang next to Frank’s devastating double image of death — two carts of dead human bodies piled up like meat. The horrifying knowledge of the inevitability and anonymity of death is somehow essential to Persephone‘s passionate affirmation of her living body and the living earth. As the queen of the dead, she spends half her life sleeping underground, but when Spring comes, she returns to the earth — and knows full well how lucky she is to be alive.

Each unique print here is the result of many transformations. Michael Mazur‘s Weeping Beech I, a monotype on silk, shows a treetrunk rising erect and strong through its sensuous leaves and sinuous branches. In Helen Frankenthaler‘s Drawing on Woodblock Proof II, the grain of a piece of wood from an earlier woodcut shows through a veil of silvery tones of pale, almost purply pink and white. The print seems to combine the softness of a woman’s body with the immobility of a tree, so it reminded me of the story of Daphne in Ovid‘s Metapmorphosis — a girl who turns into a tree.

“Her limbs grew numb and heavy, her soft breasts
Were closed with delicate bark, her hair was leaves,
Her arms were branches, and her speedy feet
Rooted and held, and her head became a tree top,
Everything gone except her grace, her shining.”

Many of these extraordinary prints refer to nature — a reflection both of curator Ackley’s love of the natural world and of monotype’s ability to convey a sense of growth and change. And they reveal the process by which they were made –they bear on their surface the marks of their making.

By acknowledging their many transformations, they embody a commitment to truth to a moment in all its complexity.   As Pater wrote,

“Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end…To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life…Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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