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Flexing Those Abs 

Abstract expressionists combine impulse and control in a rare collection of prints.

"August," by James Kelly, lithograph.
  • "August," by James Kelly, lithograph.
Twentieth-century abstract artists often wanted to be seen as revolutionaries, the "bad boys" of the art world. Abandoning traditional subjects and methods, they sought to tap into visions engendered by spontaneous emotions (Freud, the subconscious, surrealism all were in the air). It is this rejection of conventionality and established artistic processes that makes their methodically created prints special and rare. That such prints exist at all illustrates a contradiction in terms: deliberate spontaneity.

The Cleveland Museum of Art exhibition The Stamp of Impulse: Abstract Expressionist Prints provides a fine opportunity to see prints made by some of the biggest names in abstract art. This extensive traveling show of 100 works, based on the collection in the Worcester (Massachusetts) Art Museum, demonstrates how spontaneity and surrealism can emerge from the awkward combination of impulse and control demanded by abstract printmaking.

Initially, the AbExes (as they are sometimes known) eschewed printmaking as a medium because it was conventional, required a laborious, deliberate process, and was wed too closely to commercial applications such as advertising. Eventually, however, lured by government grants during the WPA period and afterwards by opportunities to support themselves by teaching printmaking in schools, some experimented with the medium.

Not many of these works survive. Relatively few were made and, until recently, collectors -- and the artists themselves --had little interest in them.

The 1945 print by Mark Rothko, for example, the only one he's known to have done, came about after Rothko was hired to teach a printmaking class at Brooklyn College. Learning as he went, and perhaps with the help of his friend and fellow abstract expressionist Adolph Gottlieb, he created a print left untitled, which was never exhibited while he was alive. In this etching, parallel and wavy lines below two curved figures suggest a beach; lines above them could be clouds. While this print shows a Rothko still on his way to the rich use of color that defines his mature style, its sketchy figures could easily be a primordial couple, stepping out of the waves and into evolutionary destiny. They are totemic figures much like those in his watercolor, "Baptismal Scene," created in the same year.

Gottlieb's own "Apparition," also made in 1945, is more sophisticated. Typical of Gottlieb's work in other media, this etching and aquatint has complex symbols placed together like a patchwork totem of faces and mysterious shapes; his background and foreground reflect skillfully rendered dimension and depth.

Walter Kuhlman's "Untitled" (1949) is a striking etching and aquatint on paper that the accompanying signage says represents the San Francisco Bay area and moving banks of mists and clouds against the sun. To a Clevelander, however, it looks like the Flats, approached from the west, when LTV's fires flamed against the gradually lightening morning sky.

Other prints worth a long look include Peter Busa's screenprint, "Constellation" (1946), with two wavy-lined figures whose outlines make intimate contact in the darkness (this one is a sexually explicit abstract). This surrealist screen print explores the nature not just of attraction, but of creation itself, in a style reminiscent of Native American narrative art.

Elaine de Kooning's "Tibor de Nagy" (1957), created as a poster, blends gold and red inks to make an appealing blend of form and function. It's practical, giving the place and dates of one of her shows, and exuberant, sending lines up and across the page in celebration. The prints that employ color, such as hers, as well as Willem de Kooning's and Hugo Weber's "Untitled" (1964), provide welcome relief to eyes numbed by black and white prints.

"Icarus" (1963/64), by John von Wicht takes up a wall, floor to ceiling, and it's awesome, in part because of the technical difficulties of making by hand a reproducible work of such size. This combination of black, cobalt, and dark orange color blocks conveys a feeling of heat, of falling, and a splash -- as befits a work named after the lad who tried to fly with wax wings and ran into a melting problem.

Some prints seem as if they must have been interesting to make, with their different processes and layers, but the resulting works turn muddy and dense. One such effort is Sam Tchakalian's "Strike Hard" (1963). The notes say this lithograph is full of "craggy surfaces [with] messages . . . in obscured calligraphy of an unknown language." Well, yes. It looks as if the artist drew some black lines, and then he drew some more black lines, and then he scribbled all over those. It takes a careful viewer and a little willing suspension of disbelief to see the way patterns merge and reemerge.

Cleve Gray's "Untitled" (1964), another lithograph, shows the same dark, blotchy quality. It was made by layers of images built on the printing stone by pouring on tusche (an ink used to draw on stone), splashing the stone with water and solvent, and then, after that dried, returning to paint the stone again. Again, the process is more fascinating than the result.

The most effective pieces in the show, such as those by George Stillman, Adja Yunkers, Lawrence Kuperman, James Kelly, and both de Koonings, exhibit sprezzatura -- a kind of fierce and careless grace, with an edge of "bite me" -- and demonstrate how the revolutionary impulse of AbEx shines through constraints imposed by a difficult medium.

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