WORCESTER - Picture an Abstract Expressionist artist, and chances are you see a painter flinging, splashing, and athletically brushing paint on a canvas. Spontaneity and improvisation are hallmarks of Abstract Expressionism, and painting can be a deliciously immediate process. Printmaking, because it requires more steps and results in a mirror image of the one on the printing plate, demands forethought. It's not a medium ordinarily associated with Abstract Expressionism.
Indeed, at the time this artistic movement rose to prominence, printmaking went fallow. These were the years between government-funded WPA print projects and the emergence of printing cooperatives, contemporaneous with Pop Art. Yet Abstract Expressionist artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Adolph Gottlieb all experimented with printmaking, even though painting paid better; it still does.
David Acton, curator of prints, drawings, and photography at the Worcester Art Museum since 1986, recognized a dearth of exhibitions and publications about Abstract Expressionist printmaking. He and collector James N. Heald II set out to fill the niche and have made the WAM collection one of the leading repositories of these prints worldwide. In 2001, WAM staged a landmark Abstract Expressionist print show, "The Stamp of Impulse." It proved that printmaking could be as daring, inventive, and operatically calligraphic as painting, if a little more process-oriented.
"Abstract Expressionist Prints," now up at WAM, follows up "The Stamp of Impulse" with some of the museum's latest acquisitions and other prints from the museum's vaults. With only 38 works, it lacks the breadth of "The Stamp of Impulse," but the smaller size invites deep engagement with the art, which is a treasure trove.
The exhibit includes some small gems and other prints that don't entirely succeed, but illustrate the tensions between the free-wheeling approach and the labor-intensive medium. Look at Eleanore Lockspeiser's untitled soft ground etching and drypoint from 1961. Lockspeiser layered white and black strokes that mimic the dancing fluidity of Expres sionistic brushstrokes, but they hit a wall; they have an odd stiffness, probably because etching, which involves biting acid into a plate, is close, exhaustive work.
Clinton Hill's "Tall Figure" (1956) is an odd if fruitful marriage of Expressionistic mark-making and the brute labor of the woodcut. Hill painted his board, then cut around what he painted, making a stark, black-on-white totemic image of circles and streaks.
Lithographs and screenprints, which allow for more spontaneity, better invited painterly experimentation. A bright, coy, untitled 1972 screenprint by Gottlieb sets scrubby little squib marks dancing along the bottom of a glowing yellow field. In an untitled 1974 screenprint, Norman Bluhm builds a vortex of fluid gesture and brash color. Splashes of gray circle passages of black that suggest deep space, layered with blue and yellow; gray dribbles across the center activate a tension between surface and depth.
For sheer virtuosity of brawny gesture, Pollock and de Kooning can't be beat. In 1951, Pollock made an edition of photo silkscreens of the works he made for a painting exhibition. "Untitled (Black Painting Number 22)" comes from that suite. The image is more gestural than drippy, and the thick black strokes suggest a round, fleshy figure. It's dynamic, but the paintings were not well received by fans of Pollock's drips and splatters. Acton says the prints didn't sell well.
De Kooning's energetic lithograph "Landscape at Stanton Street" (1971) sports muscular strokes in blacks and grays making a fracas around a central fizzy eruption.
These prints are smaller than the large-scale paintings we're used to from Abstract Expressionists. The gestures are familiar, but less brashly declarative. It's like the difference between watching someone give a performance onstage and meeting him at a dinner party. The energy is still there, but it's quieter and more intimate.
A luscious 1960 lithograph by Sam Francis, "Coldest Stone," combines that artist's keen interest in color with action painting. A wild wash of blue in the middle, like water plashing on your windshield at the car wash, rushes back and forth between anchoring blots of more solid color.
Ray Parker's elegant, undated lithograph "Untitled (CP 208)" looks more refined than Expressionistic. He based the work on a painting, but built it from the painting's negative spaces, not its marks. He copied those interstices and filled them with bright, flat tones, making a work that recalls Matisse. It's playful, but lacks the bravado typical of Abstract Expressionism.
In 1963 sculptor Louise Nevelson made lithographs at the Tamarind Workshop in Los Angeles, patching together found objects on her printing stone the way she did in her sculptural assemblages. The untitled print on view here shows textures - a paper doily, cheesecloth, screen - rising with the pallor of a full moon out of inky blackness.
It's fascinating to see how artists such as Nevelson redirected their vision into printmaking. The printing press was and is a lab for painters and sculptors to explore their aesthetics via a different, sometimes more intensive process. What came out on the page was sometimes astonishing and sometimes awkward, but almost always revealing.