Back in 1964, a group of mostly non-printmaking artists got together with a man named Ires-Sillman– a guy who produced most of Josef Albers’ prints– and made their own prints. The idea was to see what they could do working in a new medium, one to which they weren’t necessarily accustomed. The results of that experiment in cross-media fertilization are now on display at the University of Virginia Museum of Art in the exhibit “Ten Works by Ten Painters: A Portfolio of Screenprints.”
It must have been a fun scene and a good idea, at least in a small way, but the reason that the work they created is still being shown is mostly that a few of the artists involved were either famous or about to be. The draws, of course, are biggies such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, though other artists of note are here, too.
The exhibit itself, modest and colorful, touches on many elements common to art of its vintage as well as to its creators. Simple shapes and geometric patterns dominate. George Ortman’s print situates crosses and circles in a field of cross-hatched yellow. Ellsworth Kelly’s leaves a patch of red shaped like the head of a whale lurching across the bottom half of a field of blue.
Of course, Lichtenstein’s pop culture obsession is evident in his print, a tricolor rendering of a diner sandwich and soda on a plate– all formed in thick, cartoonish lines. Only Warhol really differentiates himself with his contribution, a high-contrast print of a photograph from the Birmingham race riots. As with much Warhol, however, the piece is high on the gesture scale, low on craft and aesthetic.
At the time, the big deal about this project was the commercial/exposure side. It allowed artists who didn’t work in prints to do so, then to print a bunch of copies, and make their art much more available and accessible to people who might want to buy it.
Not surprisingly, now, a few decades later, an exhibit of this stuff seems more like a collection of b-sides. None of it ranks with the more notable work of these artists, and because the exhibit includes only a single work from each artist, the emphasis inevitably falls on the circumstances of production rather than the individual aesthetic of each artist. In other words, it’s a curiosity, but, yes, an entertaining one.
The University of Virginia Art Museum shows “Ten Works by Ten Painters: A Portfolio of Screenprints” through June 23. Rugby Road. 924-4298