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Sunday, September 13, 2020

Masterful prints at the Fenimore Art Museum

Albrecht Dürer - Agony in the Garden (Christ on the Mount of Olives), 1508
detail of a print from the Engraved Passion series

It can be easy to overlook printmaking as an art form, especially in our current digital age, where a few clicks will get you a nice image made of ink on paper. But two very different shows currently on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown serve as timely reminders that it wasn’t always so easy, and that it still takes vision to make easy into wonderful.

All fans of visual art know the name Albrecht Dürer, but most of us probably didn’t know that Dürer “singlehandedly transformed printmaking from a craft to a fine art” in the late 1400s and early 1500s, as postulated and amply demonstrated by the traveling exhibition Albrecht Dürer: Master Prints, on loan to FAM through Nov. 22 from Pennsylvania’s Reading Public Museum.

Fall of Man from the Small Woodblock Passion, c. 1510
The show includes more than 20 examples of Dürer’s woodblocks and copper engravings, including all 16 of the “Engraved Passion” series. Though the prints are quite small (typically about 2.5 by 4.5 inches), they are packed with detail; and, though they are monochromatic, they feature an engaging range of tones and textures, emphasized by Dürer’s signature chiaroscuro style. A few examples of work by contemporaries who influenced or were influenced by Dürer are also included here, and they provide the context to support the idea that his work transcended illustration to achieve true artistic expression in a medium generally meant for popular consumption.

Not that Dürer eschewed popularity – on the contrary, according to the exhibition wall text, “his prints circulated throughout Europe, making him one of the most influential artists of his age.” Something like today’s YouTube or Instagram stars, he gave the people what they wanted, providing his own special twists in the form of naturalistic curiosities, bravura line work, and visual puzzles. The woodblock print Fall of Man provides one example of these strengths – whereas a simple rendering of Adam and Eve with the snake would do, Dürer adds other animals such as a bear (or is it a boar?) and a peeping lion, along with his classic personal logo on a trompe l’oeil metal tag.

Joachim and the Angel from The Life of the Virgin, 1504
Dürer honed his craft and his vision during a trip to Italy in his 20s – no surprise that exposure to the culture that spawned Renaissance art would make him a better artist, too – but his work still radiates a German sensibility in its emotional restraint and controlled, almost analytical approach. Equally, the religious and moral subject matter of these images speaks of their time and place, and presumably of Dürer’s Christian devotion, but there’s much more than Biblical storytelling to their content. Another fine example is Christ Shown to the People, in which several exquisitely detailed human figures, a darkly vivid forest, and a microscopic farming scene are all crammed into a small engraving, emulating some of the best qualities of Italian art of the time.

All in all, with a little patience (and maybe a magnifying glass, available for use in the museum), this display of Dürer’s master works will greatly reward any visitor.

Kykuit Estate, Tarrytown, New York
Flashing forward to the 21st century, an exhibition of beautifully realized inkjet-printed photographs by Steve Gross and Susan Daley entitled Blue Gardens makes a strong complement to the Dürer show.

Gross and Daley work as a duo, and they built this collection of images over more than a decade (mixed in with other projects), by visiting numerous venerable parks and estates to capture their seemingly timeless outdoor spaces using digital cameras.

The resulting show of 22 prints, all of them transformed to the mellow blue tones of a cyanotype, provides both a document of these special places and a lush and pensive visual style that the pair have cultivated over many decades of photographing landscapes and gardens together. The beautiful consistency of this group belies the diversity of its subjects, ranging from South Carolina to Upstate N.Y.

Untermyer Park, Yonkers, New York
All but two of the prints are a medium size for photographs (about 11” by 18”), which is small enough to draw you in close, but still big enough to allow you to enter the space and peruse the finely rendered details of plants, statuary, architectural elements, and water features (natural or man-made). Two of the prints are much larger (about 30” by 40”), which helps them work well when viewed from a distance, and emphasizes their strong compositional effects.

In many of these pictures, the sky is a powerful presence. This may have been part of the reason for printing in blue, or just a happy byproduct of the decision to render the gardens themselves in blue, but the effect of that choice works beautifully (I have tried to imagine these images in a classic grey monotone instead, and it doesn’t seem to work at all). In any case, the skies are crucial to the work precisely because, while the rest of the subject matter is virtually unchanged from its inception a century or more ago, the ever-changing sky captured in a fleeting moment firmly anchors the images as photographs, timeless though they may seem.

Blue Gardens will remain on view at FAM through Dec. 31.

Steve Gross and Susan Daley - Crane Estate, Ipswich, Massachusetts


John Rowen said...

David: Thank you for the updates on these two shows. I often get a single color in a photograph. But the reason is mostly because of my lack of knowledge of digital camera settings, rather than an planned artistic strategy.

Are you going to cover the Everson's auction of their Jackson Pollock painting?

It's a story that has stirred things up as far west as the "Los Angeles Times'" arts page.

david brickman said...

Hi John - Monochromatic photographs, whether on purpose or by accident, are always a good option!
Thanks for sharing the info about the Everson auctioning a Pollock.
I wasn't aware of it, but would say that's a little outside my purview here.
The LA Times article does provide a lot of interesting perspective on it.
With any luck, it will remain in some way on public view after it's sold ... as was the case with the Berkshire Museum's Rockwells.

Robert C. (Bob) Conner said...

I'll have to get down there.