Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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Journal 1997

Legion of Honor Introduces Anderson
Graphic Arts Collection with Twenty

By Chris Knipp

The new Anderson Graphic Arts Collection at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco provides a remarkable new meansby which to take a long look at contemporary Americanprintmaking. In an introductory exhibition of twenty works (February 8 to May 18, 1997) at the museum’s newly dedi-cated Anderson Gallery of Contemporary Graphic Art,every item is of esthetic interest, embodies or alludes to a spectacular moment in American printmaking’s recent can-you-top-this history over the last thirty years, and attests tothe Anderson family’s taste and acumen as collectors.

This inaugural show is a quick tour of the collection featuring some major highlights—Josef Albers’ and Frank Stella’s first prints and Robert Rauschenberg’s biggest-so-far lithograph (all Gemini G.E.L, 1967); a gem of a Nathan Oliveira monotype, a favorite of the collector, Harry W. Anderson; Jasper Johns’s famous Mona Lisa Figure Sevens (1968-69) and Lead Relief series (1969); a huge yet serene and delicate Jim Dine woodcut Bathrobe (1982); a large, paneled screen by David Hockney (1987); and other works inwhich notable figures are working at or near top form. These twenty pieces are the tip of a 655-piece iceberg that includes thirty-nine prints by Jasper Johns, thirty-three by Roy Lichtenstein, thirty-six by Robert Motherwell, twenty-eight by Claes Oldenburg, and thirty-two by Frank Stella.

If the strength of the whole collection in representingAmerica’s renaissance and Great Leap Forward in print-making during the last thirty years is so clear here, it may be because of the good efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Andersonand their daughter, Mary Patricia Anderson Pence, in working with the collection’s manager, Karin Breuer, who is associate curator of the Achenbach Collection, in planning the show. The Andersons’ timing as collectors, on the other hand, was as much good fortune as planning: their active period of print buying happened to coincide exactly with the development of Tyler Graphics, Gemini G.E.L., Crown Point Press, and the rest, and they were supporters, subscribers and buyers from the start. The family began their collecting career with the early modernists and moved on to the abstract expressionists, acquiring paintings and other works in as much depth as prints, with knowledge in one area complementing knowledge in another and with quality and the expression of instinctive good taste as the
overriding criteria. Because of the Andersons’ timing as collectors, the history is always there, well-recorded—the pigment in artist-handmade paper boom of the 1970s (represented in the current show by Kenneth Noland) through the monotype boom of the 1980s (Mary Frank, Oliveira in the show)—and for each new development the Andersons found outstanding examples.

Judging by this introduction, the Anderson collection will prove to have both breadth and quality, the only “speiality” being a consistent ability to acquire the best and keep up with developments in the field. Thus there are fine Elizabeth Murrays and Jennifer Bartletts (with one of each in the current show) and according to Karin Breuer, the Andersons, in their seventies, continue to buy and their house today is full of more recent prints by younger artists.The variety of imagery in the current show is almostoverwhelming given the variety of formats and media, and increasing size, more color, and more and more visible technical complexity are the only common chronological threads in the gallery. There is a sense of a quiet explosion in the way artists and master printers have been egging each other on to more and more daring exploits. There is something uniquely American about all this at the outset, even if international superstars are all making big complicated prints today.

There is a kind of conflict in our native obsession with technique and technologies. We, compared to the Europeans, are inveterate do-it-yourselfers, in printmaking as in everything else. But if an artist gets rich and famous enough, he will have to get humble and accept help to do the kind of prints he dreams of making.

A boom has its pitfalls. Gemini in particular was and is notable for the “can-do” attitude of its printers as Breuer notes in her exhibition essay, and this attracted painters full of ideas but inexperienced in the techniques or unable to achieve the work alone. Ignoring limitations is essential to breaking new ground, but when the artist is out of touch with the medium, the results can wind up being flat or unnatural. There is a less-is-more virtue in the discipline of limiting one’s means that can be lost when technicians are
urging one on. A new technique, more techniques, many techniques, grand size and Herculean endeavor can be good ways of developing new ideas, but they can also hide from the artist and from the public the fact that the artist has run out of ideas. We may enjoy the lighthearted prodi- gality of Hockney, but feel that Stella’s multi-media print creations (not seen here), like his aluminum wall pieces, look like monsters about to devour an audience whose senses have been numbed by technical overkill

After some of the more overreaching moments in the Anderson Collection introductory show, one moves with elief to the more austere pieces, the tight orange Albers Square; Stella’s gray-and-white pinstriped Star (his Op then was still by Brooks Brothers, buttoned-down), a coolly colored beige, gray-green, pale blue Motherwell collaged lithograph celebrating French taste whose very title, Pauillac (1973), is radically understated, since it refers only obliquely to the collaged label of one of the greatest bordeaux of one of the greatest years; a very late Philip Guston, Elements (1979), which is the unique celebration in the show of the simple beauty of black and white. Sometimes the presence of a team of assistants next to the excited artist-painter-printmaker could push the artist to do prints that are, well. . .pushed. When they say “can do,” sometimes you have to know when to say “let’s not.”

The rest of the iceberg, the whole 655 works in the Anderson Graphic Arts Collection, can be viewed as a whole on-line at the museum by visitors, and it is an important part of the donors’ arrangements that elements of the collection will be made available on loan to “small and mid-size” institutions in the western United States through the Anderson Collection’s Sharing Program. The newly dedicated gallery will continually show elements of the collection in three or four shows a year curated by Karin Breuer. Next will be a show dedicated to Roy Lichtenstein, opening May 31.

The Achenbach is collaborating with the National Gallery in putting on a large exhibition of the productions of Crown Point Press which will open in 1999 in Washing- ton and will occupy six galleries at the Legion of Honor. In the meantime, the Anderson Collection gallery will be worth watching as it showcases individual artists.

Chris Knipp is an artist who has done his printmaking at Kala Institute for the past ten years.

The California Printmaker

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