Made in America: Abstract Expressionist Prints Reemerge

Made in America: Abstract Expressionist Prints Reemerge – art industry information

Laura Meyers

Abstract Expressionism was the first avant-garde art movement born in the United States, and paintings from the era fetch millions of dollars. Now, Abstract Expressionist prints are enjoying an upsurge of interest, spurred by a traveling museum show and by hip, young collectors furthering their love affairs with all things mid-century and modern.

With its heroic-dimensioned canvases, concentration on spontaneity, physical catharsis, action painting and interest in the sensory qualities of paint, Abstract Expressionism would not seem to lend itself to the often-slow technical requirements and demanding discipline of printmaking. After all, Abstract Expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline explored gestural calligraphy with energetic brushstrokes loaded with paint, trying to tap into the unpremeditated creativity of their subconscious minds. The act of painting itself began to dominate artistic endeavor.

But in fact, many Abstract Expressionist artists made highly creative prints. According to Marilyn Kushner, curator of prints and drawing at the Brooklyn Museum, “Even though the idea of Abstract Expressionism doesn’t readily lend itself to printmaking, intuitive art making can carry over to the medium. The Abstract Expressionists discovered that to make a lithograph, all you have to do is draw freely on the lithograph stone to create a `free-form image.'”

“True,” added fine print dealer Daniel Lienau, owner of Annex Galleries in Santa Rosa, Calif., “the printing was a drag. But the process of drawing on a stone was very gestural.”

Because there wasn’t much of a commercial marketplace for these print works–even during the 1950s, when art dealers, museums, collectors and even government agencies offered growing support for Abstract Expressionist paintings–some artists created only a few proofs or very small editions. Many of the works fell out of sight, only to be rediscovered in recent years. But today, a stronger marketplace for these Abstract Expressionist prints is emerging.

“The 1950s look is becoming popular across the board,” said Kushner, “and the prints are still affordable,” starting at well under $1,000 and seldom exceeding $5,000.

A New Look

Currently, an important museum exhibition exploring these works is traveling across the country. “The Stamp of Impulse: Abstract Expressionist Prints” originated at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts this spring and is opening at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Nov. 18. It is subsequently scheduled to appear in Fort Worth, Texas, Southampton, N.Y., and Evanston, Ill., over the next two years.

“Abstract Expressionism is acknowledged as the leading achievement of American art in the 20th century, but its impact on the graphic arts has never fully been examined,” said David Acton, organizer of the exhibit and curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Worcester Art Museum.

“At a time when there was no market for the graphic arts, the artists often used the tools and procedures of printmaking to explore the process of creativity,” Acton explained. “These experimental prints were produced in just a few uncirculated impressions. In the past, these rare prints have often been dismissed as anomalous. However, seen together and in context, they reveal the transforming spirit of exploration and improvisational practice associated with Abstract Impressionism.”

The exhibition consists of 100 prints by artists including Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Motherwell, Rothko, Still and Newman, along with members of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists like Helen Frankenthaler and Richard Diebenkorn. And the prints represent Abstract Expressionism’s entire stylistic range, from fast and visceral to cool and ethereal.

“This exhibition is groundbreaking, especially if one gives significance to invention and innovation,” said Los Angeles art dealer lack Rutberg, who represents the estate of Hans Burkhardt, one of the artists in the show. Rutberg added, “The exhibition has established the fact that there was life before ULAE [Universal Limited Art Editions] and Tamarind. There was not a broad commercial market for these prints, so it was very much about the artistic process. These were people who were investigating a medium and pursuing a personal vision. I think there’s going to be a lot of reassessment of these works.”

The Roots of Abstract Expressionism

Two worldwide crises gave birth to Abstract Expressionism: the Great Depression and World War II. “We felt the moral crisis of a world in shambles, devastated by a great depression and a fierce world war, and it was impossible … to paint the kind of painting that we were doing–flowers, reclining nudes,” seminal American artist Barnett Newman later recalled. “So we actually began from scratch … as if painting had never existed.”

This radical and absolute break with artistic traditions yielded large, abstract “allover” paintings filled with fluid, automatic lines, spontaneous brushwork, freeform shapes and/or fields of luminous color, rooted in intuition and emotion rather than content, formal structure or decoration.

Prominent artists of the movement included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, along with other members of the New York School–Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still and Adolph Gottlieb.

The Current Marketplace

In the past few years, according to Lienau of Annex Galleries, “Abstract Expressionist prints have become more popular. If you are a young collector, this is an area where there is still not a lot of competition, and you can put together a really good collection of a period of American art for a fairly small amount of money.”

Typically, said Lienau, the prints were issued in very small editions, and now fetch between $1,200 and $3,800. He has recently offered a Walter Kuhlman lithograph, circa 1948, for $400, two Hans Burkhardt prints, each also for $400 and a 1955 John Grillo woodcut priced at $1,500. On the Internet, recently offered a Robert Motherwell lithograph, “Composition 1,” for $4,383. At the lower end of the scale, lithographs by Paul Jenkins recently sold from $200 to $500 at a sale of fine art handled by Los Angeles Modern Auctions.

Like many dealers, Lienau has also marketed prints by the prolific artist and printmaker Sam Francis, including one lithograph for $4,000. Art dealer Jay Magidson, owner of Magidson Fine Art in Aspen, Colo., sells many Francis fine art prints (in part because Magidson owns the Web site), with current asking prices as high as $12,500 for a 1971 five-color lithograph, “Vegetable I,” printed in an edition of 15. “Francis keeps getting more popular,” said Magidson. “People who don’t know about art or Abstract Expressionism like looking at his work. But Francis was also one of the most important Abstract Expressionists for printmaking–he really believed in printmaking, he worked with a top printer, and ultimately he opened his own print workshop.” At the low end, Francis prints fetch about $1,500 and $25,000 at the top, said Magidson, “with the majority between $3,000 and $15,000.”

However, according to Lienau, the big names like Francis are not necessarily the draw. “The interest is coming mostly from young people in their 20s and 30s with unjaundiced views,” he said. “They are interested in the images. They don’t know the names–and they don’t care for the most part. They are not afraid or intimidated by abstract images, and they are not trying to read meaning into it. It’s a little bit retro–and I think it’s really exciting.

“Like many of the best collectors, these young collectors are working in an area where few others are looking and where you can put together a great collection on a shoestring,” he continued.

One such young collector is Joseph Morsman, a Los Angeles film industry production assistant who started buying Abstract Expressionist prints in the late 1990s. “I’m a novice collector, and I have a pretty strict spending limit,” said Morsman, who typically purchases prints priced between $400 and $600. “I’d never really collected art until I started collecting Abstract Expressionist prints. I went to a show and found myself drawn to them. I can feel the emotion. I wasn’t drawn to Old Master works or figurative works.”

“Still,” he continued, “It’s not as if every month I buy something. And I can’t really afford the big names. But some really great artists made Abstract Expressionist prints.” Morsman recently purchased works by Kuhlman, a San Francisco artist whose prints “were stuffed away and recently resurfaced,” and a print by fellow San Franciscan James Kelly.

Kuhlman is not the only Abstract Expressionist artist whose work has recently reemerged. “Nobody has stacks and stacks of these things lying around,” admitted Los Angeles dealer Rutberg, “but fortunately, in the case of Hans Burkhardt, we have retained a few examples–even when, as recently as 20 years ago, it was hard to give away some of the Abstract Expressionists’ paintings. Europeans just shunned them. Burkhardt’s prints start at under $1,000 and go to several thousand, said Rutberg. “This was an artist who was seeking to find nuance in the freedom of printmaking–he was not seeking the multiplicity of many prints.” Other Abstract Expressionists whose work has garnered recent collecting attention, according to Rutberg, are Pollock, of the recent Academy Award-nominated bio-pic, Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife and subject, and Clyfford Still, subject of a major retrospective at the Smithsonian Museum.

“There has been a tremendous increase in interest in postwar design, and from that I believe has come an interest in these prints,” observed Peter Loughrey, owner/auctioneer at Los Angeles Modern Auctions. For example, California painter/printmaker Juliette Steele is among the least-known of the artists included in “The Stamp of Impulse” exhibition. “Her work is almost completely unknown,” said Loughrey. “Her prints, in theory, should be worth very little. Yet people are competing for them at auction. I’m sure these buyers are not collectors paying attention to the art market–they are not looking at it as a hobby or an investment. They are decorating with these pieces.”

Indeed, he said, if a collector lives in a mid-century modern home “with an [Charles and Ray] Eames chair and a [Eero] Saarinen end table and a [Isamu] Noguchi lamp, an Abstract Expressionist print on the wall pulls the look together.” So would, of course, “a Jackson Pollock painting, but we can’t all be Steve Martin.” (The actor is a noted collector of expensive modern and contemporary art.) “The biggest driving factor is these pieces have all the visual quality and punch of a Pollock painting.”

From Loughrey’s perspective as a decorative arts and furnishings expert, “This mid-century design movement that is so popular today literally started with the decorative arts. But keep in mind, for the first time Americans led a decorative arts and fine arts movement. We were no longer following whatever the French did.

“This was `Made in America,’ in the literal sense,” he continued. “The artists and designers were rejecting classical elements in all senses and were coming up with something fresh and new.”

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