Printmaking fills the Berkshire hills with color

Three people have set out a blanket on the bluff. It looks like a mild late afternoon, as though they’ve climbed up for the view. I’m at WCMA, after a morning at the new Sol LeWitt retrospective of silkscreens, aquatints and lithographs, sharing a quiet minute with Katsushika Hokusai’s Amida Waterfall Deep in the Distance on the Kiso Road.

We seem to be awash in prints this winter — from Modernists here to 19th-century French prints at the Clark Art Institute to the new Bascove exhibit opening at the Norman Rockwell Museum this weekend, and a contemporary print collective from the Mokuhanga Innovation Laboratory showing Japanese woodblocks at the Southern Vermont Arts Center

At the Hyde Collection, just over the border in New York, master printmaker Robert Blackburn’s retrospective shows how he reshaped printmaking around the world. Growing up in the Harlem Renaissance, he opened his own workshop and drew a community of artists together around his lithography press.

A pattern of tapering triangles and diamonds in autumn colors, one of Sol LeWitt's series of Complex Forms prints, appears in Strict Beauty at the Williams College Museum of Art. Press image courtesy of WCMA.
Sol LeWitt

A pattern of tapering triangles and diamonds in autumn colors, one of Sol LeWitt's series of Complex Forms prints, appears in Strict Beauty at the Williams College Museum of Art. Press image courtesy of WCMA.

Like the Sōsaku-hanga artists becoming famous in Tokyo at the same time, he believed printmaking was its own artform, and that artists making their own prints could experiment with it in infinitely expressive ways. It could be a tool for artists in many countries, and many New York communities, to make their voices heard.

Maybe that’s why printmaking has caught so many curators’ attention right now — because it brings people together, and it’s available to more people to use. It takes time and immense skill to do well, but paper and ink are comparatively cheap. It opens up possibilities — for artists to make their work and show it, and for people to see it. They can make copies. They can put up posters on the streets. They can take time and work with precision, and they can also afford to experiment and try new effects.

For me, this Hokusai image keeps turning the world into new and fantastic landscapes. I know it’s meant to show water cascading down a rock face, but something about the light crossing the dark keeps fooling my eye, and I think I’m looking through tall pinnacles of rock to see the ocean and the light haze on the horizon … So the trees on each side seem to stretch up impossibly tall, and the river pours out of the sky.

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