Under Pressure: it’s the title of a Queen/David Bowie song, whose opening riff was famously not ripped off by Vanilla Ice (aka Robert Van Winkle); it is what we are in this modern world; but most importantly (i.e., most relevant to what you are reading right now), it’s the anemic title of the exhibit currently showing at the Utah Museum of Fine Art through Jan. 14, 2014. Anemic because the title lacks the same throbbing pulse as the show itself. The pieces collected in Under Pressure span the last five decades of printmaking (get it? pressure…printmaking) culled from collector Jordan D. Schnitzer’s expansive personal collection. The exhibit has four stops: Nebraska, Kansas, our own 801 and Montana. Schnitzer graciously and enthusiastically lent, without any fees, this fragment of his personal collection to the traveling show to provide people the opportunity to experience some of the best artists of our time.
As a printmaker myself, and a student of the medium’s history, I was the wide-eyed kid in a candy store at this show. Viewing the Richard Serra prints alone are worth the cost of gas to get to the museum, the cost of admission, and a coffee at the café. True to Serra form, the prints are a monumental force with the presence and physicality seen in his sculptures and drawings. The standout piece and highlight of the show, “Vesturey II” (1991) is vertically aligned — a doorway beckoning you in, like a portal to some Serra-esque dimension filled with molten lead and rusted, precariously placed, domineering steel walls. Called an intaglio construction, the piece is arguably THE testament to the experience of viewing art in person, as opposed to viewing a reproduction. At a distance the work appears to be a large black void slightly askew to the straight edges of the paper. Upon closer inspection, details emerge from the void along with the physical weight of its presence. Embossed into the paper, the black ‘void’ raises from the surface what looks like a full quarter to half inch filled with line, texture and general surface noise. There is detail in the emptiness.
Serra’s other print in the show, “Pasolini” (1987), is horizontally aligned and recalls a stoic architectural cube in a barren landscape. Both prints are like black holes, sucking the noise and life out of the space around them. Austere in presence, they create a sense of cold heaviness in the spaces around and between them — very unfortunate for the three or four pieces separating the two on the adjacent wall, which are remarkable pieces in their own right. Two of these are by Helen Frankenthaler, and deserve their own wall, or own space to occupy. Frankenthaler was one of the few artists who had the foresight to see printmaking as an independent medium with opportunities for chance and discovery not available in painting. Unfortunately, her beautifully delicate lithograph is drowned out by the domineering Serra it shares a space with. Frankenthaler was an amazingly influential artist and one of the few prominent female abstract expressionists in a field dominated by the aggressive, testosterone-fueled male; her pieces positioned as they are in this show are a good metaphor for this unfortunate disparity.
A series of Sol LeWitt linocut prints (“Color Bands” [Wadsworth Portfolio] 2000) pull you into the next gallery. Featuring the artist’s trademark rainbow array of lines laid out in each piece according to his specific instructions, the pieces have a hypnotic effect. Again, this series would show better in its own space, where the exuberant color and the mesmerizing line work would have the full opportunity to engulf the viewer. But the piece also works as a catalyst to draw the audience into further galleries. LeWitt’s work and style are unmistakable, and having it as visual tease across from the gallery entrance is a tantalizing hint at what Under Pressure has to offer.
The proceeding gallery highlights realism in printmaking with a remarkable Richard Estes screenprint and another standout piece, “’68 Nova, From the Documenta Portfolio” (1972) by Robert Bechtle — a full color lithograph of a 1968 Chevy Nova parked in an open, covered stall under an apartment complex, or maybe a motel? Both the Estes and Bechtle use space, line and dimension to depict a sterile and complacent view of Americana. They go a step beyond the camera’s squared off frame of reality and flatten out the scene one step further, creating a familiar landscape that is separated and removed from the reality it depicts.
Walking through the next gallery, it is easy to blow right past the Damien Hirst prints on the wall — they offer no redeeming value to the show, other than their potential marketing purposes. ‘Look! We have a Damien Hirst!’ Meh. Is it a decaying dead beast in formaldehyde? Nope, it is an etching of his spot paintings, which begs the question, why labor over an etching to create one of his spot pieces? The etching process to produce the variety of colors, in as crisp and clean a manner as his paintings and on a scale not normally reserved for etching is, I can tell you from experience, quite an undertaking. That technical aspect is the only reason to potentially stop and ponder as you move through to the next gallery, where you will be greeted by a set of 10 Donald Judd woodcut prints that are hung on the wall in two vertical columns, reminiscent of his admired and well-known sculptural stacks. “Untitled (S. 158--166) from 1968,” like the Serra pieces, is a testament to the adaptability of printmaking in conveying a sculptural presence similar to the media these artists are most known for.
The remaining galleries offer similar surprises and a strong finish to the show. Back in the large gallery where the show begins, but at the other end of the room, two Enrique Chagoya lithographs are ripe with satire and socio-political motivation, much in line with printmaking’s tradition as a means of propaganda and the dissemination of information. Chagoya does not shy from sensitive themes and he uses humorous, caricatured figures of religious, political and historical notoriety as his subjects, often times pushing the boundaries and comfort levels of the viewer, sometimes even causing actual physical reactions. A woman with a crowbar attacked one of his pieces in Colorado for what she felt were sacrilegious depictions of Christ. While the pieces on view here might be a touch more tame, they are still very much polemical: “The Pastoral or Arcadian State: Illegal Alien’s Guide to Greater America,” from 2006, shows a figure flayed of his skin addressing a random group of immigrants from different backgrounds. A masked, Lone Ranger Humpty Dumpty — yes the egg character of famed storybook and song — sits in the corner with a speech bubble that reads ‘an infinity of interpretations leading to none.’ This is a commentary not only on contemporary ideas of art but also on Chagoya himself and the continued controversy that surrounds his work.
While you most likely won’t be greeted by Freddie Mercury, David Bowie or Vanilla Ice, (but let’s not rule it out) while visiting the UMFA, Under Pressure is still a show of collaboration and prominence. There is the obvious collaboration between the master printers’ studios and the artists that made these works possible, the partnership of the museum and Schnitzer to utilize his collection, and finally the relationship between the viewer and the pieces on display. It is like the old philosophical argument, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it make a sound? A review like this can tell you about the show, what works and what doesn’t, but the exhibit itself is nothing without its audience.
Under Pressure: Contemporary Prints from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation is at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts through Jan. 5, 2014.