Saint Louis Art Museum’s Newest Exhibition Focuses on Prints from the 1960s to Today

Certain images become so strongly imprinted on popular culture that they maintain their popularity and significance long after an era ends. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup II portfolio from 1969, which includes this Oyster Stew image, is a great example of this. His two screenprinted Campbell’s Soup series represent a noteworthy departure in the artist’s work, after he “retired” from painting and began to produce screenprint editions of his most famous images.

This is just one of about 100 works of art on view in the Saint Louis Art Museum’s newest exhibition, “Graphic Revolution: American Prints 1960 to Now.”

“Graphic Revolution” features works by artists who partnered with publishers and printers to experiment with new and old mediums and, in the process, created ingenious ways of rethinking contemporary art. It casts a broad net, bringing together art from the ’60s to the early 21st century. The works featured are from the Museum’s collection as well as from numerous St. Louisans —this mix of works from private and public collections celebrates the art collecting that has happened locally in the past 60 years.

In the following Q&A, Elizabeth Wyckoff, the Museum’s curator of prints, drawings and photographs, and Gretchen L. Wagner, the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow for prints, drawings and photographs, discuss what sparked the printmaking boom of the ’60s, the diverse ways that printmaking has shifted the art market, and how the medium has remained revolutionary for more than 50 years.

Saint Louis Art Museum's Newest Exhibition Focuses on Prints from the 1960s to Today

Roy Lichtenstein, American, 1923–1997; Head, 1980; woodcut with embossig; sheet: 40 × 33 5/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Julian and Hope Edison 87:2012.6 © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.

What provoked the sudden boom in printmaking in the ’60s?
Gretchen L. Wagner: Starting in the ’60s, there was a group of printers and publishers who wanted to work and collaborate with the latest and greatest contemporary artists, the ones that were doing the edgiest work, and were really taking the country by storm from New York to Los Angeles. All of a sudden this collaboration between artists, printers and publishers really congealed, and there was a great uptick of amazing contemporary American art projects in the form of prints, books, and multiples.

Were there hot artists of the time that printers and publishers were reaching for? Were there any major collaborations that became popularized during this time period?
Elizabeth Wyckoff: During this period there was a rise in demand for art made by American artists. The publishers were seeking artists who were working on a very large scale. Compared to large and expensive paintings, prints were more accessible to collectors who lived in a New York City apartment, for example, or had a family and didn’t have that much to invest.

GW: Some of the artists excited by this were Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, and Lee Bontecou. They were really early adopters of printmaking.

The name of the exhibition is “Graphic Revolution.” What makes the artwork in this exhibition revolutionary?
GW: I think when people come into the exhibition, [they] will be surprised by the type of artwork they’re seeing. We’re including artists’ books, as well as items that are printed on plastic, and work that might look like something you’d pick up in a local shop. Artists were very much thinking about the different shapes art could take, and how you get that out to an audience. Artists like Ed Ruscha specifically turned to books because they were trying to find alternatives to the gallery system. Books offered a way to do that, because for a couple dollars you could get your work out there and circumvent galleries. That, in its own way, was a revolution.

What similarities and differences did you notice within the 50-year span of time the exhibit covers?
GW: Every gallery cuts across generations, including some very recent acquisitions for the museum. Instead of organizing the show chronologically, we looked at the similarities between the works.  Some of these themes include featuring the publishers, and highlighting what came out of their collaborative efforts with the artists. We’re also looking at issues of the times, and what artists picked up on from the culture around them, be it social movements or mass media. Another theme is unexpected formats­—how do artists that work in film, performance, or textiles get into printmaking, and what do they make?

EW: There’s a gallery that we’re calling the “graphic boom” which features works by Andy Warhol, who was heavily drawing from the mass media. He uses an image of Jackie Kennedy taken on the ride through Dallas shortly before JFK was assassinated, and he manipulates it and reverses it. That artwork is hanging near a print by Betye Saar of a slave ship icon, an image that also comes from media, but from the 18th-century. So, the sources can be very diverse, but both were pulling from popular mass media and major events of current or past times.

Saint Louis Art Museum's Newest Exhibition Focuses on Prints from the 1960s to Today

Edgar Heap of Birds with his work, Sovereign. Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Do you have a favorite artwork or gallery from the exhibition?
EW: The Museum has made a couple acquisitions of recent works in the very last gallery. One is a massive etching by Julie Mehretu, and another is a large group of monotypes by Edgar Heap of Birds. To me, it was very exciting to enrich the Museum’s collections with really major works by important contemporary artists of the moment.

GW: One artwork, another recent acquisition for the museum, is by Cory Arcangel. He’s known for his digital art primarily, but he has started his own publishing initiative called Arcangel Surfware. This series of artist’s books is comprised of the computer language for his digitally-based installations, sculptures, and other projects, so if you buy one of these books—which costs just a few dollars—and if you can code, and locate the Atari gaming system or whichever software application required, you can produce the work.  It shows how analog printed matter has enticed artists who are working digitally and how it has become part of their art.

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“Graphic Revolution: American Prints 1960 to Now” is on view through February 3, 2019, at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 am-5 pm, and until 9 pm on Fridays. Ticket info at slam.org/graphicrevolution.

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Featured image courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum.

 

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