Of Jasper Johns' eight works in the Baltimore Museum of Art's just-opened print show, perhaps "Untitled (Ruler) II" (1969) best shows how Johns has managed to anticipate or embrace so much of what contemporary art has been about and still remain so completely himself.
It consists of a black ground, on which are the image of a ruler and the streaks created by the scraping of the ruler across the ground. From a distance, the image is abstract and has much of the intensity and dynamism of Grace Hartigan's two nearby abstract expressionist lithographs. And it captures the dramatic contrast of light and darkness also to be seen in Barnett Newman's abstract lithograph across the way.
But its inclusion of the image of a ruler, a common object in everyday use, is related to pop art. Both the fact that we see how the image was made, and the fact that the ruler appears in reverse (because printing reverses the image), relate to revealing the process of making the work of art, a major concern of many contemporary artists, including the conceptualists. The unmistakable hand, however, is all Jasper Johns.
In a larger sense, all of Johns' prints here stand at the juncture of two great streams of contemporary art, the abstract and the representational; and in their sensuous beauty they continue an ageless impulse toward the creation of art. His "Two Flags (Black)" (1970-1972), when viewed from a distance, even has the romantic look of a picture of moonlight on rippling, velvety soft water.
Johns is one of 79 artists whose 150 works comprise "Marking the Decades: Prints 1960-1990," a huge show that impresses in a number of ways.
In a time of limited resources, when the expense of loan exhibitions makes them more difficult to do, museums are faced with drawing on their own collections more. The BMA is not in a position to have in-depth collections of unique works of art (paintings and sculpture) by scores of leading contemporary artists; but one of its great glories is its print collection, and one of its priorities with relation to that collection is in the field of contemporary art.
The current show, which draws solely on the BMA's own works and promised donations, reveals for the first time the museum's extensive assemblage of contemporary prints covering major movements from the abstract expressionism of the 1950s to the present, and representing some artists with multiple works, including Hartigan, Johns, Jim Dine and Frank Stella.
After an introductory space, in which we meet several contemporary icons (Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Helen Frankenthaler), the show is installed basically chronologically; it leads us through the decades. This is a big show and should be experienced with deliberation to get the most out of it. Don't run through; take enough time, or come back.
The first gallery, largely devoted to the 1960s, combines work of abstract artists such as Hartigan, Frankenthaler, de Kooning and Barnett Newman with figures who are letting the recognizable image in, such as Rauschenberg, Johns, Jim Dine. The emphasis on gesture and the fact that most of these works are in black and white are factors that keep this room looking more or less all of a piece.
The next gallery more emphatically reflects the explosion of the art world, the multi-faceted and even contradictory nature of art in the 1960s and 1970s. We have the pop images of Roy Lichtenstein ("Crak!", 1964) and Claes Oldenburg ("Pile of Erasers," 1975). The quintessential pop artist Andy Warhol is represented, too, but what comes through the 10 prints from the "Electric Chair" portfolio (1971) is his obsession with death, a major aspect of his work. There is the minimalism of such artists as Ellsworth Kelly (Two Yellows," 1973-1975) and Robert Ryman ("Six Aquatints," 1975). And there are artists working at the same time in a more traditional figurative manner, such as Philip Pearlstein ("Girl on Orange and Black Mexican Rug," 1973) and Romare Bearden ("The Family," 1975).
Along with these is a fine representation of the works of Frank Stella, and we can see this abstract artist relating to abstract art in his own idiosyncratic ways. His "Black Series 1" (1967) is based on paintings which first appeared at the end of the 1950s; in a time of gestural abstraction, these pointed the way to minimalism.
There follows a much quieter gallery, again largely devoted to black and white works, including some by sculptors such as Joel Shapiro, Mel Kendrick, Donald Judd. A number of avenues are explored here, from the minimalism of Judd to the neo-expressionism of Susan Rothenberg, but the emphasis is mainly on the understated (though again Stella's near-chaotic "Swan Engraving Framed 1," 1985 provides an exception).
Finally, there is a gallery devoted to a number of styles prominent in the 1980s, from the German neo-expressionism of Georg Baselitz ("Eagle," 1981) and Jorg Immendorf ("Seam," 1982) to the appropriations of Barbara Kruger ("Untitled," 1985), to a touch of the social activism of recent years. Chris Burden's "The Atomic Alphabet" (1980) is here, but also works by the Guerrilla Girls and Jenny Holzer are placed here and there around the museum so that you come upon them unexpectedly.
One could easily pick out and concentrate on any of a number of the show's aspects, such as the artists' books, of which there is a fine selection; the production of series by a number of artists including Stella, Turrell and Judd; the variety of types of printing with which the artists have worked, from woodcut and lithograph to mezzotint, screen print, etc. -- Jennifer Bartlett's "Graceland Mansion" (1979) alone shows us five of a great many.
The exhibit, in short, has a great deal to offer. Where it fails, as with other BMA shows, is in its didactics. A small booklet, which I was told will probably be out this week, will be placed in the show. Its essay is some help, but mainly traces the history of the museum's contemporary print collecting.
There is also an introductory text, but it's not much help. Explanatory labels could have added up to a small course on the history of contemporary art, but that opportunity has been missed.