Once upon a time, etchings and other prints were the orphan stepchildren of the art world. Serious collectors generally preferred paintings and drawings because each one was unique; Leonardo, after all, painted only one Mona Lisa.
Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt van Rijn were among the first artists to raise the genre's status by issuing prints intended to be major artworks in their own right, not just copies of famous paintings. Since then, prints have become a major area of collecting for enthusiasts.
Made in America, the biennial exhibition of the Washington Print Club, presents nearly 100 prints by modern and contemporary American masters collected by the group's members.
The show was curated by Baltimore Museum of Art deputy director Jay Fisher, who in an introductory essay notes that the works are a tribute to the eclectic tastes of the club's members as well as to the incredible diversity of styles pursued by American artists over the past century.
The works range from contemporary cutting-edge abstractions like Julie Mehretu's stunning 2004 color lithograph Entropia (review), which seems to combine urban maps, architectural plans and aerial photography in a single grand design, to classic Depression-era social realism such as Martin Lewis' atmospheric 1932 etching Night in New York.
I first encountered Mehretu's large-scale fictional landscapes at the 2004 Whitney Biennial in New York, where they struck me as being among the most original abstract paintings I'd seen in years.
Mehretu's subject is the globalization of a world wired together by instant communications technologies and mass media.
She represents these forces as layers of intersecting arrows, lines, planes of color and graffiti-like markings that serve as visual metaphors for the unconstrained movement of peoples, ideas and products across international boundaries.
At about 30 by 40 inches, her print in the current show is only a fraction of the dimensions of her mural-scale paintings, which rival in size those of Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still.
Yet the energy and clarity of her intricate design remain undiminished. The work is paired with a bold abstract print by Martin Puryear that perfectly complements Mehretu's playful sense of spontaneity and adventure.
Lewis' print, one of several atmospheric night scenes by the artist included in the show, depicts a young woman in a fancy evening dress walking past a lighted store window on a half-deserted New York street.
The picture recalls the alienation and loneliness of urban life so poignantly captured in Edward Hopper's great paintings of the metropolis, but it's compressed to the size of a sheet of notebook paper.
Moreover, it suggests the gritty ambience of film noir years before Hollywood adopted the genre as a recognizable cinematic style.
The show also includes works by such acclaimed modern masters as Helen Frankenthaler, Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella, Brice Marden and Jasper Johns, as well as by leading Washington-area artists such as Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas, Howard Mehring and Joseph Holston.
"Made in America: The Washington Print Club 19th Biennial" runs through June 24 in the Katzen Arts Center at American University, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., in Washington. Call 202-885-2787 or go to american.edu/museum.