Exhibition Review: William Stanley Hayter: From Surrealism to Abstraction (May 31-August 23, 2009)

hayterinfo_smWilliam Stanley Hayter is a printmaker’s printmaker and a key figure in the history of 20th-century printmaking even if few casual art fans know much about him. Hayter was born in England, but came to fame in Paris where he set up the workshop Atelier 17. Atalier 17 was dedicated to hands-on artistic experimentation in engraving and etching and he introduced many contemporary artists to printmaking including Max Ernst and Joan Miro. During World War II, Hayter moved to New York; there he taught at the New School for Social Research and reestablished Atelier 17. In New York he again introduced printmaking to the artists active there, most notably Jackson Pollock. He then returned to Paris where he perfected the technique of viscosity printing, which allowed him to create multicolored, op-art-like prints using only one etched plate rather than multiple plates in register.

The exhibition at the National Gallery,which was drawn from the Gallery’s holdings and the collection of Ruth Cole Kainen (widow of artist Jacob Kainen), provided a thorough and engaging overview of the artist’s work. In his earlier surrealist works, one was struck by the control which he demonstrated over the burin in his engravings as well as the power of the images themselves. Additionally, Hayter’s pre-war works were makred by a high level of artistic experimentation and he often used soft-ground etching to create textured effects by embedding various objects into the ground. The post-war works are perhaps even more impressive not only for their coloristic expression, but also for the technical sopphistication. Other highlights of the exhibition included examples of prints by artists taught or influenced by Hayter as well as on of his matrices, which he sometimes would exhibit as reliefs.

On the whole this was a thrilling, beautiful and thought-provoking exhibtion. My criticism, however, regards the curators’ decision to intentionally omit any discussion of techinique. Hayter’s works are so technically accomplished that they seem to demand such a discussion. Moreover, my suspicion is that  the casual visitor would like to know (and as importantly would learn from) a basic dicussion of techniques such as soft-ground etching, engraving and viscosity printing. Such an understanding would not detract from the visitor’s appreciation of the prints, but would likely increase this appreciation both of Hayter’s work and prints more generally.

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