The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has gained its enviable international reputation as a modern museum chiefly because of its imposing collection of abstract expressionist paintings. As anyone who has visited the gallery has no doubt noticed, these paintings can often be big, muscular affairs done by artists who seem to have an active distaste for mincing around with the small stuff.
But the impression that the Albright-Knox is a place where only gargantuan paintings congregate is just that - an impression. And now the exhibition "Rembrandt to Rauschenberg: The Norton Print Collection" (through Dec. 31) has arrived to prove that "mincing around with the small stuff" can come very close to being a sublime experience. This is a marvelous show that spans six centuries of printmaking from the 15th century to works done as recently as five years ago.
Contemporary prints can be the size of a squash court. The Norton collection, however, was originally assembled by the Norton family - F. Paul Norton (1901-1978) and his son, Frederic P. Norton - for display in a domestic setting and has only a few outsized works. The exhibition, curated by Kenneth Wayne and Claire Schneider, consists of 127 prints selected from more than 500 prints that make up the gift from the younger Norton and his wife, Alexandra.
Under the guidance of former senior curator Cheryl Brutvan - who was instrumental in bringing the Norton prints to the collection - works on paper have grown handsomely over the years to approximately 1,900 pieces. (There have been a few setbacks, like the 1997 selling of a Willem De Kooning "Woman" - against Brutvan's advice - because it was deemed too small for the gallery's big walls.) The Norton gift has inspired the gallery to create a state-of-the-art print and drawing facility in adjacent Clifton Hall. Appropriately, it will be called the F. Paul Norton and Frederic P. Norton Family Prints and Drawings Center.
Although only a small portion of the complete collection, the exhibition offers ample evidence of the riches it holds. Keying on the title, the show opens with a fabulous Rembrandt self portrait (etching, 1639), showing the artist decked out in his flamboyant best; and "Stunt Man I," a 1962 Robert Rauschenberg lithograph in which images of contemporary events jostle one another beneath a loose pattern of abstract marks.
From there, it's into a room holding one of the earliest prints: Albrecht Durer's famous engraving, a kind of homage to all-out spiritual depression, "Melencolia" of 1514. The French 17th century artist, Jacques Callot, offers a furious "Temptation of St. Anthony," featuring a sky-born monster of frightening scale accompanied by various beasts doing very rude things with their anatomies. Across the way William Hogarth's "A Harlot's Progress" shows what terrible things happen when one gives in to sin.
Then we are rocketed into our time by a profusion of prints in the main gallery by such 20th century greats as Robert Motherwell, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein (with one of his great comic book explosions), Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and a eye-straining black-on-black print by the ever-inscrutable Ad Reinhardt.
There's one big shadowy Rembrandtesque print by Buffalo artist Harvey Breverman, a friend of Norton's, and another by Breverman and his students that prominently displays the name "Nick." Norton, it turns out, is known as Nick.
Another gallery is dominated by George Rouault's overpowering portfolio of 58 aquatints called "Miserere (Have Mercy)," displayed in tiers and covering two walls. The mood is lightened by the presense of a black but joyous Henri Matisse linoleum cut and two lively Wassily Kandinsky abstractions, and then spun around again by James Ensor's "The Good Judges" and William Gropper's devastating satires on politicians.
Meanwhile, Pablo Picasso's "The Black Pitcher and Death's Head" (done in 1946, about the time Rouault was working on "Miserere") hangs gloomily in one corner, next to the Rouault walls, sounding its own theatrical death knell.
The show has a room devoted entirely to early modern American printmakers, ranging from a couple of lovely James McNeil Whistlers to Grant Wood of "American Gothic" fame to Leonard Baskin. A wily Milton Avery self-portrait done in what seems (but isn't) sketchy abandon sits alongside a Rockwell Kent self-portrait that looks to be carved out of stone.
Another room brings together the surrealists - Rene Magritte, Matta, Joan Miro - with a few of Norton's Japanese prints. Among the latter is Hokusai's graceful print of two figures precariously walking across a "suspension bridge" - basically a narrow walkway held up by a system of ropes that takes what must have been a heart-dropping sag under the weight of a human.
In 19th century Japan, they had more urgent things to worry about than signature bridges.
This room also has its "Temptation of St. Anthony," but it shows no monster-plagued saint. In Odilon Redon's suite of 23 lithographs "Temptation" seems to come in the form of haunting mysteries (who are these beings and what are they doing with those odd plants?) of amazing poetic dimension. At the other end of the emotional spectrum is Jean-Francois Millet whose famous "The Gleaners" finds a kind of solid, workaday poetry in the movements of French peasants working the fields.
The Norton Collection isn't even the end of the Albright-Knox's celebration of the varied art of printmaking. The gallery is also presenting "A Walk Through the Paper Forest" (through Nov. 5) a collection of prints produced in Latin countries and communities in Mexico, a number of Central and South American countries, Puerto Rico and New York City.
As organized by El Museo del Barrio, a major Latin American cultural institution in New York City, the show emphasizes the important role that printmaking played in the social and political revolutions of the 20th century. The monsters depicted in these prints are more likely to be the very human oppressors of the people - corrupted leaders and various despots. The struggle isn't so much for the soul as for food on the table, freedom and ordinary human rights.
The Puetro Rican printmaker Carlos Raquel Rivera, for example, in the 1955 "Hurricane from the North" has a ghastly death skull ripping across the sky cutting down the people. And then, Fernando Castro Pacheco in his stark 1947 print, shows a scene from the Mexican revolution in which a family initiates an armed rebellion.
Sometimes these prints have a scathing satiric tone. A panel helps those hazy on the events in Latino history put the prints in context.
More recent works deal with less charged subjects. For instance, Rafael Tufino's screen print of the interlaced letters spelling out "jazz" twice is a poster for the San Juan Jazz Workshop. Other works act cross-culturally, like Jorge Soto's 1978 series that takes a graceful Japanese print and transforms it into new, slightly deformed versions.
And that's not quite the end of this gallery print explosion. The Rental Sales Gallery in the Albright-Knox is offering a show covering recent modern graphic work, "Prints from the Late 1990s" (through Oct. 29). The delights are many: Richard Pettibon's bizarre series of prints, including one featuring an owl with a very foul mouth; a Claes Oldenberg picturing a jaunty "Donut and Mug"; Imi Knoebel's bright, out-of kilter abstractions; and Donald Blaechler's bold "Thistle" amid scraps of school papers and doodles.
This is a small show but one that effectively complements the grand historical sweep of "Rembrandt to Rauschenberg" and the more focused view of the Latino show. Together, these three exhibitions make one extraordinary printmaking package.