'Yes, No, Maybe': National Gallery Exhibit Shows Printmakers’ Decisions Along the Way

By Phillip Kennicott
The Washington Post
September 2, 2013

“Yes, No, Maybe” sounds like an exhibition devoted to something about binary code, to computer languages or the “if, then and therefore” of logical analysis. But it is a show highlighting the work done at Crown Point Press, which for a half-century has functioned like a think tank, artistic incubator and invitation-only haven for artists who want to experiment with the rich complexities of print making.

Curators Judith Brodie and Adam Greenhalgh attempt to make sense of diverse materials by focusing on the process of decision-making that leads to a final work of art. After the press has been inked, after the paper has been pressed onto the plate, the artist confronts something that may be a finished work of art, a reject in the process of trial and error, or a curiosity to contemplate, develop or tweak. Thus: yes, no and maybe.

The show focuses first on three renowned artists who worked productively at Crown Point: Chuck Close, Richard Diebenkorn and John Cage, who perhaps deserves to be more revered as a visual artist than he is as a composer. Then the show expands to other artists, some of whom echo the paths taken by Close, Diebenkorn and Cage, others who have developed different ways to negotiate the yes, no and maybe of the artistic process.

It is a loose and sometimes fanciful way to organize a show, and the catalogue essay, which compares a Polaroid snapshot of Chuck Close to one of Goya’s most powerful etchings, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” strays into purple prose and strained analogies. But the premise is strong, the work appealing and the juxtapositions telling. Particularly impressive is the success with which the curators elucidate the “no,” the work that failed to meet the artist’s standards. In most cases, the artist would hide this, but Close has allowed some of his rejected work to be seen in multiple iterations, which is fascinating.

And it is Close who emerges as the most provocative of the three major artists represented. Close’s work has long focused on the dispassionate geography of the human face, the surface data of unsentimental portraiture. At Crown Point, he has experimented with particularly difficult technical challenges, the creation of a large-scale mezzotint from a black-and-white head shot of a man named “Keith,” and the use of woodblock printing to replicate a watercolor of a woman named “Leslie,” Close’s wife at the time. In another project, based on a self-portrait, he attempts to collage together different images that represent stages in the three-color separation process of printing.

In his painted work, Close has meticulously built up photo-realist images by layering red, blue and then yellow, until a fully colored work emerges, thus replicating the separation process of color printing. In some of his printed work, he attempts to highlight the wonderful absurdity and virtuosity of this meticulous process of photo-realist painting, allowing the various stages of color separation to commingle, with patches of red, blue and purple, or a collaged and lurid riot of different prints that bring brilliant yellows and greens and blues into painful proximity.

While this voluntary and coy unmasking of the photo-realist process is conceptually interesting, some of the resulting prints aren’t entirely successful, and Close has rejected them. Visitors can argue with Close’s final analysis, which may or may not be final. But given some of the results on view, which have weird, lopsided energies that ultimately don’t cohere into a satisfying image, he’s probably right.

Refining Bit by Bit

Diebenkorn’s process of slow evolution is less emphatic and experimental than that of Close. In a 1991 print project called “Touched Red,” he used paper to mask out areas of his design that he felt weren’t working, proceeding through multiple iterations that, in most cases, involved winnowing and simplifying. Curious anomalies crop up in early iterations, only to be quarantined and eliminated, or pruned into more regular symmetries, until what feels at first like weird Diebenkorn becomes ordinary Diebenkorn.

In this and other work, he gravitates to the organic pastel hues he so loves, burnishes off unwanted distractions, and ends up pretty much where you would expect him to be. In a print called “High Green Version I,” a working proof in black and white is stark and almost expressionistic; a finished print feels as if it has been washed by a flood of Zen-like good feeling, the waters stilled, the architecture resolved, the colors sun-drenched, sandy and cool.

If Diebenkorn proceeded down an idiosyncratic path by fits and starts, Cage invented complexities for the pure delight of perversity. Using chance procedures similar to what he applied to the creation of musical works, Cage created “scores” for his prints, elaborate chance-derived instructions for making complex images, including one appealing series, based on Japanese rock gardens, built up from tracing around stones over and over again until the paper is filled with a hypnotic pattern of thin, spidery lines. He was formally inventive, too, using burning newspaper and wet paper to create prints that capture smoke and combustion.

But a 1978 series called “Seven Day Diary (Not Knowing)” in which Cage experimented with different printing techniques to create seven small, abstract prints, each placed off center on a large sheet of paper, leaves one impatient with Cage’s unfocused cleverness. The prints themselves are pleasingly doodle-like, their impact elevated by the orderly containment of sharp borders and high-quality paper. But it is a printed page of text, explaining the series, that makes the stronger impression.

The type setting is simple and gorgeous, the organization beautiful, just as Cage’s written script was orderly and beautiful, as if what mattered for him was not the work, but the caption, where he could indulge a highly personal fetish for cleanliness and order that he suppressed in his music and his art. Almost everything Cage accomplished was premised on an ethical conceit — that the suppression of individuality, personality, will is a good thing. He was wrong.

A Snapshot of Creation

The other works in the show are by no means secondary to those of Close, Diebenkorn and Cage. Julie Mehretu’s print project, “Circulation,” is as pleasing as anything in the exhibition. Joel Fisher’s 1980 “First Etching,” a blank white square “printed” onto paper made from pulped work by other artists, including Sol LeWitt, is as adventurous as any of Cage’s experiments.

The focus on process is welcome, and printing is a good way to make that focus clear and interesting. Prints are essentially snapshots of an organic, dynamic unfolding of artistic creation that would otherwise be available only through description or on film or recording. The mechanics of putting a piece of paper into a press becomes a punctuation mark, forcing everyone to stand back, wait and analyze a static moment in an otherwise intangible and fluid process. There is something quasi-magical about the black-box moment of taking a print off the press: The artist has controlled what he or she can control, and waits for the serendipity of the results.

“Yes, No, Maybe” captures some of that excitement and makes it visible to audiences that would otherwise have access only to the finished, polished end product. It is worth spending time suspended in these moments of uncertainty, hope and disappointment.

“Yes, No, Maybe: Artists Working at Crown Point Press” is on view at the National Gallery of Art’s West Building through Jan. 5.