Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Stanley William Hayter in America: Paintings, Drawings and Prints, 1940-1950 at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art

January 8 to February 20, 2009
24 West 57 Street, Suite 305
between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City, 212 582 3201

Stanley William Hayter Untitled 1944. Oil on canvas, 32 x 41 inches. All images courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art
Stanley William Hayter, Untitled 1944. Oil on canvas, 32 x 41 inches. All images courtesy Francis M. Naumann Fine Art

To Hayter Lovers – a phonetically oxymoronic group to which this reviewer is a signed-up subscriber – Francis Naumann’s exquisitely installed, judiciously selected exhibition that focuses on Stanley William Hayter’s American decade deserves a double dose of “at last,” not to mention sincere gratitude.

“At last” because this doyen of modernist printmaking has lacked anything remotely resembling his due of recognition: either in America, where his legendary experimental workshop, Atelier 17, played a pivotal role not just in the renaissance of the artist-print but, as crucially, in the transmigration of ideas from Europe to America that blossomed as Abstract Expressionism; or in France, whence he returned from his American exile as soon as the economic circumstances permitted, in 1950.  And “at last,” also, because Mr. Naumann has had the courage and good taste to break the medium barrier between Hayter’s experiments in printmaking, drawing and painting by presenting his work chronologically, regardless of – and mixing up – medium and support.

This hang is very refreshing, and vindicating, to those afficionados sick to the hind teeth of Hayter being dismissed as a “technical wizard” in the etching studio, but therefore not, by extension, a “real” artist outside of it.  The British critic Sir Herbert Read, in the preface to Hayter’s influential textbook, New Ways of Gravure, (1949) rightly called printmaking the “Cinderella of the arts” very much for this reason.  The bounce between paper and canvas at Naumann’s makes for visually lively walls.  It encourages the images to be seen as that, as images.  At the same time, ironically, when you come across an etching, say, next to a painting, you do focus on the specificity of the medium of etching, but as the means to convey an image, not as a formal end in itself.

Hayter’s personal language self-consciously straddled the divide of the pre-war Paris avantgarde of which he was a member between abstraction and surrealism.  He was neither a purist, nor a literary artist, but a modernist with something to express, making him a perfect conduit for the synthesis of these two, dialectical sides of the modern movement to artistically progressive Americans.  As Deborah Rosenthal notes in the catalogue, leading New York School artists, including Jackson Pollock and David Smith, passed through his workshop, whether in Paris or New York, which was run on experiment, cooperative lines, in marked contrast to the almost medieval hierarchy typical of print shops at that time, at least in France.

A full-scale retrospective of Hayter would reveal a fearless and stylistically wayward artist (which partly explains his historic marginalization) with themes and concerns that nonetheless unite his disparate efforts, which ranged from surreal landscapes and cityscapes of the 1920s to lyrical action paintings of the 1950s to op art experiments of the 1960s to a late period of personal allegories fusing figuration and abstraction, and informed by ideas of new mathematics.

Stanley William Hayter Unstable Woman 1946-47. Engraving and softground etching, printed in three colors with silkscreen, 14-3/4 x 19-1/2 inches.
Stanley William Hayter, Unstable Woman 1946-47. Engraving and softground etching, printed in three colors with silkscreen, 14-3/4 x 19-1/2 inches.

The forties, however, has a strongly unified flavor, and was very much his decade of figure, of tortuous, menaced, threatening personages that often read as sexualized automata tautly constructed in space.  Earlier images like the arresting engraving and etching Terror (1943), focus on the figure, which dominates a tight, awkwardly vertical plate that is around three times high as it is wide.  Hayter was working at a time of war restrictions on metal plates, but the expressive bonus of this odd format is serendipitous.  The figure is worked in deeply gouged engraved and etched lines, the ground largely denoted by areas of softground.  As the decade progresses, images move from figure on neutral ground to situations, as in the untitled canvas from 1944 that serves as the exhibition announcement card, where an equally dynamic, spatially deconstructed environment augments the structural complexity of the figure.

Hayter’s palette in this period was fearless and deeply unpretty.  He could give us strident primaries, as in Ceres (1948) where the gray figures occupy space demarcated in cutout shapes of red, yellow and blue.  Or he could embed virulent orange, green, purple and blue in a murky swamp of brown, as in the ink and watercolor study, Airport (1945).

The show is drawn from a single, and very extensive, private collection of Hayters from this period.  Consequently, there are omissions of key images one would expect from a curated exhibition of this period.  But equally there are surprises.  Hayter’s most technically significant, breakthrough print of this period was Cinq Personages (1946), which occupies a seminal position in the history of engraving as the first image printed in multiple colors from one plate in a single pulling—a technical feat involving screens described in exacting detail by Hayter inNew Ways. The impression here, however, is in black and white.  But this serves to reinforce the almost fugal relationship of structure and color in Hayter’s art of this decade.  The image is compelling enough without color: the space is complex through shade and texture alone.  Color, as Unstable Woman (1947), an image close at hand demonstrates, can reinforce a sense of spatial vortex, sucking the eye into a central vanishing point, but it can also disrupt the depth of an image with an abrasive, intentionally jarring flatness that electrifies the surface.

The catalogue contains an Introduction by Ms. Rosenthal along with an extensive interview with Hayter which she conducted in Paris in 1980 and which is published here for the first time.