Prints in the ink
PLAC highlights founding father of printmaking
The pieces on display in the Pearson Lakes Art Center are but a fraction of the artistic works housed within its walls. The art center manages several private collections, and pieces are taken out of the vaults when the center's staff are inspired by a theme or concept and assemble an exhibit.
"For me, being familiar with the works we have, it's interesting to think about what could bind works together," Danielle Clouse Gast, PLAC visual arts director, said.
Clouse Gast said previous exhibits have been centered around themes, such as portraiture or use of color, but the latest exhibit — Press and Pull: Printmaking in the Collection — is the first to feature one medium exclusively. Clouse Gast said the idea for the print-based exhibit came about while discussing the PLAC's collections with Education Director Holly Zinn.
"It was one of those situations where we didn't realize how many prints we had," Clouse Gast said. "The show came together quickly."
She said the works are primarily contemporary pieces from the 70s and 80s — the oldest being a large lithograph created in approximately 1894 by artist Jean de Paleologue. Though the featured prints were created within decades of one another, Clouse Gast said there is a variety in the underlying creative processes, expressing subject matter and use of color.
The featured artists range from Roy Lichtenstein's pop-culture, comic book inspired prints of the 1960s to a small etching produced by Henri Matisse — typically known for his paintings — from 1929. Yet, the majority of the works were pulled from the press by a man who began to influence the art world at a point between Matisse and Lichtenstein — a man who has strong ties to the state of Iowa.
His portraits of famous figures, such as author Leo Tolstoy, Renaissance artist Michelangelo and American President Abraham Lincoln, cover an entire wall of the PLAC's John and Karen Goodenow Gallery. The iconic faces are part of artist Mauricio Lasansky's series "Great Thinkers."
Lasansky is considered by many to be a founding father of modern printmaking. His work pushed boundaries and preconceived notions which were often associated with printmaking in the past. In addition to printing large-scale works, Lasansky developed several techniques, which Clous Gast said give the works a certain depth.
Perhaps at first glance, the portraits' lines and shades seem simple but, upon closer inspection, the figures are made of hundreds of individual fine lines and the blocks of color are modeled with clearly intentional marks. It's important to note these marks were more often made on the plates rather than directly on the paper, meaning Lasansky's vision was an assemblage of several elements, like putting together a layered puzzle of his own design.
The late artist's son Phillip Lasansky, who now serves as president and art director of the Lasansky Corporation, said his father's process was very labor intensive. He indicated younger artists are often swept up by society's growing need for instant gratification and try to simplify or condense the creative process. Clous Gast said the aesthetic Lasansky created through his process is sometimes difficult to describe.
"There's a technical side of it," Clous Gast said. "On the same side, there's also experimentation."
The artist often used a master plate and applied additional plates — including copper and plexiglass plates — to achieve the desired outcome. Lasansky also created irregular and free-floating plates to integrate into his compositions. The portrait of Charles Darwin hanging in the PLAC was created using more than 20 plates, according to the gallery placard. Irregular plates were used to create flowers within the portrait. Lasansky was known to repurpose the plates for new prints. The flowers in "Darwin" were used to create a floral fabric pattern in the print "Madame Curie." The use of common elements, as well as the artist's approach to portraiture, help build a unified aesthetic and provide a sort of visual vocabulary for the viewer.
At least within the confines of the Goodenow Gallery, Lasansky's work gains color from 1984 to 1988, and the artist's labors can again be seen in the details. The velvety colors and shading are sometimes indicative of a technique, called "a la poupee," in which the printmaker applies ink manually with a soft pad or bundled fabric. Overall, Lasansky's use of multiple techniques creates an easily accessible visual quality, but also maintains artifacts of individual runs through the press.
Lasansky described his father as, "a printmaker's printmaker."
The senior Lasansky was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1914 and rose to artistic fame in his home country. By 1939, he had already been the director of two art organizations in Cordoba. Lasansky was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1943 and moved to the United States the same year.
"Printmaking at that point, before WWII, was sort of a second cousin to the other media," his son said.
Painting and sculpting occupied much of the artistic limelight at that time, while prints were small works — generally not exceeding a foot square — and were considered to be more in the sphere of the craftsmen. Artists like Matisse and Pablo Picasso began to experiment in the print media for a time, according to Lasansky, but the real change came after a number of European artists traveled to the United States to escape the second world war. With limited resources, many of the expatriated figures of the core European art scene worked alongside one another in Stanley Hayter's New York studio Atelier 17. Time went on and the studio began to attract younger artists as well.
"These were young guys in their mid to late 20s who were working alongside these giants," Lasansky said.
The studio's ranks eventually included names like Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Polluck and, of course, Mauricio Lasansky. Conversations in the shared studio space lead to greater testing of artistic boundaries — both physical and visual — set upon printmakers. Just one of the constraints Lasansky sought to push past with his work was the traditionally small scale imposed on prints.
"He always called himself a muralist who works on plates," his son said.
In 1945, Lasansky moved to Iowa City and established the print department at the University of Iowa, where he shared his techniques. His son recalled arguments between Lasansky and various heads of the printmaking establishment at the time, centered on the medium's nature. But sometimes it is better to show than to tell.
"He put a show together with his first group of students," Lasansky said. "The show was put on by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and it traveled around the country."
The students' prints were large, colorful and employed a variety of printmaking techniques — all out of the ordinary for the time, Lasansky said.
"That's when Iowa just became the epicenter for learning how to work in print," he said.
The Lasansky prints featured in Pull and Press were donated by Milt and Joanne Brown. Clous Gast indicated it was important to the Browns that the works go to an art center they were not only involved in but one within the state to which Lasansky contributed so much through both exhibition and education.
"It was important for Dad — equal to him being a famous artist — he wanted to be recognized as a good teacher," Lasansky said. "That was pretty important to him."
In fact, Lasansky's family also learned much of the creative process from him. Several of his children have careers centered on expression, including dance, writing and art. His son Tomas and grandson Diego have both become noted artists in Iowa City and share Lasansky's focus on the human figure. This similarity in subject matter between the three is sometimes mistaken for a stylistic commonality, according Lasansky.
"It's not so much a style," he said. "It's that they're figurative. They do objective work as opposed to nonobjective or abstract work."
Rather, he said the similarities are more internal.
"The one common thread is they're extremely passionate about what they do," he said, later noting such drive permeated the entire household in some ways. "It's more than being creative. You live a life with this desire — this need to speak from your gut and get it out there in some form."
And the passion Lasansky felt can still be found in the galleries today — in marks pressed to paper.
Clous Gast said she expects visitors familiar with the printmaking process will enjoy examining the individual techniques exemplified in the overall show, while those new to printed art will be able to appreciate the variety of aesthetics, colors and textures represented in the gallery.
"We're just delighted to share parts of our collection with visitors to the art center," she said.
Press and Pull will continue to be on display in the Goodenow Gallery through March 10.