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Art & Culture

“The Serial Impulse” at the National Gallery of Art, on view through February 7, 2016

The National Gallery of Art’s current exhibition of signature works on paper by 17 of America’s most prominent contemporary artists celebrates both artistic achievement and the 50th anniversary of the pioneering and innovative Southern California printmaker and publisher Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited). This, the fourth public display in Washington of Gemini’s stunning work, which dates from 1981 with the groundbreaking establishment in the National Gallery of a permanent archive now containing nearly every one of Gemini’s many published prints.

The exhibition features iconic works by such world famous artists as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, and Richard Serra dating from the late 1960s — Stella, Claes Oldenburg, and Johns, for examples — to the astonishingly feverish and visually compelling prints of large format drawings by Julie Mehretu, only recently published in 2014.

Julie Mehretu, Myriads, Only by Dark (2014).

Julie Mehretu, Myriads, Only by Dark (2014).

The exhibition opens with Jasper Johns’ vibrant and shimmering colored stencil prints of numerals in a series of 10 works, from zero to nine. The prints display bands of horizontal colors and, like Medieval and Renaissance religious works, the bands are three in number — below ground, ground level, and the heavens above — and chromatically move from primary through the secondary colors of an artist’s palette. Johns seems to celebrate the omnipresence of such stenciled printing on ordinary American life — for example, on the clothing and possessions of army draftees — as he was — to that perhaps of prisoners, manual laborers, and others whose subordination by the corporate state was, and is, absolutely controlling.

Vija Celmins, Concentric Bearings, B (1984).

Vija Celmins, Concentric Bearings, B (1984).

And it is the central band of color that carries the pictorial punch. Explosive blurring occurs with number six, the Mona Lisa is enlaced with number seven, and seemingly random squiggles energize all 10. Adding alphabetic stenciling for an Army inductee would provide name, rank, and serial number and would symbolize belonging as well as subordination. Together with targets and flags and maps of the U.S.A., Johns’ color stencil prints provide compelling questions as to American identity, proudly opening his own biography to such questions.

Vija Celmins, Concentric Bearings, D (1984).

Vija Celmins, Concentric Bearings, D (1984).

Facing the Johns prints are a hilarious series of six prints of bovines by Roy Lichtenstein, beginning with a symbolic, stylized version of a Holstein cow with a Picasso-like bull’s features and moving from a somewhat realistic presentation of such an animal through this series of works to a colorful line drawing, Mondrian style abstraction. An artistic joke!

The next gallery returns to a deadly serious exploration of art with 11 abstract, single color works by Ellsworth Kelly that employ four basic trapezoidal shapes painted on aluminum in deeply saturated bold, semi-gloss colors. These flat (to me) aluminum canvases are of different sizes but all seem torqued and slightly twisted; their enigmatic shapes and sizes with their elegantly painted, decorative surfaces are visually unforgettable.

The star of the third room is a series of nine, black and white prints of carefully drawn but precisely laid out geometric labyrinths by that polymath of painting, drawing, sculpture, and printmaking Frank Stella. The viewer is called on to imagine the artistic meaning of these beautiful and playful works of graphic design to which Stella has given knock-off titles such as New York City place names like Getty Tomb and non-playful Third Reich song titles and concentration camp slogans.

Vija Celmins, Concentric Bearings, C (1984).

which is a Vija Celmins, Concentric Bearings, C (1984).

The next and largest gallery in the exhibition features some extraordinary multi-part prints by Robert Rauschenberg — works that have somehow creatively coalesced around complex printmaking processes that combine, in one of my favorite of the Rauschenberg prints, which is, as described on the wall label, an “offset lithograph and screen print transferred to collage of paper bags silk chiffon, and silk taffeta.” This work, a cruciform shaped composition titled Preview, contains an image of an archaic Greek kouros — a standing male nude — as the work’s horizontal central post, with front ends of Ford Model A automobiles pictured as the vertical wings. The delicate nature of materials and preciousness of the imagination that thought to combine such images belie the seemingly raw but beautiful brute strength of this — and other equally complex Rauschenberg works in the show.

Photographs appropriated as picture elements for lithographs and screen prints by the protean West Coast polymath John Baldessari are nearby, beginning with a diptych of two photographs of bespoke suited businessmen exchanging hard currency. Titled Money (with Space Between), its multiple messages are especially and sadly poignant in the present political season of 2016.

Vija Celmins, Concentric Bearings, A (1984).

Vija Celmins, Concentric Bearings, A (1984).

Charming lithograph and screen print works by David Hockney lead the viewer into a gallery whose centerpiece is a vitrine containing knockout objects of glazed earthenware by Kenneth Price, with California Cup being one of the many standouts in this series of works. The concluding gallery presents prints of brutally black orbs on white backgrounds by Richard Serra — strong and overpowering.

There is unfortunately no catalog nor National Gallery leaflet documenting this outstanding show, which continues through February 7, 2016.

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