Made in America: The Golden Age of American Printmaking
The first half of the 20th Century was a progressive period of experimentation and stylistic change in the art world, and saw the beginnings of what would become a tradition of printmaking in the United States lead by America’s foremost artists. In the first decades of the century, American artists Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Louis Lozowick and Thomas Hart Benton, to name only a few, travelled to France to make lithographs at the Atelier Desjobert and other Parisian studios where printmaking had a strong history and was considered a legitimate art form. It was not until 1922 that lithography was taught as a medium in American art schools, and not until the next decade that an acceptance of printmaking as an art form was established in this country.
The graphic arts in America began to flourish in the 1930s during the years of the Great Depression. During these lean years, there was a need to help find a way for artists to survive in the deflated economy. In response to that need, the Federal Government established the Federal Project Number One, part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), who set up graphic studios and workshops in cities to give work to unemployed artists. At the same time, in 1934, a private organization called Associated American Artists was established to help stimulate the art market. AAA invited artists to make prints in their studios in limited editions that were then sold at affordable prices. Both of these organizations encouraged creativity and experimentation with different printmaking forms, and both contributed significantly to the growing interest in prints as collectible works of art. Other organizations developed to support this new area of the art market. The artists who made prints for AAA and the WPA are some of the century’s most famous artists, including John Sloan, Albert Sterner, Grant Wood and Isabel Bishop.
Though influenced by their European counterparts, the subject matter explored by the American Modernist printmakers was singularly American. Artists focused on scenes of rural America and Urban city views, termed the ‘American Scene’ by artist John Steuart Curry in his article What Should the American Artist Paint, published in Art Digest in 1935. Through images of mid-western farmland, New York City subways and modern life in American towns and cities, printmakers attempted to capture the spirit of America during a time of growth and change.
Experimentation with printmaking techniques continued into the middle part of the century with a revival in the use of woodcut and wood engraving, and the wider use of color screenprinting. The imagery used in printmaking at this time was mostly figurative and representational, in line with the stylistic realism in American painting of the same period. The 1950s saw the birth of the abstract movement in New York and printmaking was used by the Abstract Expressionists as another medium for their expression. In the 1960s, Pop artists used color lithography and screenprinting to further their commentary on mass culture. The artists’ desire to use mechanical means of “reproduction” made printmaking the perfect medium for Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers and Jim Dine, all of whom were prodigious printmakers.
The tradition of printmaking in America continues today. Many contemporary artists consider the medium part of their main body of work and a significant component of their stylistic and intellectual journey.
- Olga M. Viso, The Golden Age of American Printmaking 1900-1950, for the exhibition Artists of the American Scene: A Selection from the Dr. Robert B. and Dorothy M. Gronlund Collection of Twentieth Century Prints, Norton gallery of Art, 1994-95.