PRINTS! The Joan and Stuart Levin Collection, AD&A Museum, UCSB
By Marshall Sharpe
“PRINTS! The Joan and Stuart Levin Collection” at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UCSB features forty-nine prints on paper by a group of renowned, mostly American artists, such as Frank Stella, Lee Bontecou and Robert Rauschenberg. The prints belong to Joan and Stuart Levin, who began collecting artwork during their honeymoon in Europe. The couple lived in New York during the 1960s and Los Angeles during the 1970s, which influenced their appreciation for contemporary art and works on paper.
The exhibition opens with nine lithographs by Frank Stella. These prints are influenced by Stella’s Black Painting series from 1958-60, but contain unique print-making imagery. Upon close inspection, the viewer discovers that the thick, black, rectilinear lines are not actually solid, but consist of smaller, scratchy lines, as if they were hand-drawn in charcoal, as noted in the exhibition catalogue. Initially, Stella’s titles seem innocuous—“Clinton Plaza,” “Tomlinson Court Park” and “Around Castel.” These titles shift the meaning of the work, evoking thoughts of a city park viewed from above, or the architectural layout of a plaza. Yet, other titles are dark and ominous—“Die Fahne Hoch” and “Arbeit Mach Frei” are both Nazi slogans that translate to “Raise the Flag” and “Work Makes You Free,” respectively. The “Arbeit Mach Frie” slogan is particularly haunting, as it was installed over the entrance to Aushwitz. In this context, the black lines echo the stripes of a flag, or the layout of a concentration camp, forcing the viewer to pause and question Stella’s intention.
Two of the most surprising prints in the exhibition are “Untitled” and “Silkscreen” by Lee Bontecou. Famous for her ominous wall sculptures, Bontecou stitches canvas or found materials over a volcano-like skeleton of welded steel that protrudes from the wall, creating a cavernous void. It feels unusual to find Bontecou working with the flat surface of lithography and screen prints, especially because the prints reference the voluminous quality of her sculptures, as if they were an x-ray or an architectural plan. Bontecou is the only female artist represented in the exhibit, the other nineteen artists are all Caucasian men. This causes the viewer to question whether the lack of diversity, particularly female representation, is a result of the collector’s preference, the curator’s decision-making, or a bias in the art world.
The most visually compelling piece in the exhibit is a large, approximately 4x5 foot print, by Robert Rauschenberg, “Intermission from Ground Rules.” The piece displays brilliant color harmony with six color intaglios displaying a chartreuse monk and Buddha, a viridian pair of goats, cerulean chairs and tables, and a pair of sculpted women in Prussian blue. The most exciting aspect of this piece is the way the borders of the intaglios melt into drips, splatters and smears. This painterly language contrasts with the rectangular borders of the viridian goat intaglio at the center of the image, creating a hybrid. By referencing the language of paint and print-making in this piece, Rauschenberg underscores the transition of prints in the US from mass-media to the realm of fine art.
The exhibition includes an astounding number of paramount artists from the twentieth century, allowing the local community to experience work that is normally inaccessible outside of major cities such as New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles. By focusing exclusively on prints, the exhibition explores themes such as the value of the original versus the reproduction, the potential for prints to reach a broader audience, and the ways that artists have collaborated with master printmakers to create works with unique mark-making imagery. It is especially rewarding to experience an exhibit that was curated by one of UCSB’s own PhD candidates, Sarah Bane. The high caliber of artwork, its meticulous presentation and the quality of the exhibition catalogue are a testament to the collectors and Bane’s hard work and dedication.
“Prints! The Joan and Stuart Levin Collection” is on exhibit at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UCSB, from Sept. 29 to Dec. 9.