This year, Fine Art Print Week New York, Nov. 3-9, 2003, offered an extraordinary variety of works of art for collectors within the context of an increased number of lectures, panels, exhibitions and other print-related events. Some of the dealers at the 13th annual International Fine Print Dealers Association fair at the Seventh Regiment Armory even seemed to feel that the market buzz that had all but disappeared in the past two years was back.
"I was happier this year than after 9/11 and it was somewhat better than last year, too," said Diane Villani of Villani Editions in New York, who has had a booth at the fair for many years. "The dealers are also being more thoughtful about what they are exhibiting, so the booths generally look better. The exhibitions feel more curated, and not solely about commerce."
And even those Old Master dealers who seemed a bit grumpy at the opening night benefit event for the Museum of Modern Art's department of prints and illustrated books felt that business picked up over the weekend. "I don't want to overstate it," says Alan Stone of Hill-Stone in New York, "but things went well. The museums were out in force and the bulk of our activity was, as usual, with them. The private collectors tend to go more to the 19th-century and contemporary dealers."
The sheer variety and generally very high quality of the material offered to trawlers at both the IFPDA Fair and the Editions/Artist's Books '03 fair in Chelsea, with works ranging in price from a few hundred dollars to well over a $1 million -- and dating from the 15th century to last summer -- also reinforced a lesson for collectors on a limited budget that has become increasingly obvious in the past few years: buy the best you can afford and develop as broad an understanding as possible of the qualities that define a great print. As mediocre material has failed to reach the kind of stellar prices it was achieving in the '90s, especially at auction, this concept seems ever more relevant.
What really makes sense is to concentrate on prints in one of the following categories:
Fine impressions of less famous prints by the great masters (if you must have a Rembrandt why not go for a small landscape or a portrait rather than the Three Crosses -- the cheapest impression on offer at here was priced at more than $500,000);
Quirky prints that are primarily of interest for their subject matter -- I'm thinking of the two huge and fabulous aquatints of volcanic eruptions offered by Kunsthandlung Helmut H. Rumbler of Frankfurt: Jean Baptiste Chapuy's Eruption du Mont Etna de 1760 and Eruption du Mont Vesuve de 1779 (ca. 1785-90, $29,000 for the pair) bought by the New York Public Library, and an etching at Hill-Stone by an obscure artist named Francesco Bozzetti titled The Wooden Bridge, a rare and idiosyncratic landscape from 1912 that at first glance looked 17th- century Dutch ($2,850);
And, last but not least, contemporary editions by major artists, hot off the press.
As far as the contemporary dealers at the IFPDA fair went, Judith Solodkin at Solo Impression in New York (she of the splendid millinery) feels that she is in "a special category of fine print publishers. We all work with experienced and established artists and frankly it was wonderful for the fair to have us exhibit." She adds, "The IFPDA does important things in terms of the print community. But in general I think the group needs to do a bit more vetting."
Solodkin was showing new works by Richard Bosman, a series of painterly woodcuts on watery themes, among them Up River (2003), a print made with six blocks hand cut by the artist and in eight colors on Sekishu paper, produced in an edition of 100 to benefit IPCNY ($750).
At Remba Gallery of Los Angeles, two of the most impressive new works using the Mixografia cast-paper method invented by Luis and Lea Remba in 1968 were Terry Winters' Metal Virus (2003) in an edition of 75, its raised metallic lines describing a wintery abstraction, with two globe-like spheres emerging from a spiky tangle of twiggy lines ($3,775) and Kiki Smith's Regalo (2003) in edition of 50, showing a glittery lamb resting on a rose branch ($3,750).
At Goya-Girl Press & Contemporary Art Gallery of Baltimore, who was a newcomer to the fair, Louisa Chase's three-color lithograph on Sekishu natural rice paper, Cherries (2003), made in an edition of 20, an evocative tangle of green and cherry-red lines ($2,000) was receiving considerable interest from public and private collectors. Martha Macks, the gallery's president, said that the print, which for some reason tends to draw female clients, was also getting an unusual amount of attention from male visitors to the booth. "We've had a lot of cherry men," she said. Later, gallery director Amy Raehse called the fair "a great success for Goya," that "gave rise to a multitude of additional clients for our artists."
Diane Villani was offering a newly published series of 11 untitled monoprints by the venerable New York artist Ida Applebroog. They feature a slightly old-fashioned little girl riding a cow; each is a unique work on a different kind of paper and is individually hand colored with childlike streaks and blobs. The motif has the feel of 1930s children's book illustration but there is something inherently odd about the way both child and beast look self-consciously at the viewer.
"That image is preoccupying Ida at the moment," says Villani. "I saw it on the seat of a bench in her studio and in drawings she made on fabric." Anyway, if I had $1,800 immediately at hand, this is what I'd buy. (Diane says she sold six of the prints at the fair, but that Applebroog would like to make some more, so I have not lost hope).
A special excitement and sense of community always prevails at the Editions/Artist's Books Fair -- a feeling that may reflect the fact that the publishers and dealers here are frequently in direct contact with the artists themselves, and have played a role either in shaping their art or in developing their careers, or both.
However, Carolina Nitsch, who has been associated with the fair since its beginnings, says that although she personally did very well this year, "some of the dealers were a bit disappointed that we didn't get more traffic. In general we need to work more on the marketing of this show and maybe try to collaborate more with the IFPDA."
Among the many new editions offered by Nitsch was Thomas Schtte's suite of 13 aquatints in an edition of 12 titled Fleurs pour M. Duchamp (2003), in which images emerge from plants laid directly onto the plates. These mysterious landscapes suggest at times French 18th-century Rococo prints of fountains and waterfalls and, at others, early photograms ($18,000). (An American museum has taken these on approval.)
Nitsch's new prints by Louise Bourgeois each have hand-applied additions of one kind or another. Strange Fellows (1989-2003) in an edition of 12 is an intaglio print colored with watercolor ($9,000); The Sky's the Limit (2003) is an intaglio print in an edition of 13 with watercolor and gouache, each hand-painted differently ($16,000); and One's Sleep (2003) is a color aquatint with spitbite, watercolor and chine coll (this last is not yet for sale as it is part of a book project of the same title planned in a very limited edition, according to Nitsch).
A very personal and incomplete selection of other highlights: It seems that Donald Baechler has enlisted in the current craze for the revival of printed alphabets (think Tony Fitzpatrick and Robert Cottingham) in his first project for Paulson Press of Berkeley, Ca. Baechler's Alphabet (2003) consists of 26 intaglio prints in a portfolio edition of 15 ($10,000 or $500 per sheet if bought individually). According to Nicole Avril, Paulson's gallery director, the letters were initially appropriated from such classic sources of Americana as handwritten church cookbooks of the 1950s, 1940s children's activity books, and vintage candy wrappers. The letters were first enlarged, then Xerox-transferred onto the plates, with two or three plates used for each print.
Baechler has also produced a new print with Baron/Boisanté of New York (the gallery has worked with the artist since 1986), Szechuan Garden (2003), on view at their stand. This aquatint and etching (in an edition of 30 with five artist's proofs, $1,800) was printed by Felix Harlan and Carol Weaver; its boldly stylized red roses and tulips on a blue/gray ground are somehow reminiscent of the flowers on napkins in Chinese restaurants -- maybe it's the title that prompts this thought. "Perhaps we made more sales last year," says Elise Boisant, "but things always happen afterwards as a result of people you meet there. All the curators came by and it had a nice energy about it."
Crown Point Press of San Francisco, meanwhile, presented Richard Tuttle's portfolio Costume (2002), six color etchings with a text page and printed in an edition of 20 with 10 artist's proofs, and with a fabric covered portfolio designed by the artist ($5,500). The artist has used different papers in various sizes to support a series of modest abstractions that suggest primitive hand-blocked textiles.
Brooklyn dealer Riva Blumenfeld offered a large dramatic color woodcut on Nepalese cloud paper by Alison Saar, Kiss on a Rope (2001, $1,800), showing a male and female head all but locked in a passionate kiss (quite literally, as they are tied together by a rope with ends knotted behind each head in a kind of padlock), a work that could almost be a pendant to the artist's similarly sized color woodcut Ulysses (1994, $3,500), also displayed at the booth, showing Ulysses upside down and bound at the feet by a rope in his efforts to resist the sirens' call.
Amy Cutler's remarkable first prints were also at Blumenfeld Fine Art: a group of three color etchings with chine coll, each made in an edition of 12: Rug Beaters, Birding, and Tiger Mending (all 2003, $1,200 each), exquisitely delineated images that approximate the inventions of a mildly disturbed Kate Greenaway.
My advice: Buy one of these. Or a letter from the Baechler alphabet. Or a print of Ida Applebroog's child on a cow. Or just head up to Boston and see Rembrandt's Journey at the Museum of Fine Arts (through Jan. 18 and then at the Art Institute of Chicago), an extraordinary chance to see an exhibition of the master's finest prints drawn from public and private collections all over the world -- an experience unlikely to be accessible again anytime soon.
For if there was really a lesson to be learned from the apparently boundless offerings of Print Week, it was surely that you do not need to own prints in order to take joy from them (although, in spite of it all, some dealers will probably hate me for saying so).
CATHERINE BINDMAN is an editor and art critic specializing in prints and drawings.