SAN FRANCISCO — The main focus of the de Young Museum, located in Golden Gate Park and given a big redesign by architects Herzog and De Meuron in 2005, is American art past and present, encompassing ancient art of all the Americas as well as art of the United States from the colonial era up to today. There are several temporary exhibitions running at the moment that are worth going to see if you’re visiting the Bay Area. One of them, the William S. Paley collection, is sort of self-evidently marvelous, with its classic examples of Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, Degas, and other titans of the School of Paris. The other, Crown Point Press at 50, shows work that is less well known but deserves to be equally celebrated.
Crown Point Press was established in 1962 by Kathan Brown, with the aim of maintaining the traditions of intaglio printmaking by inviting contemporary artists to explore a medium that might be unfamiliar to them. Back then, etching was not as popular as screenprinting and lithography — think of Andy Warhol and other Pop artists, who screenprinted everything in sight and often copied the flatness of the screenprint in their paintings. But thanks to Crown Point Press, some of the greatest artists of the last fifty years have made etchings that reflect many of the artistic currents of the time, from Minimalism and Conceptualism to Neo-Realism.
Some of the artists used the new medium to reproduce their ideas, while others extended them. Sol LeWitt’s “Not Straight Lines” (2003) is a good example of the clean, black lines produced by hard-ground etching, and looks exactly like a drawing by Sol LeWitt. Richard Tuttle’s “Deep in the Snow” (2005), however, is a beautiful construction of different size intaglio prints that begin on the wall and spill forward into space like a sculpture. Kiki Smith’s “Still” (2006) uses a variety of intaglio techniques, including spit-bite, which involves burning the surface of the copper plate directly using slightly diluted acid. My favorite print in the exhibition was by Swedish artist Mamma Andersson. Called “Faces” (2009), it combines four different ways of producing tonal areas on a metal plate to make a visual encyclopedia of fairytale-like features.
Intaglio printmaking is an esoteric art form whose fortunes rise and fall constantly. It has to compete nowadays not just with screenprinting, but also digital printmaking — and all forms of print are considered less marketable than painting and sculpture in the commercial art world. But Crown Point Press has stayed true to the form through all the changes of fashion, and as this exhibition demonstrates, that constancy has led to the creation of artworks that simply would not have existed without their dedication. It’s a great legacy, and the press is a living jewel in the crown of this city’s cultural life.
Crown Point Press at 50 continues at the de Young Museum (50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco) through February 17.