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The Overlooked Prints of the Abstract Expressionists

Jackson Pollock's "Untitled" (c.1944-45) is a drypoint and engraving in black on white wove paper. Inscribed "2nd proof 1967" among other things. (all images via Swann)

Tomorrow, Swann auction house will be presenting a sale, “Atelier 17, Abstract Expressionism & the New York School,” which showcases the prints of the Abstract Expressionist era that are often overlooked because the larger, flashier paintings inevitably grab the spotlight. The sale has a particular emphasis on the co-operative printmaking workshop Atelier 17, which was started in the Paris studio of English painter and draughtsman Stanley William Hayter in 1927. When World War II began, Hayter fled Paris for London and eventually settled in New York after a very short stay in California during the 1940s. The first New York incarnation of Atelier 17 popped up at the New School of Social Research but eventually the studio found a home at 41 East 8th Street in the heart of artistic Greenwich Village. Jackson Pollock lived across the street.

These images offer another perspective on the types of work that was being produced in a milieu where larger was better — at least it seems that way in the history books — and multiples were not yet in vogue.

The sale features the work of dozens of artists but the bold-faced names are Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Jackson Pollock and Larry Rivers.

I corresponded via email with Swann’s Todd Weyman, who answered a few quick questions about Atelier 17 and the Abstract Expressionist prints.

Pollock's "Untitled" (c. 1944-45)

Hrag Vartanian: What is unique about Atelier 17’s New York incarnation?

Todd Weyman: Atelier 17 in New York was unique in that it brought together “old guard” European modernists such as Miro, Ernst, Masson, Lipchitz, Hayter and others, with the vanguard of the New York abstract scene, like Rothko, Motherwell, Pollock, DeKooning, etc.

HV: When we discuss Abstract Expressionism, few people discuss the print work created by its masters. Why do you think that is?

TW: In general, people tend to focus on the painted and sculpted work of artistic movements or eras. This is disappointing, because some of the most remarkable, influential and disseminated works are the prints.

HV: Who do you think is the most accomplished Abstract Expressionist printmaker and why?

TW: There is no single most accomplished Abstract Expressionist printmaker, but those who come to mind as the “leaders” are Motherwell, DeKooning and Frankenthaler.

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Here are some of the images from the auction. I’ve included some paintings by lesser known artists to diversify the selection.

Beatrice Mandelman, "Still Life" (c. 1940-50)
Hans Burkhardt, "Figure in a Landscape" (1939)
Norman Lewis's "Green and Black Abstraction" (1951) is watercolor and ink on cream wove paper and one of the most haunting images in the auction.
Stanley W. Hayter, "Unstable Woman" (1946-7) is a color engraving, soft-ground etching, scorper and screenprint on Japan paper.
Stanley W. Hayter, "L'Escoutay" (1951) is a color etching, engraving and scorper on cream wove Marais paper.
Louise Nevelson, "Untitled" (1967) color lithograph on cheesecloth.
Willem de Kooning,
Philip Guston, "Untitled" (1966) lithograph.

The “Atelier 17, Abstract Expressionism & the New York School” auction takes place tomorrow, October 27 at 2:30pm, at Swann Galleries (104 East 25th Street, Gramercy, Manhattan).

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