Fine Prints

Two stacks of white-matted prints sat on the center table, thin sheets of conservators' paper slipped into each mat, concealing the images.

Jennifer Olson, an art history graduate student and the coordinator of art exhibits at Pattee Library, put on a pair of white cotton gloves and carefully drew the paper from the top mat.

I started in recognition: Rockwell Kent's sharp-cut lines, an Inuit woman and child, from his Greenland series.

Loanne Snavely, head of the Penn State Arts Library, confirmed my identification; she nodded to Olson, who carefully covered the Kent and revealed, one by one, the rest of the works in the stack:

Curry, Stallion and Jack Fighting. "An example of regionalism in America," said Snavely.

Benton, Letter from Overseas.

Two by Leonard Baskin: Death of the Laureate, then, Dead Bird. "You'll see a lot of birds in the work of contemporaries of Baskin," noted Lori Verderame, also an art history graduate student. "The idea of flight was very important for a lot of the artists in the 1950s, and the association between birds and freedom. In a post-war context, this could be related to the idea of fleeing from Nazi Germany."

A Rouault. "This is really characteristic of his work," said Verderame. "It's probably a Christ." Snavely thumbed through the card file, read out the title, He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth.

Olson began on the second stack.

"That's a little Picasso." I drew a breath: A king and a harlequin in poignant conversation.

A Matisse, marked "Paris, 1937."

A Whistler. Said Verderame, "Japanese influenced."

"It was meant to be a study collection," remarked Snavely.

Olsen covered the matted prints carefully and stacked them on the workbench, then, from a chair, she raised a small, framed Goya. No grites, tonta, it said, "Don't shout, you fool."

"This is really a goldmine," said Verderame, "a beautiful collection."

All told, the Fine Art Print Collection in the Arts Library holds more than 700 lithographs, serigraphs, woodcuts, wood engravings, etchings, drypoints, and aquatints, some framed and hanging in the library, most stored flat in map-cases in this small room in fourth-floor East Pattee, many given in memory of Warren Mack, a professor of vegetable gardening, who retired early to devote time to his hobby, wood engraving, but died, in 1952, before he could fulfill his intention. His wife, the well-known nutrition researcher Pauline Berry Mack, donated a set of his prints to Pattee Library: finely detailed and evocative scenes of the trees and fields and farms of central Pennsylvania. His colleagues in the Society of American Graphic Artists went one better. Their president, Lynn Ward, a 1922 Penn State alumnus, suggested each member send a print to Penn State in Mack's honor. Two hundred prints arrived, among them, a Baskin, the Benton, and "Spring," one of the three in the collection by Will Barnet.

It was Lori Verderame who discovered the value of the Barnet trio.

"I was doing my dissertation on the abstract expressionist sculptor Seymour Lipton, who died in 1986. The Palmers"—of Penn State's Palmer Museum of Art—"have nearly 100 of his sculptures," explained Verderame, who worked as a graduate assistant in the museum for two years.

Olson silently spread the Barnets on the table and unveiled them one by one. Unlike the prints she had chosen to show before, these were in brilliant—and unsettling—color.

Through the Palmers, Verderame learned that a friend of Lipton's, the 84-year-old Barnet, was willing to be interviewed. Verderame set a date to visit him in New York. "He was the master printmaker of the abstract expressionists," she noted, "arguably one of the finest." Although she intended to ask only about Lipton, "I thought I'd better find out something about him, as a courtesy." Barnet had taught at Penn State during the summer of 1965 (when he was also a juror for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts) and the spring of 1966, and there were records of his visits in the Penn State archives.

Through Olson, Verderame learned of the three Barnet originals in the Fine Art Print Collection. Researching their dates and exhibition histories, she said, "I realized that what we had here were three major prints from three major parts of his career." In New York, after she had finished her questions about Lipton, she showed Barnet photographs of the three prints.

Peter and the Toy, also called "Peter and the Birdie," from 1939 or '40, turned out to be Barnet's first serigraph. (Serigraphy, according to Snavely, is "a stencil process with screens," one screen per color. Of Peter and the Toy, Snavely remarked, "That's a lot of work in there, a lot of screens.")

"He was stunned that the work was at Penn State," said Verderame. "He explained that it was ironic I would ask about this print, because the Worcester Art Museum was compiling a study archive of all of his prints and Peter and the Toy was one of the few works they did not have. Only 12 prints of it exist.

"It's influenced by Vermeer," Verderame continued. "'Vermeer could make a world from the corner of a room,' Will Barnet said. Peter is one of his sons by his first marriage."

Spring, a lithograph from 1951, Barnet told Verderame, "is a transitional work. My marriage was breaking up, my style was changing."

"Will Barnet was one of the few abstract expressionists who didn't abandon the figure," Verderame added, "unlike Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning.

"The idea of the seasons goes along with another 1950's theme. In the aftermath of World War II, the abstract expressionists were looking for symbols of renewal and continuity. The idea of looking back to the life cycle or the seasonal cycle, looking back to what would always be constant in the face of destruction—the theme is prominent within the post-war period."

The geometrical Blue Robe, from 1964, is an aquatint, a process in which a metal plate is covered with a ground that produces a granular texture, etched with acid, then inked, again requiring one plate per color. "He married again and had a second family," Verderame explained. "His second wife and daughter Ona are shown in Blue Robe. Family was important to him."

Verderame gestured toward the first and second prints, then back to Blue Robe. "You can see him going through psychological transitions in his work. He moves from straightforward, realistic works like Peter and the Toy, to abstractions—Spring—to works of a more geometric, orderly nature—Blue Robe."

"Did he change his technique when he changed his style?" asked Snavely.

"He did," said Verderame. "He was mostly known as a painter and a lithographer. Lithography was the type of printmaking he was best known for, because he would use so many stones." (To make a lithograph, a stone is drawn on with crayon, inked, and the ink transferred to paper; one stone per color.) "He used as many as 17 stones for one lithograph, which is very difficult."

"It's very sensitive," said Snavely. "Do something wrong, and you can lose your whole image in a flash."

Verderame agreed. "The idea of Pollock throwing paint at a canvas doesn't fit with Will Barnet's work.

"But he is an abstract expressionist. He was working with the prominent themes of abstract expressionism, the home—because we'd made a mess of our world—the seasons . . .

"It's different from the party line of abstract expressionist scholarship, that 'World War II created chaos, hence we have Jackson Pollock.' The thematic approach to abstract expressionism has hardly been explored, looking at the period in a different vein from chaos and spontaneity."

Snavely nodded toward the three prints spread on the table, vibrant splashes of color in the otherwise imageless room. "They all seem to speak so much of the period in which they were made," she said.

Loanne Snavely, M.Ln., M.S.T., is head of the arts and architecture division of the University Libraries, E410 Pattee Library, University Park, PA 16801; 814-865-6481. She is currently researching the life and work of Warren Mack. Lori Verderame is a Ph.D. candidate in art history in the College of Arts and Architecture; 865-6326. Jennifer Olsen is a graduate student in art history.

A fourth Will Barnet print was added to the collection recently.

Last Updated March 01, 1995