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Scraping the sky: Ezra Stoller’s Seagram Building, New York.

Power of the Letterpress
By David Brickman

Hot Jazz: The Late Work of H.N. Werkman, through Jan. 2
Ezra Stoller: Architectural Photography, through Dec. 19
Williams College Museum of Art

A bittersweet poignancy permeates the highly unusual exhibition of late work by Hendrick Nicolaas Werkman at the Williams College Museum of Art, as this Dutch artist-craftsman was killed at the very end of World War II by the Nazis, who then destroyed most of his art as well (terming it “degenerate”).

But there is also childlike joy throughout the show, titled Hot Jazz: The Late Work of H.N. Werkman. The name derives from Werkman’s passion for the early style of jazz that was popular in the 1920s when he began using his letterpress as a loose, innovative means of self-expression. The colorful, mostly abstract images he created placed rhythm before meaning and energy before function, providing an alternative to the more mundane nature of his commercial printing business.

Many of the prints on view served as illustrations for pamphlets of poetry, religious hymns and other inspirational texts, but they are shown as isolated images; in a few cases, there are expressive uses of typography reminiscent of the Russian and Italian futurists, but most of the work is pure shape, texture and color.

Werkman’s chief contribution seems to be the innovative use of the letterpress as a creative tool: He broke all the rules of printing (and printmaking) by purposely making color uneven and each print unique, habits that now hold a permanent place in contemporary printing shops that hew to the creative side. In this he was a good 50 years ahead of his time.

Visually, Werkman’s style is naïve and simplistic, which is not to say untrained. The artist that immediately comes to mind when perusing these prints is his contemporary Henri Matisse. Yet there is a dark side even to the lightest and airiest of this work—it was produced during the war in occupied territory, alongside clandestine politically motivated material that Werkman was also printing for underground groups.

Ultimately, what comes across is the unique technique, with a softness and subtlety not always seen in mid-century art, and the graphic sophistication that this working professional brought to his personal output.

Among several other shows also now up at the WCMA, Ezra Stoller: Architectural Photography is getting the lion’s share of the attention due to Stoller’s death in October. This beautifully designed and installed collection of much of his greatest work amply demonstrates the enormity of that loss.

Featuring seven major projects he photographed over several decades of architectural turbulence and triumph, the Stoller show groups the 40-or-so black-and-white photographs by subject. From Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater to Mies Van Der Rohe’s Seagram Building to Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, the buildings are so famous as to nearly make one take the photographs for granted.

But Stoller was the architectural photographer of his era, and his breathtaking pictures are as much responsible for these buildings’ fame as the designs themselves. His skill was tremendous in capturing the building as sculptural presence—many of the best pieces in the show have a monumentality to them that could lead to disappointment when visiting the actual place—but he also had a deft touch for intimate detail and composition, especially when photographing interiors.

My favorite pictures here are not necessarily the real showstoppers but some of the more transcendent images featuring light and people as subjects in conjunction with the buildings.

This exhibition of very beautifully made recent prints will enthrall anyone interested in modern architecture or fine photography.

Another show worth a look is by a young Williams College art professor named Liza Johnson. Her installation of five video loops with sound and five color stills, titled if then maybe, is a meditation on the role of women in Hollywood movies. Though this well-worn theme can’t do much to move me personally, Johnson has a light touch and excellent technique, resulting in an experience that draws you in. Her installation will be up through Feb. 27.

For more on the womanish theme, there’s In the Company of Women, a selection from the museum’s large holdings that runs through April 17. Featuring work old and new, including pieces by both Maurice and Charles Prendergast, Philippe Halsman, Andy Warhol, Kara Walker and Niki de Sainte-Phalle, this exhibition holds together nicely while being rather diverse.

Among my personal picks are Isabel Bishop’s sweet, nuanced 1953 oil-and-tempera on panel called Girls in the Subway Station; a Lorna Simpson photo diptych with text; and a video of Louise Bourgeois talking about her large sculptural work Eyes, which graces the area outside the museum with its bizarre, surrealist warmth.

Finally, there are just a few days left to see another show derived from the museum’s collection, this one titled Mostly Photography: Art Since 1980. The selection ranges from two delicate Robert Rauschenberg lithographs to a monumentally huge Gilbert and George pastiche called Life without End. Along with a few old favorites, there are a number of recent acquisitions on view—it’s nice to see a few things get onto the walls where the public can appreciate them before they take their place in the drawers with the rest of the collection. The show ends on Dec. 6.


Medieval Mystery: Who is the Master of the Embroidered Foliage?

Clark Art Institute, through Jan. 2

Cleverly and exhaustively
presented as a bit of academic art sleuthing, this exhibition brings together four extremely similar madonna-and-child paintings from late 15th-century Holland that otherwise reside halfway around the world from each other (in Bruges, Lille, Minneapolis and Williamstown).

Once thought to be by a single, unknown Dutch master, the Clark’s researchers conclude that they are in fact by different artists using the same template. What’s really satisfying, and better than any amount of written or reproduced information, is being in the presence of all four paintings at once and comparing them all directly by eye. The many, many differences are no less fascinating than the similarities; and each panel (one accompanied by side panels as a triptych) is a fine piece of Renaissance work well worth study in itself.

A related exhibition across the hall presents a cycle of 20 woodcuts by German master Albrecht Dürer titled Life of the Virgin, along with other prints by Dürer and a highly skilled Italian imitator. Fans of virtuosic printmaking technique will be delighted.

It should be noted that admission to the Clark is free through May 31, making this a great off-season opportunity for those of us who live here year-round.


Narrative and Declarative: Ginger Ertz and Charles Steckler

Dietel Gallery, Emma Willard School, through Dec. 17

This couple from Schenectady make their art individually but have been showing together in group or two-person shows since Ertz moved over from southern Vermont a couple of years ago. Their styles are completely different yet nicely compatible—each deals in three dimensions with an additive process, but that’s about where the similarities end.

Steckler, a theatrical designer long in residence at Union College, produces little shadowbox dioramas á la Joseph Cornell. Ranging from the elegantly simple to the almost unbearably complex, these wall-mounted dramas demand your complete attention and reward it with wit and wonder.

Ertz is a sculptor. Her medium, the common pipecleaner (or chenille stem, to be technical), gives all her creations a fuzzy, jaunty appearance. They tend to be biomorphic forms, usually monochromatic (I was particularly taken by the snow-white ones), often grouped. They are sexy and very innovative.

These are two artists making a strong impression on the local scene, and this is the best chance yet to see their work in full—don’t miss it.

David Brickman


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