“Yes, No, Maybe: Artists Working at Crown Point Press” At National Gallery of Art to Jan. 5 In a show that emphasizes process, the most intriguing steps are the missteps.

Chuck Close, “Study for Keith” (1970), “Keith (Working Proof)” (1972), “Keith” (1972)
© Chuck Close, Courtesy Pace Gallery

Crown Point Press was only 10 years old when Chuck Close came to the Bay Area shop to shake things up in 1972. Close’s first order of business was to create the largest mezzotint ever printed—his own first print, and the first mezzotint anyone had attempted in a century. It took two months to complete, and it changed him forever. The final result, “Keith” (1972), is a stunning accomplishment, if not a fine one—one more barrier shattered in Close’s lifelong pursuit of technical perfection.

If Close doesn’t officially claim all of his works on view in the prints survey “Yes, No, Maybe,” it hardly matters. Close’s prints, especially the ones he disavowed—alongside prints by the other titans who put Crown Point Press on the map, painter Richard Diebenkorn and composer John Cage—emphasize process as a distillation of the artists’ philosophies on their work and the world.

“Keith,” for example, is a revelation: For perhaps the first time, viewers are treated to an explicit, illustrated explanation for why the grid appears so often in Close’s final works, a kind of origin story about how this aspect of the transfer process persists from photo to drawing or from photo to print. More revealing are the processes that Close failed to master, or anyway, the prints that failed to rise to his high bar for his work. By another obscure photomechanical print process, photogravure, Close tried twice but failed to produce an acceptable full-color print by overlaying color-separated prints in yellow, cyan, and magenta. Dissatisfied with the results, he settled for Frankenstein-like collages from these color-separated prints, in 1972 and just a few years back.

The thrust of the show is what Close considers failure—and what he does with the results. There are similar if lesser rewards awaiting in the galleries devoted to Diebenkorn and Cage. The former reveals that Diebenkorn’s process was marked by accretion and adjustment: He constantly worked and reworked prints, pasting and tacking on elements, reprinting, and starting over. None of the results hum like his paintings, but they plainly illustrate that he approached printing with the same additive process in mind. The Cage gallery, meanwhile, demonstrates how his reliance on chance had its limits. One telling example is “R3 (where R=Ryōan-ji),” a print he created by dropping 15 stones and tracing them 225 times for a total of 3,375 silhouettes; many of the decisions regarding the parameters of the print were forced (that is, chosen by Cage). Cage fanatics will be thrilled with a vitrine in that gallery containing a variety of tools he used at Crown Point Press, from stones to keys detailing various arbitrary assignments of color to chance outcomes.

Any regular visitors of D.C.’s museums and galleries may feel burned out on process at this point. It’s come to embody the focus of so many Washington-area art exhibitions in recent years. The Phillips Collection’s recent exhibit on Georges Braque and its forthcoming Vincent van Gogh show pair paintings with technical photographs to reveal the process behind them—a new way to recycle modern masters. This particular trifecta of artists has gotten a lot of play in D.C. recently, too. Close and Diebenkorn enjoyed retrospectives at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2010 and 2012, respectively. The John Cage Centennial Festival brought dozens of Cageian events and exhibitions to Washington last year, including at the National Gallery.

Viewers left feeling chilly by Close, Cage, and Diebenkorn, though, may begin to warm up when they turn the corner into the rest of the show. Curators Judith Brodie and Adam Greenhalgh have tacked on a display of artists whose experiments at Crown Point Press were made possible by the gargantuan successes of the Big Three. A range of contemporary artists appears in several galleries—including three rooms organized by the way they approach process, with prints and proofs divided into categories of “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.”

In this show, the “maybes” have it. The difference between an untitled 2010 print by painter Laura Owens and the original 2009 painting on which it is based is startling: She retains the outlines of the composition, but her rich hues dissolve into a pale facsimile, conveying a healthy dissatisfaction with her own work. Another series of proofs from Amy Sillman reveals the transformation from an original study of a couple to an almost architectural print that betrays only the suggestive arc of the woman’s thigh. I found myself longing to see a print by Julie Mehretu by the end of a gallery’s worth of Cage’s random doodles, and the “nos” gallery delivered: “Circulation,” a 2005 print she made in the weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, starts with stormy weather patterns. But from that proof, she makes an about-face—resulting in a final print more in keeping with her maplike paintings. It is the best proof-and-print pairing in the show.

“Yes, No, Maybe” sets the viewer up for a traditional hierarchical presentation: three masters followed by three rooms’ worth of lesser-known contemporary artists. But piece by piece, the artworks defy that order. For “First Etching” (1980), artist Joel Fisher took discarded proofs by artists Sol LeWitt and Robert Kushner and pulped them to create something new—a conceptual approach to rival Cage’s dice-throwing and Close’s risk-taking. Curators Brodie and Greenhalgh deserve credit for dovetailing diverse curatorial approaches to a show about diverse strategies of printmaking. It’s risky, and very much worth it.

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