The Print Club of Cleveland: A River through History
The Spring 2019 issue of CAN, forthcoming March 1, includes an essay by gallerist and regional art historian William Busta, surveying artists’ treatment of the Cuyahoga River as a subject through the centuries. When we went looking for examples to illustrate the essay, we struck it rich with the Print Club of Cleveland.
Coincidentally, there’s an exhibit of Print Club prints on view at Beck Center for the Arts, January 10 – March 4, the first of several public events which will celebrate the Print Club’s 100th anniversary this year. The Club –an affiliate of the Cleveland Museum of Art–was founded in 1919 by sixteen men who met in a room at the Union Club. They were businessmen and collectors, led by Ralph Thrall King—president of a realty company that was a major holder of downtown real estate at the turn of the twentieth century. In addition to helping organize the Print Club, King served as the Museum’s volunteer curator of prints from 1919 to 1921. His gifts to the museum also include August Rodin’s sculpture, The Thinker.
Then as now, the Print Club’s primary purposes are to help build the Museum’s print collection (by gifts, and by raising money) and to educate the public about collecting fine prints. As many people reading this will know, the club annually commissions an editioned print for its members. A selection of 25 of those, gathered from members’ individual collections, is what’s on view at Beck Center.
In multiple ways, the Print Club’s work creates a record of a century. It’s an incredible resource that way. In looking for historic images of the Cuyahoga River to go with Mr. Busta’s essay, for example, we found Rudolph Ruzicka’s 1926 color woodcut, High Level Bridge, Yvonne Jacquette’s 1999 woodcut, Bridges Over Cuyahoga River, and Laurence Channing’s 2000 intaglio, Burning River. You can see two of these originals (Jacquette’s Bridges over Cuyahoga River and Channing’s Burning River) in the show at Beck.
The exhibit includes a representative range of techniques: wood cuts, etchings, aquatints, lithographs and even a screen print or two. It spans the ages, too. As far as subject matter, there are pastoral scenes, industrial scenes, cityscapes and intimate still-lifes, and even a few works of pure abstraction. If there’s any theme at all, it’s the idea of surveying the Print Club’s broad spectrum of works.
There are images that invoke the power of industry in the 20th century, such as Reginald Marsh’s litho, Switch Engines, Erie Yards and Robert Cottingham’s color woodcut, from the Rolling Stock series. I had to marvel at Cottingham’s Rolling Stock print. Each color in it, which includes multiple shades of oxidation on different metals, plus shadows, requires a different block of wood and another registered impression. The labor to make the print is a massive thing, and a good parallel to the work that the detail of the rail car itself represents.
There are cityscapes, which would have to include those expansive images of the Cuyahoga and its bridges, but others that represent the city as a place full of people going about their lives, such as Martin Lewis’s drypoint on copper, Corner Shadows, which portrays a street corner at night with people coming and going, and on the far side of the intersection a drug store with its crush of signage. Arthur Werger’s 2014 mezzotint As We Were shows a jumble of people on the sidewalk beneath the dappled light of a shade tree, perhaps waiting for a bus—all of them together in a friendly scene, but each in their own world, too.
Human endeavor is a significant element of the exhibit: there’s Thomas Hart Benton’s pastoral, 1938 lithograph Approaching Storm, which portrays a farmer with his mule team and plow beneath a turbulent sky, getting work done before the weather hits; and Frank Wilcox’s 1928 etching Fishermen of Perce, which portrays fishermen in rowboats working from a rocky shore, dwarfed by rock cliffs above them.
For me the joy of this show is seeing works of familiar Cleveland artists, living or at least in living memory, in this historic context. Noteworthy in this collection are Laurence Channing’s aforementioned Burning River, and the late Phyllis Sloane’s (1921-2009) Straw Hat. Channing’s Burning River is rich in shades and densities of black, which succinctly says something about industrial Cleveland, and the way we used that river for most of the city’s first century. And Sloane’s screen- printed Straw Hat is a portrait of a woman with her luggage, perhaps arriving, perhaps ready to depart, the titular subject being neither the woman nor the luggage, but the boldest color in the work, an orange hat resting on top of the pile.
The show is also strong in commissioned prints of the 21st century. In fact, of 25 prints in the show, five of them are from the last 8 years. The most recent is Richard Pasquarelli’s hand-colored aquatint, Cleveland, from 2017. Based on a time lapse of photos from the 12th floor of the Key Tower, it’s a field of black with the city’s planes and lines of perspective marked off by sporadically illuminated windows. The soul of the piece is the light from the windows, glowing against the black and spilling out into the night.
Politics is a theme prominent among print makers of the last century, especially wood cutters and screen printers, but in my estimation –and thankfully, right?–that plays only a subtle role here. You can see Thomas Hart Benton’s love of the working man in the aforementioned Approaching Storm, for example. It’s only a little more overt in Katnusori Hamanishi’s 2016 mezzotint White Head Eagle, which in velvety tones of black, yellow and green portray a kimono with a bald eagle glaring down from the shoulder, wings spread and talons out, ready to strike at anything below—where there are choppy seas dotted with islands, and on the islands some bon-sai trees. It looks for all the world like US domination of Japan and the South Pacific.
What this show does mostly is pique curiosity about the Print Club itself, and about the way a print collection can wind through history, like a river. Fortunately, the club’s centennial year offers several other opportunities to get acquainted.
A show similar to the one at Beck Center, but larger—comprising 45 commissioned prints from members’ personal collections—will run April 1 through May 31 at the University Hospitals Seidman Center.
The Museum itself presents A Lasting Impression: Gifts of the Print Club of Cleveland, May 5 – September 2. That exhibit of more than 75 prints given to the Museum by the Print Club will include works of Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Francisco de Goya, Edgar Degas, Käthe Kollwitz, Pablo Picasso, and Jasper Johns, among many others, and will explore six centuries of European printmaking through a broad range of subjects and techniques.
Also in honor of their centennial, the club and museum together have published a book, The Print Club of Cleveland: 100 Years, 1919–2019, which features an illustrated selection of notable gifts over the past several decades.
Finally, the Club’s annual Fine Print Fair is scheduled for September 12 through 15, offering the general public a chance to visit more than a dozen fine print dealers from around the US and the world. Mark your calendar.