- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

Stanley William Hayter introduced a new freedom to the musty arts of engraving and etching. The fluid, energetic imagery of his prints seems antithetical to the stiff metal plates onto which he carved.

Although not well known, the British-born Mr. Hayter (1901-1988) played a key role in the transition between European surrealism and American abstract expressionism through his workshops in Paris and New York. Leading modernists, including Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, frequented his studios, inspired by the printmaker’s investigative methods.

A two-gallery exhibit at the National Gallery of Art provides only a tantalizing glimpse of Mr. Hayter’s influential artistry as well as a few prints by his disciples for comparison. Most of the 54 works are drawn from the museum’s holdings and loans from Ruth Cole Kainen, the widow of Washington painter and printmaker Jacob Kainen who died in 2001. (The bulk of Mr. Hayter’s archive now belongs to the British Museum).

Modern-prints curator Judith Brodie organized the show to focus on Mr. Hayter’s art rather than his technique but the two are so interdependent that it is hard to separate them. Even Ms. Brodie can’t resist revealing evidence of his methods; she includes a copper plate and various stages of the same engravings and etchings to reveal some of the wizardry behind the images.

In the first gallery, black-and-white prints evidence a three-dimensional quality. They are compelling even without color; layered tones, expressive lines and lacy textures are combined to suggest spatial depth.

In “Amazon,” white shapes resembling daubed paint and embossed shapes are the result of gouging deep into the plate to leave patches empty of ink. A plaster relief and a print, both titled “Runner,” are derived from the same copper plate.

Mr. Hayter’s willingness to experiment was rooted in his scientific background. He studied chemistry and geology at King’s College London and spent three years working for an oil company in the Persian Gulf.

A bout of malaria sent Mr. Hayter back to London where a successful show of his paintings convinced him to give up his job and pursue his passion for art. He came from a dynasty of artists: His father, William, was a painter; George Hayter, a distant relative, was Queen Victoria’s official portraitist.

In 1926, Mr. Hayter moved to Paris to study engraving with the Polish artist Joseph Hecht and soon opened his own printmaking studio, Atelier 17.

Smitten with surrealism, Mr. Hayter saw engraving as well-suited to the movement’s “automatic” drawing as a means of expressing the subconscious through spontaneous markings. He liberated the lines made with the engraving tool, called a burin, by moving his plates while cutting into them.

Mr. Hayter’s physical approach to printmaking brought a freshness to the medium through whiplash lines and biomorphic shapes. Compared to his fluent engravings, the prints in the exhibit by artists Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti and Wifredo Lam look arthritic.

During the 1930s, Mr. Hayter harnessed his free-flowing technique to create menacing imagery symbolic of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism. The tangled lines of “Combat” suggest the opposing forces of a war scene; the artist compared his 1936 print to the “Battle of the Naked Men,” a 15th-century engraving by Italian Renaissance artist Antonio del Pollaiuolo.

Mr. Hayter also took inspiration from literary sources. “Death by Water,” a 1948 engraving of a supine figure ensnared in wavy lines, was inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.”

The outbreak of World War II led Mr. Hayter to join the exodus of avant-garde European artists and move to New York. He taught printmaking at the New School for Social Research and reopened Atelier 17 in Greenwich Village. His expressive printmaking had a formative influence on painters such as Jackson Pollock, whose dense, scrawl-fraught engravings in the exhibit (acquired by the National Gallery earlier this year) anticipate his later drip paintings.

The show’s second gallery reveals how Mr. Hayter introduced color into his prints from the 1940s onward. Instead of working in a conventional way, he used inks of varying viscosities to print different hues at the same time on a single plate. This innovative method was less laborious than the traditional technique of using multiple plates, each inked in a separate color and printed in sequence.

Mr. Hayter’s breakthrough, called simultaneous color printing, was first realized in “Centauresse,” a 1944 series of small prints charting his process. Two years later, the artist applied the technique to a full-sized print, “Cinq personnages,” a grouping of writhing figures made after the death of his firstborn son.

In 1950, Mr. Hayter returned to Paris to continue his color printmaking with the same structural complexity of his earlier work. The exhibit documents his process through the striking “Night and Day”; the first print in the 1952 series records the curvaceous lines undergirding the colored shapes in the final image.

By the 1960s, the artist had ventured into op art, but softened his geometric patterns and strident hues with the suggestion of nature. Tree branches sway among the stripes of “Bouleau” while ocean waves gently ripple through “Shoal Green.” The most dynamic of these, “Fastnet,” captures the stormy seas and pitched sails of a disastrous yachting race.

The bright images reflect the artist’s growing confidence in using color but lack the graphic force of his earlier work.

Limited to Mr. Hayter’s prints, the exhibit only skims his career. There is much more to learn about this artist, including his devotion to painting, writings on printmaking and enormous influence on the art departments of American universities.

A major Hayter retrospective is long overdue.

WHAT: “Stanley William Hayter: From Surrealism to Abstraction”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, through Aug. 30

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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