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Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2009

Maximum ’80s Art

Art Review

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Conceptualism and Minimalism dominated the art world in the 1960s and '70s. In the '80s, however, artists returned to the figure, working expressively and expansively on mammoth canvasses. The Milwaukee Art Museum's Figurative Prints: 1980s Rewind brings together painters from Europe and the United States-more specifically, those who used printmaking as an ancillary medium and focused on the figure.

The exhibition features several artists whose works are part of MAM's Contemporary Ar Galleries reinstallation, and placards throughout Figurative Prints remind the viewer to seek them out. By comparison, large-scale paintings by Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente and David Salle dominate their lesser-known prints. A couple, greeted by Richard Bosman's Man Overboard, sighed with disappointment and rhetorically asked why they'd rushed here for these?

I reacted similarly to Clemente's touted self-portrait, I, a smallish print that looks as though it were painted with delicate watercolor. A nearby placard helpfully informs viewers that Clemente studied in Japan under ukiyo-e master Tadashi Toda, and that printing I involved 30 separate blocks, 60 separate colors and 49 passes through the press. The print's painstaking technical origins are nearly unrecognizable; Clemente's physiognomy is rendered a painterly, watery map of sheer color. In comparison to his large, expressive canvasses (see Untitled from 1983 in the contemporary art exhibit), I is an anticlimax, an opaque triumph of process.

Bigger is not necessarily better for all the artists in Figurative Prints. Eric Fischl, whose early oil paintings exposed deviant sexuality beneath the banal veneer of American suburban life, is represented with two distinct prints from his Beach Series, both of which complement his voyeuristic canvasses. In Beach Balls, composed of five overlapped plates, a half-clothed adolescent boy stands near a prone, nude woman wedged between two inflatable beach toys. The monochromatic black ink imbues the scene with a menacing quality and sexual tension, absent from his second piece, an untitled, brightly hued, aquatint.

In Germany, artists A. R. Penck, Jrg Immendorff and Georg Baselitz struggled with more overtly political subject matter: Germany's postwar identity crisis. Addressing the schism between Eastern Communism and Western Democracy, Penck and Immendorff collaborated on a portfolio of six linocuts, four of which are on display. Penck's poems are interspersed with Immendorff's primary-hued prints, all of which feature the Brandenburg Gate. Erected in 1791 as a symbol of peace, the gate was later appropriated by the Nazi party as a symbol of Germany before becoming part of the Berlin Wall.

While Figurative Prints feels hit or miss at times, as a companion exhibit to the Contemporary Art Galleries, it marks the return of the artist's hand, its expressiveness faithfully mediated by plates and presses. Look closely at the smaller prints, and subsequently venture downstairs to bask in the excesses of the '80s.