The Prints of Allan D’Arcangelo

Allan D’Arcangelo, Sky Bars (pr033) (1979), screenprint, 31 x 26 1/4 inches. Artist’s Proof. Edition of 175. Image courtesy of G.W. Einstein Company, New York. Art ©D’Arcangelo Family Partnership/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

The painter and printmaker Allan D’Arcangelo (1930–1998) achieved international recognition as a major Pop artist for his paintings of bleak, sign-cluttered American highways. First commissioned to make prints in 1962, D’Arcangelo continued to produce prints intermittently over the course of his career,1 but while his paintings are well-documented, this article is the first attempt to consider in some depth the role of printmaking in his oeuvre. D’Arcangelo’s prints are generally related to prior paintings and are sometimes based on them. They form, however, a distinct body of work; as the artist explained to Marco Livingstone, he would make drawings, bring color samples for them to the printer and correct the proofs.2 The evolution of his print style echoed that of his painting style, from its origins in Pop through abstraction, realism and finally a Precisionist-inspired style, all unified through a strong personal inflection. He focused primarily on screenprint, a medium he chose because it allowed him to emulate his painting style:  “I had things to say about us [Americans] and wanted to do this in the most direct way possible … I looked for visual language that would be broadly communicable, direct and clear … without gesture, without brushstroke, without color modulation … The work is pretty much pre-conceived, and the execution is relatively mechanical … as part of a reaction to Abstract Expressionism.”3 After graduating from the University of Buffalo in 1953, D’Arcangelo moved to New York City to study painting. Like many young artists of his generation, he was deeply involved with left-wing politics, and in 1957 he decided to continue his studies in Mexico City, then a center for leftist expatriate artists and intellectuals. (While it is tempting to associate D’Arcangelo’s twelve-day road trip to Mexico City in an old bakery truck, fitted out for cooking and sleeping, with the travels of Jack Kerouac, D’Arcangelo denied any such connection).4 At Mexico City College he experimented with Abstract Expressionism under the tutelage of artist and art historian John Golding, and while he met with some success, D’Arcangelo concluded that in order to develop a meaningful personal style, he would have to return to a culture he understood from “first-hand experience.”5 He returned to New York in 1959, where a few years later he began to experiment with Pop Art’s flat colors, simplified forms, and imagery derived from advertising. In 1962, D’Arcangelo was one of 20 American artists invited to contribute an etching to the now -famous portfolio The International Anthology of Contemporary Engraving: America Discovered, produced by Milan publisher Arturo Schwartz.6 D’Arcangelo’s small black-and- white etching, American Madonna, no. 1, features a seductive nude, her head encircled by a halo, seated in the center of the composition surrounded by icons of American culture, including the Statue of Liberty and the American flag, like a Madonna enthroned over the predella of a Renaissance altarpiece. The composition is similar to a large colorful painting of the same title and year, but the soft gray tones of the etching diverge markedly from the emotionally neutral, hard edges of the painting.7

Allan D’Arcangelo, Constellation II (1971), screenprint on paper with embossed border, 26 x 26 inches. Printed at Styria Studios Inc., New York. Image courtesy of G.W. Einstein Company, New York. Art ©D’Arcangelo Family Partnership/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

D’Arcangelo soon abandoned this kind of satiric subject matter, concluding that its Pop aesthetic was alien to him and that he must find an approach drawn from personal experience.8 He found it in the highway paintings he showed in 1963 at the Thibaud Gallery in New York, in his first solo exhibition. Despite D’Arcangelo’s disavowal of the style, Lucy Lippard described these scenes of “the American highway speeding vigorously into the future—a knife–edged path punctuated by billboards, route and speed-limit signs” as “ultra-Pop.”9 For D’Arcangelo, the empty American highway punctuated by signs was a means of addressing the social and moral issues he saw facing the nation.10 Aspects of these paintings would inform his work for the rest of his career. According to the artist, this imagery derived from childhood memories of looking out the windshield of his father’s car (visions perhaps reinforced by that long road trip to Mexico).11 He believed the highway separated drivers from the natural world, which they would travel through mindlessly simply to get from one place to another.12 D’Arcangelo visualized this concept by describing the landscape and road signage in the same abstract terms: “A sky is simply blue … Foliage is one flat green, it is not broken up … The signs that appear in these paintings suggest both environment and space.” In this way, he observed, “Man-made and natural forms take on equal importance.”13 Like many Pop artists, he found the impersonal, uninflected surface of screenprint well suited to producing the solid colors, flat forms and hard edges he used. As he told Livingstone, his screenprints recalled for him the simple and direct compositions that artists of the Middle Ages used to educate an illiterate public.14 For D’Arcangelo, the fact that prints are produced in multiples and can reach a large number of viewers further reinforced the educational parallel with medieval art. By 1965, when D’Arcangelo made his next prints, he had moved from the literal depiction of highways to more abstract forms derived from them.15 The 1965 screenprint he made for the Paris Review portrays a circular red road sign with a white border and diagonal slash interrupting a wiggly black arrow, symbols that he chose for their formal content and that, in combination, fail to provide the useful instruction that is the purpose of road signage. The ambiguous juxtaposition of the two symbols encourages the viewer to focus on the formal graphic qualities of the device and its setting.

Allan D’Arcangelo, The Holy Family (1977), screenprint, 28 x 38 inches. Printed at Styria Studios Inc., New York. Image courtesy of G.W. Einstein Company, New York. Art ©D’Arcangelo Family Partnership/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

In the three screenprints that D’Arcangelo contributed to the 11 Pop Artists portfolios, published by Original Editions in 1965, he similarly abstracted images drawn from the highway paintings into isolated formal elements. Landscape III playfully compiles two road signs—one with a curved arrow above one with a straight arrow—creating more directions without clear meaning. For the 1966 set of multiples, 7 Objects in a Box,16 D’Arcangelo provided an automobile side-view mirror, inset with a screenprint–on–Plexiglas image of the road behind. The object is a visual pun, but its consideration of moving forward into the future while looking back to the past is profound. D’Arcangelo had toyed with this idea earlier in his painting Crossroads (1964), to which he attached a rear-view mirror, and he returned to this theme a decade later in his screenprint The Holy Family (1977): here the viewer looks through the windshield of a car at the road ahead, which is blocked by a big yellow yield sign, while the rearview mirror, from which baby shoes hang, reflects the empty highway behind. A solo painting exhibition at the Württemburgischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart in 1967 brought D’Arcangelo’s work to the attention of the distinguished German screenprint workshop, Edition Domberger. That year the firm published the portfolio Formen der Farbe with 14 screenprints by 10 artists, including D’Arcangelo. His composition shows the silhouette of a rooftop with a chimney in the form of an upward-facing arrow that recalls the directional arrows on road signs he had depicted earlier. This hard–edged, virtually abstract image is a cousin to prints produced by Josef Albers, Max Bill, Victor Vasarely and Robert Indiana, and firmly situated D’Arcangelo in the realm of geometric abstraction, far removed from the Pop aesthetic. The seven screenprints in the AAp 12 portfolio published by Domberger in 1969 trace the artist’s stylistic development from 1962 to 1969. Proposition no. 1, based on a 1966 painting, is a construction of squares within squares, somewhat reminiscent of Albers’ Homage to the Square series but drawn from D’Arcangelo’s highway imagery. A large white square hovers over a black-and-white–striped “road” that recedes into a vertical green band suggestive of landscape on either side of the page; a blue strip running across the top reads as sky. Perspective lines extending from the corners of the white square into the center of the sheet focus the eye on a tiny replica of the larger print that seems to be vanishing into the distance, a so-called Droste Effect recursion, implying a sense of motion and space. D’Arcangelo explained the highly abstract paintings made between 1967 and 1969, which he dubbed “Landscapes,” as an attempt to convey a sense of landscape in space without any of the customary references.17 The striped beams featured in these works derive from the barriers that mark closed lanes or detours on highways.18 Road barriers of this sort come in a variety of colors, and D’Arcangelo seems to have used them all: yellow and red, black and white, black and yellow. Often extending beyond the edges of the support, they appear to spin through space against the flat blue of the sky, disembodied constructions that retain only vestiges of the illusion of depth and movement conveyed in the highway paintings.

Allan D’Arcangelo, Resonance (1978), screenprint, 29 1/2 x 26 1/4 inches. Image courtesy of G.W. Einstein Company, New York. Art ©D’Arcangelo Family Partnership/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

D’Arcangelo used the imagery developed in these Landscapes in prints made at Domberger, Gemini G.E.L. (an untitled lithograph) and Hollander Workshop (a portfolio of lithographs). An untitled 1967 screenprint published by Domberger shows a barrier floating over a highway, an almost Surrealist combination of elements in which the topography is suggested by three small rubber-stamp–like tree icons and three small bush icons. In Yield (1968), a screenprint poster for the Smithsonian Institution, the references to highway, barriers and landscape are more explicit: two red-and-yellow barrier beams hover over a white highway that vanishes into the distance; a tiny yield sign and two small stamp-like trees are placed on either side of the road, while a small fluffy white-cloud shape floats in the flat blue sky. D’Arcangelo returned to this imagery in prints in 1973, 1978 and 1979. In Resonance (1978), three striped planks of different colors swirl through the blue sky high above the viewer’s head, like girders carried by a giant crane. Only the little cloud shape remains as a reminder of the natural world. Ultimately, all signs of nature except the blue of the sky are eliminated, leaving only huge futuristic barrier bars swinging ominously through the air, as seen in the screenprint Descent from the Cross (1978). By 1971, D’Arcangelo had decided to rid his work of color, which he felt prompted associations that interfered with his vision of space. He worked with the same striped prismatic planks of the Landscapes, but these were now restricted to black and white and formed complete figures within the frame rather than running off the edge. D’Arcangelo said these new works “re–named themselves Constellations,”19 perhaps because their crisscrossing black and white bars reminded him of the night sky. They can be seen as distant relatives of some of the early highway images, in which gas station signs light up the darkness. In conjunction with a 1971 exhibition, Marlborough Graphics published four related screenprints, also titled Constellations. Bits of color found their way into the prints: the striped and angled bars pass through a red circle, a black circle, a blue triangle and a yellow square.20 In some of the Constellation paintings, however, D’Arcangelo replaced his usually uniform acrylic flatness with fuzzy forms, endowed with a somewhat ethereal quality, which were created with graphite and dry pigment on raw canvas. The softer form and texture of the painting Constellation, no. 111 (1971) was captured in the lithograph Constellation L’Homme Dieu (1972), made at Lake L’Homme Dieu Art School when D’Arcangelo was a visiting artist at St. Cloud University in Minnesota.

Allan D’Arcangelo, Watertower (1973), screenprint, 33 1/4 x 26 1/4 inches. Printed at Styria Studios Inc., New York. Image courtesy of G.W. Einstein Company, New York. Art ©D’Arcangelo Family Partnership/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Elements of the American industrial landscape began to reappear in D’Arcangelo’s work in the 1970s. The introduction of this subject matter may have been encouraged by a commission from the Department of the Interior to paint the Grand Coolie Dam in Spokane, Washington. In 1971 D’Arcangelo spent two weeks at the dam with the painter Ralston Crawford, who became a close friend. At Grand Coolie, Crawford and D’Arcangelo both took photographs for future reference rather than making paintings on the spot.21 Though D’Arcangelo had taken photographs related to the subjects of his paintings in the 1960s, he did not begin using them for reference until the 1970s. Photographs were the source material for Water Tower, a portfolio of five screenprints printed by Styria Studio in 1973.22 The towers’ simple shapes, flat colors and immensely tall, striped support poles, seen from below as they lean in and vanish into the sky, echo the perspective, color patterns and shapes of D’Arcangelo’s highway and landscape imagery. (Similarly, his photographs of power lines engendered a group of 1974 paintings of loose wires swinging in front of geometric towers.)23 The water towers and power lines evoke some of the formal elements of the Highway paintings and abjure the abstraction of the Landscapes and Constellations. From about 1977 to 1982, the date of his last solo exhibition (at Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York), D’Arcangelo focused on recognizable albeit reduced and simplified industrial structures. He remained concerned with the illusion of moving through space, as exemplified by his 1979 screenprint of a highway overpass, Rail & Bridge (related to a 1977 painting) and his 1982 paintings depicting clouds and sky as seen from the window of an airplane. In 1990, D’Arcangelo produced a group of screenprints reprising paintings from the early 1960s, but he seems to have produced almost no new work in the last 16 years of his life. The clean-lined formalism of D’Arcangelo’s depictions of the American industrial landscape was no doubt to a degree indebted to the work of his friend Crawford and of Charles Sheeler and other Precisionist painters, yet it was legitimately his own voice. He understood that he was seen as their disciple but believed that, like them, he was just an American painting what he saw around him.24 He also saw the beauty of the man-made roads and structures that dotted our countryside, but he had arrived at that understanding via his own trajectory, a route that took his scenes of the American highway into realms of abstraction and back again, employing a graphic formal language that lent itself naturally to the print.

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  1. Marco Livingstone, “Rear­view Mirror” (interview [1988] with Allan D’Arcangelo), in Allan D’Archangelo: Retrospective (Modena: Pallazzina dei Giardini, 2005), 46. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. From the preface to Allan D’Arcangelo: Paintings of the Early Sixties (Purchase, NY: Neuberger Museum, State University of New York, 1978), cited in Marco Livingstone, ed., Pop Art (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1991), 41. []
  4. Ibid, “Rear View Mirror,” 34. []
  5. “Unpublished Writings: Letter to Joan, February 5, 1990,” in Walter Guadagnini and Silvia Ferrari, Allan D’Arcangelo: Retrospective (Modena: Pallazzina dei Giardini, 2005), 132. []
  6. The International Anthology of Contemporary Engraving: The International Avant-Garde, vol. 5, America Discovered (Milan: Galleria Schwarz, 1964). Artists: George Brecht; Allan D’Arcangelo; Jim Dine; Stephen Durkee; Lette Eisenhauer; Stanley Fisher; Sam Goodman; Red Grooms; Robert Indiana; Allan Kaprow; Roy Lichtenstein; Boris Lurie; Claes Oldenburg; James Rosenquist; George Segal; Richard Stankiewicz; Wayne Thiebaud; Andy Warhol; Robert Watts; and Robert Whitman. []
  7. Perhaps for this reason, in 1990 he created a similar image of the Madonna in a hard-edged screenprint. []
  8. Steven Prokopoff, “An Interview: Allan D’Arcangelo and Stephen Prokopoff,” in Allan D’Arcangelo: Paintings, 1963–1970 (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Contemporary Art, in collaboration with Albright­-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, 1971), n.p. []
  9. Lucy Lippard, “New York Pop,” in Lippard, ed., Pop Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1966), 130. []
  10. Livingstone, Pop Art, 41. []
  11. Livingstone, “Rear-View Mirror,” 30. []
  12. Ibid., 26. []
  13. Prokopoff, “An Interview,” n.p. []
  14. Livingstone, “Rear View Mirror,” 30. []
  15. Many years later he returned to his early highway paintings for the subject matter of new screenprints such as Rainbow Highway and Yield (1977) and The Holy Family and Smoke Dreams (1980). []
  16. Seven Objects in a Box (New York: Tanglewood Press, 1966). Wooden box with artists’ names and titles stenciled in paint, containing multiples by D’Arcangelo, Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann. []
  17. Prokopoff, “An Interview,” n.p. []
  18. See the artist’s photograph of a barrier in Allan D’Arcangelo: Paintings 1962–1982 (New York: Mitchell­Innes & Nash, 2009), 24. []
  19. Prokopoff, “An Interview,” n.p. []
  20. The gallery is unable to identify conclusively the four Constellation prints they published in 1971, but the Tate Gallery (London) identifies the works as Constellation I–IV (1971). []
  21. Livingstone, “Rear View Mirror,” 40. []
  22. See photograph in Allan D’Arcangelo: Paintings 1962–1982, 40. []
  23. There are no related prints for these paintings. []
  24. Livingstone, “Rear View Mirror,” 41–42. []