Why Study Prints Now, Redux

In 1987, during the fall semester of my first year in a settled teaching job, I went to Lawrence, Kansas, for a conference in honor of the “Little Masters” exhibition curated by Stephen Goddard, and there I was introduced to Peter Parshall. As an academic working on Renaissance prints, I remember feeling slightly bothered as all my research interests were in limbo while the world waited for Parshall’s promised book to solidify the foundations of the field (The Renaissance Print 1470–1550, co-authored with David Landau, was still seven interminable, Biblical years off). My ample compensation was meeting an art historian who was deft, kindly, challenging and widely knowledgeable as an interlocutor, a person who found the world amusing and distressing by turn and who avoided the egomania that can run in our profession. I suppose I am not alone in having thought, if only this person had been my dissertation advisor! I have treasured the opportunities to learn from Peter and to share bemusements and delights ever since. Much of what follows may be considered the fruit of our conversations over what is now, astonishingly, close to 30 years. Tempus fugit.

Let me begin by confessing that, despite Peter’s warning against Balkanization, I am one of those people who “loves prints” categorically. Prints are Kansas to oil painting’s Oz, and it is possible to prefer Kansas. I love black and white; my brain may simply be wired that way. I would rather not know what shade of lipstick Greta Garbo was wearing; I deplore the need to paint the grass green, as Antonioni did in Blow-Up, to get the right hue. I would prefer to concentrate on the interrelationships of tone, on the degree of focus, on the simplicity of a perfectly drawn line. Black and white can offer us a world of heightened clarity; alternatively, aquatint makes vagueness palpable. A world of grays is not necessarily an unrealistic world: sometimes the world is gray.

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