Among the earliest works in the National Gallery of Art’s comprehensive summary of the history of American printmaking are four mezzotint portraits made by John Simon after John Verelst’s paintings of the Native American leaders who made a diplomatic visit to Queen Anne in London in 1710. These documents, freighted to contemporary eyes with the weight of “noble savagery,” set in motion a story that ends three centuries later with Kara Walker’s 2010 etching and aquatint, no world (from the series An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters), showing what might be a slave ship held aloft in choppy waters, the tragic dissonance between black and white boldly reiterated through the contrast of bright paper and dark ink. These works not only frame the history of American printmaking in terms of a transition from the largely functional to the consciously artistic, but also starkly represent what Susan Tallman describes in her essay as “the general imbalance of power between those who control representation and those who are its subjects—the all-important difference between being depicted and being heard that is core to all forms of oppression.”1
The first major museum exhibition in decades to survey the full history of American prints, the National Gallery show (3 April–24 July 2016) included 150 prints divided both chronologically and thematically through nine sections, beginning with “Transatlantic Exchange” and ending with “Pluralism.” The catalogue also proceeds chronologically, but deviates from the exhibition in its organization and articulation of themes. An introductory overview by Michael J. Lewis and a closing essay on the museum’s collection by curator Judith Brodie bracket three broad historical divisions—Colonial Era to the Civil War, Reconstruction to World War II, Post-World War II—each containing a number of short, distinctive views by scholars of American history, art and literature. At the expense of a certain amount of coherence, this arrangement provides a complex, textured, individualized picture of a vast territory—a vision no less ambitious than that of the exhibition itself.
- Susan Tallman, “American Printmaking, 1977 to the Present,” in Three Centuries of American Prints from the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2016), 264. All subsequent essay citations refer to this exhibition catalogue.