A Life in Print

'Self-portrait study with collage elements in background' (1952,             watercolor or gouache and ink with woodcut).  Photo courtesy of Dennie Eagleson. 'Self-portrait study with collage elements in background' (1952,             watercolor or gouache and ink with woodcut). Photo courtesy of Dennie Eagleson.

Sidney Chafetz exhibit debuts at Antioch’s Herndon Gallery

By Kay Koeninger

'Self-portrait study with collage elements in background' (1952, watercolor or gouache and ink with woodcut). Photo courtesy of Dennie Eagleson.

How do we take the measure of one person’s life? For Sidney Chafetz, who was born in 1922, it is recorded with an etching needle and a lithography stone. His current retrospective “Sidney Chafetz: A Life in Print,” currently on view through April 29 at the Herndon Gallery of Antioch College, explores not only his individual growth as an artist over 60 years but also connects us to the collective history of the 20th and early 21st century.
A nationally and internationally known print artist, Chafetz lives in Columbus and was on the faculty of Ohio State University, where he started the university’s printmaking program. The majority of the almost 50 works on view are prints though there are also notable examples of collage and assemblage, which is a three-dimensional, sculptural approach to collage. Much of the exhibition comes from the collection of the Columbus Museum of Art. Other works were expertly selected from the artist’s collection by curators Anne Bohlen and Jean Gregorek, who are Antioch College Morgan Fellows.  Why do artists choose printmaking? Even though the medium had been established for centuries in China, printmaking by artists did not become widespread in Europe until the Renaissance. Like the products of the printing press, printmaking became a powerful tool for communication. The technology allowed artists to make more than one work of art at a time and thus allowed them to sell their work at a cheaper price. Printmaking made art more affordable for a larger and more diverse population and in turn enhanced the reputation of the artist. Because of these qualities, it is not surprising that many printmakers are also social critics, and Chafetz’ long line of forebears stretches from Rowlandson to Kollwitz and Shahn.
The exhibition begins with an appropriately placed self-portrait dated 1952. By this time, Chafetz’ view of the world had been widened by his World War II service in Europe and his post-war study at the Rhode Island School of Design and in France. In the self-portrait, a serious young man directly confronts the viewer. In the background is a rich overlay of prints and drawings. On the right is what looks to be a straight-edged ruler —or is it the handle for a protest sign? This work poignantly predicts the future life of the artist and his heightened political sensibility.
Politicians get no mercy from Chafetz. One of his most effective skewerings is “Ephemera Triptych #70 (Watergate Triptych),” 1974, completed at the height of the Watergate crisis. The artist combines photolithography showing Nixon’s face with lithographed maggots and assemblage false teeth, both powerful symbols of predators.  The teeth also satirically replicate the famous smile Nixon flashed as he boarded the Marine helicopter for his last ride from the White House. In other works, Reagan is transformed into a Velazquez-inspired midget and George W. Bush’s self-satisfied smirk is juxtaposed with an achingly sad image of a rain-drenched military funeral in Arlington National Cemetery.
Another target is American higher education, an environment that Chafetz knows well.  “Masquerade,” a 1963 etching, shows professors in caps and gowns carrying a flag proclaiming “If you can’t teach them, entertain them,” words of advice that the artist once received from a colleague. In the woodcut “Mars and Venus: Last Tango in Columbus,” 1975, two large figures float above the Ohio State campus. “Mars” wears a dollar sign and looks suspiciously like the late football coach Woody Hayes while “Venus” reminds us of a homecoming queen past her prime. These figures personify the dangerous compromises made when higher education becomes entangled with big business sports. Chafetz pointed to the growing corporatization of higher education long before it became today’s hot topic.
Other works in the exhibition point to the wide-ranging interests of the artist. They include selections from his famous “Perpetrators” series of lithographs from 1991, which are disturbingly banal portrayals of Nazi leaders. There are portraits of famous cultural and literary figures as well as Chafetz’ Russian ancestors. Modernism is explored in Cubist landscape prints and Expressionist-derived mother and child woodcuts.
Chafetz’s powerful images are mainly communicated through black lines on white paper. Color is rarely used. But a closer look shows that his images are often underscored by small, strategic touches of red: a flag-draped coffin at Arlington, collaged roses reminiscent of the Rose Bowl spectacle, and a trio of smug women portrayed in “Attentive Patriots” of 1989. Red, of all the colors used in art, is the most emphatic and emotionally powerful. At the age of 89 and counting, Sidney Chafetz shows us that moral outrage has not gone out of fashion.

Article courtesy of the Yellow Springs News.

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