The astonishing dexterity and passion for detail of American printmaker John Taylor Arms (18871953) is revealed in the first exhibition of his works at the National Gallery of Art
, Washington. On view in the West Building from May 8 to November 27, 2011, The Gothic Spirit of John Taylor Arms features some 60 prints, drawings, and copperplates that span the artist's career, from his early New York series to his finest images of cathedrals.
"While some American artists of the period (such as John Sloan and Edward Hopper) advocated a gritty realism and others (including John Marin and Stuart Davis) explored the possibilities offered by modernist abstraction, John Taylor Arms paid homage to the past," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art, Washington. "We are delighted to present these works from our collection paired with promised gifts as well as with other works on loan."
Born in Washington, DC, Arms began his career as an architect in New York, but by 1919 he had dedicated himself solely to printmaking. He adapted the meticulous drafting skills required for his architectural practice to the execution of finely wrought prints. Arms devoted many years of European travel and study to rendering architecture and is best known for his print series based on particular places or subjects, including gargoyles, French churches, New York, England, and Italy. Organized thematically, The Gothic Spirit of John Taylor Arms features selections from his major series of prints along with independently conceived works.
Gothic art and architecture stirred the imagination of Arms, whose earliest Gothic subjects were stone gargoyles that he admired while traveling in France. They are seen in Guardians of the Spire (1921) and A Devil of Notre Dame (1929). Not all of his prints depict Gothic subjects, but all reflect the spirit of an artist whose intense devotion to craftsmanship echoed an association with medieval artisans. Arms would often share his own creative process through technical demonstrations and lectures, and numerous works in the exhibition offer insight into his practice. Drawings and tracings are juxtaposed with associated prints that not only reveal his masterful handling of line but also document the intricate and painstaking craft Arms employed.
At the time of the artist's death in October 1953, the copper etching plate "La Trinité," Vendôme was a work in progress. According to Arms' records, he spent nearly 220 hours scratching the design through an acid-resistant hardground with a fine-gauge sewing needle set into a wooden handle. Although the image was catalogued as the final work in the artist's French Church Series, no prints from the plate have been discovered to date.
Arms' studio guest book is also on view. It was signed by such visitors as Helen Keller and the artists Reginald Marsh and F. Luis Mora. The book includes many drawings. Among those being shown are a cartoon figure by Robert Lawson; a sketch of George Washington pointing to John Taylor Arms by Kerr Eby; and Samuel Chamberlain's drawing of buildings and wine bottles. Prints by Chamberlain, Eby, and Gerald Geerlings, who also signed the guest book, are exhibited as well.