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Exhibition of prints and working proofs at the National Gallery reveals creative process
John Cage, Where There is Where There 17/ Urban Landscape, 1987, revised 1989. Aquatint, flatbite etching and etching, plate: 17 x 24 (43.2 x 61), sheet: 23 x 30 (58.4 x 76.2). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Crown Point Press, 1996© John Cage Trust.

WASHINGTON, DC.- Featuring 125 working proofs and prints produced at Crown Point Press in San Francisco, one of the most influential printmaking studios of the last half century, Yes, No, Maybe goes beyond celebrating the flash of inspiration and the role of the imagination to examine the artistic process as a sequence of carefully considered decisions.

Among the 25 artists represented are those with longtime ties to Crown Point Press—Richard Diebenkorn, John Cage, Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt, and Wayne Thiebaud—as well as those whose association is more recent, such as Mamma Andersson, Julie Mehretu, Jockum Nordström, Chris Ofili, Laura Owens, and Amy Sillman. Organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the exhibition is on view from September 1, 2013, to January 5, 2014. Yes, No, Maybe will travel to the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas, from January 28 to May 17, 2015.

“The National Gallery of Art is proud to feature these important prints from one of the most instrumental workshops of the past half century,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “We are similarly pleased to explore these prints using a novel approach. Instead of viewing creativity in the usual terms, Yes, No, Maybe reveals the sequence of choices, detours, revisions—and, yes, mistakes—behind the creation of a work of art.”

A mythology of art suggests that masterpieces spring fully formed from the imaginations of artist-geniuses at eureka moments. While Yes, No, Maybe does not deny the role that inspiration plays in artistic production, it suggests an alternative and revealing framework for understanding the creative process, looking to etching as evidence. In printmaking, occurrences ranging from unplanned mishaps to premeditated changes are recorded in working proofs. Yes, No, Maybe offers the rare opportunity to see working proofs alongside the final print—bringing to light artistic choices usually made behind closed studio doors.

Featuring prints produced between 1972 and 2010, the exhibition begins with three monographic galleries, devoted to key figures in the history of Crown Point Press: Chuck Close (b. 1940), Richard Diebenkorn (1922–1993), and John Cage (1912–1992). This trio worked at Crown Point variously between 1963 and 2010, and each artist demonstrates a radically different approach to the creative process. Much of this material has never been exhibited before.

Close contends that rather than problem solving, “the far more important thing is problem creation.” His renowned mezzotint, Keith (1972), represents the successful solution of a self-imposed challenge, as does his woodcut Leslie (1986). But the photo-etching John (1972) and a photogravure self-portrait (2010–2013) demonstrate that not all creative challenges can be resolved to the artist's satisfaction.

Diebenkorn favored an approach that was in “the nature of problem solving,” creating abstract compositions and adjusting them intuitively until they achieved what he considered to be “rightness.” Revision was integral to his creative process. The artist pulled dozens of working proofs, often cutting them up to make collages to test future moves. Thirteen rarely seen Diebenkorn working proofs, including three related to his masterful Green (1985), will be on view.

Cage developed complex chance-based methods of making art. By relying on calculations derived from the I Ching, an ancient Chinese book of divination, Cage relinquished control over formal decisions, shifting responsibility from making choices to asking questions. A gallery devoted to Cage's printmaking at Crown Point surveys many of his most ambitious, complex, and aesthetically striking works, including Changes and Disappearances (1979–1982), and 75 Stones (1989).

A central gallery is devoted to artists whose methods echo those of Close, Diebenkorn, and Cage, including Tom Marioni and Darren Almond. The final three galleries of the exhibition are structured around the concept of the working proof as an invitation for a decision: yes, no, maybe. These last galleries feature works by artists including Tomma Abts, Robert Bechtle, Kiki Smith, Pat Steir, and Fred Wilson.

Judith Brodie, curator and head of modern prints and drawings, National Gallery of Art, and Adam Greenhalgh, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, are the curators of the exhibition.

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