Stanley William Hayter’s Surrealist and Abstract Prints on View at the National Gallery of Art

English chemist Stanley William Hayter’s innovative prints—from the surrealist works of the 1930s to vividly colored abstractions of his later years—reveal his remarkable talent and range of success in the medium of printmaking. On view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from May 31 through August 30, 2009, Stanley William Hayter: From Surrealism to Abstraction traces the artist’s development as a printmaker through 44 of Hayter’s finest prints shown with 10 prints by major artists who worked at Hayter’s shop.

Stanley William Hayter – Expansion 1970

“Hayter has been celebrated as one of the most influential printmakers of the 20th century,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “This exhibition recognizes that important contribution but focuses more on Hayter’s achievement as an artist. Drawn primarily from the Gallery’s holdings, the exhibition would not be possible without the generous contribution of works by Ruth Cole Kainen, widow of artist Jacob Kainen.”

Stanley William Hayter (1901–1988)
Born in England, Hayter studied chemistry and geology at King’s College, London, and subsequently spent three years working for an oil company. He pursued his long-standing desire to become an artist in 1926 when he moved to Paris, took up with the surrealists, painted, and learned printmaking—in particular, the age-old technique of line engraving. Hayter was captivated by the surrealists’ dream like imagery and their reliance on the subconscious mind to spur creativity.

In Paris in 1927 Hayter set up a print workshop, Atelier 17, where he invited artists to investigate the expressive and technical potential of engraving and etching. With the outbreak of World War II, Hayter joined the exodus to New York, where he taught at the New School for Social Research and reestablished Atelier 17 in lower Manhattan. European surrealists found a community of émigrés there while American artists were inspired by the European avant-garde.

Hayter returned to Paris in 1950 and was making inventive abstractions by the early 1960s that rival the visual brilliance of op art, many imbued with electric, even dissonant, color and dazzling moiré patterns. Hayter was knighted and received the Légion d’honneur in 1951, and was chosen to represent Great Britain at the 1958 Venice Biennale. He became Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1967.

Exhibition Highlights
Stanley William Hayter: From Surrealism to Abstraction includes early black-and-white surrealist engravings, outstanding examples of his technical innovations, unique proofs and color variations, late linear abstractions inspired by motion and mathematics, and a fully worked copper plate and plaster cast, which he deemed artistic creations in their own right.

Among the first works in the show are Rue de la Villette and Père Lachaise (1930), from the portfolio Paysages urbains, which reflect Hayter’s early response to surrealism, and Combat (1936), created at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in which Hayter uses tangled, whiplash lines to suggest the frenzy of warriors and horses in battle.

Myth of Creation (1940) is an example of Hayter’s experimentation with plaster reliefs, which were cast from the same engraved and etched copper plates he used to make prints. After the work was cast, he carved into the plaster to enhance its three-dimensionality.

Centauresse (1944) is Hayter’s first multicolor print using a single copper plate, a method he called “simultaneous color print ing.” Instead of working in the customary method with multiple plates, each inked in a different color, he printed multiple colors using a single plate in one run through the press. This group of five impressions illustrates Hayter’s gradual development of the plate and his investigations with color.

Shoal Green (1967) is representative of Hayter’s late abstract style in which he rendered elements of the natural world, such as light, water, and motion. He continued to make prints until the end of his life. His line was less vigorous after 1986 but no less elegant or expressive, as seen in his final print, Downward (1988).

Select prints by some of the best–known artists to work at Hayter’s print shop, either in Paris or in New York – Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, André Masson, Joan Miró, and Jackson Pollock are installed throughout the exhibition. Giacometti’s engraving Hands Holding the Void (1934) relates to his bronze sculpture The Invisible Object (Hands Holding the Void) (1935), on view in the Gallery’s collection on the upper level of the East Building. Masson, who worked at Atelier 17 in New York between 1941 and 1945, is represented by The Genius of the Species (1942). Pollock made 11 plates at Atelier 17 in New York between 1944 and 1945, two of which are included in the exhibition.