Nathan Foxton is a contributing critic to LEAP! Art Review.
"Gustave Baumann, German Craftsman - American Artist" Curated by Marty Krause
February 12, 2016
The exhibition of the prints of German-born printmaker Gustave Baumann, curated by Marty Krause in the IMA’s main alternating show space presents, is exhaustive. With an overwhelming number of prints, it tells the story of a technically accomplished artist of the local.
Baumann’s work shines in specificity. Pieces like Harden Hollow(1912) move the viewer through skillful descriptions of the hilly topography. He manages to transform banal subject matter into exquisite designs. Ridge Road (1916-1918) depicts a dirt road incised by wagon wheels and eroded by the elements. The use of color and its application to details is masterfully executed.
But if an attention to local detail dominates the subject matter, the larger narrative is one of craft. Beginning with tonal prints and drawings, Baumann’s clarity is attributed to the intensive crafts of engraving and woodblock printing, which Baumann studied in Chicago and Germany, respectively. Before he turned 30, Baumann arrived in Brown County, Indiana (1910-1916) where he developed his sense of color space, adding depth and vibrancy to his flat, yet illusionistic prints.
His achievement was in combining the concerns of the plein air painter with the articulation of the printmaker, making the colored spaces of paintings more widely available. I know many artists who lament the quality of a painting in reproduction: Baumann’s answer was a meticulously constructed print. After his time in Brown County Baumann spent the remainder of his career in the southwest. The craft narrative has its climax in the room that holds the individual blocks for Palo Verde and Ocotea (1928). Presented as deeply saturated color reliefs, the color blocks offer a captivating view into Baumann’s process, revealing his precision in the layering process. While there is a tendency in other media to make experimental marks in pursuit of an effect, Baumann’s process required a rich understanding of color perspective and organization in layering.
It is at this point that the amount of prints and their range in quality begins to be exhausting, and the further question remains: what contribution do these technically accomplished prints make to art history at large? While Baumann’s concerns line up with a historical moment in American Modernism, when artists of all stripes were searching for a (local) and truly “American” subject matter, Baumann’s project seems both more populist and less ambitious. I get the impression that he was a humble and generous man, with a mission to provide a large audience with consistently conceived, well-crafted, accessible, and heart-felt works.
Baumann gave away work, created puppet shows and Christmas cards and made many quaint, affordable prints. He mastered his craft early in his career and, it seems, spent the better part of the second half cultivating an audience. His career does not move consistently forward toward a stylistic or conceptual vision—it moves toward production of more and less expensive prints for a larger audience. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the underlying narrative here is one of public engagement—with well-crafted (but easily digestible) work that feels stale less than one hundred years after it was made.
"Gustave Baumann, German Craftsman - American Artist," curated by Marty Krause. Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road, Indianapolis. Closes February 14.