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Here's One Collector's Top 50 List

A show of Japanese woodblock prints at LACMA is an informative delight.

March 05, 2001|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

How many times have you heard art collectors liken the activity to an addiction? Walls fill up, floor space disappears, the flat file bulges, but the hunt continues.

Just one more abstract painting. A Spanish Colonial santo unlike any other carving of a saint you've seen. The German drawing that can't be passed up.

Stopping is hard. Very hard.

Max Palevsky is a collector who, in the field of Japanese woodblock prints, found a solution to the addiction problem. Call it a 50-Step Program.

More, in this view, is not necessarily better. Better is better. So Palevsky began by setting a limit on the number of Japanese woodblock prints he would own. The limit is 50. If he comes upon a 51st print that he desires, he must sell one he already owns.

The 50-Step Program recognizes that, for addictions, willpower doesn't work. Recovery is found in connoisseurship. Is the print Palevsky wants to add to his collection better than the one that he'll be forced to sell?

And what does better mean? More rare? Finer condition? A classic? The completion of a set? A historical curiosity? The key to fuller understanding of other prints by other artists already represented in the collection?

Palevsky's answers to these questions will be found on the second floor in the Japanese Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a gorgeous exhibition of his collection of woodblock prints is installed through May 15. It's an impressive array.

Three artists dominate the collection. Katsushika Hokusai is one of the great figures of world art. Kitagawa Utamaro is famous for his sensuous images of the pleasure quarters of Edo (present-day Tokyo). Suzuki Harunobu is less well-known but a pivotal figure who kicked Japanese woodblock printing into high gear.

Harunobu (1724-1770) is represented by 11 prints, including one that shows two willowy female figures at a wind-tossed beach. Flat, patterned color and elegant linear contours are emphasized. He also displays an acute eye for telling detail--the toes that curl over the edge of a sandal, for example, to help secure an otherwise uncertain footing in sandy soil. The result is a refined, carefully observed, highly stylized scene that never feels mannered.

Woodblock printing called for an artist to design the print, but trained block carvers, colorists and printers would do the actual execution. (Woodblock printing is still done that way today in Japan, as in a well-known series of prints from the 1980s by Italian artist Francesco Clemente.) Harunobu was responsible for exploding the technical possibilities. Two rare prints from the early 1700s, one by Fujikawa Yoshinobu, the other by Ishikawa Toyonobu, show how far Harunobu pushed the medium just a few years later.

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The early, so-called primitive prints are dominated by firm black outlines, a limited palette and iconic compositions. Their quaint, charming style reveals the medium's origins in popular story illustration.

Harunobu's "Two Women on a Beach" (1767), by contrast, is immensely sophisticated. The paper has been subtly embossed. Embossing causes ambient light falling across the printed sheet to create the appearance of waves on the water. Not only was Harunobu responsible for inventing the technique of full-color block printing, he also understood the print as more than just a picture: He approached the sheet as a material object to be experienced in time and space.

Prints by Utamaro (1754-1806) from the end of the century expand these techniques through detailed embossing, refinements of transparent color and the use of subtly reflective mica. The indulgence of sensual pleasure is this artist's aim, as befits subject matter dominated by the brothel culture of Edo. Utamaro's prints, like the women they depict, were for sale to an eager male clientele.

In one full-length, two half-length and one bust-length work, Utamaro nearly fills the field with the courtesans' figures. Although little is known of the artist's private life, his intimate knowledge of the private lives of the entertainers is more than evident here.

He also plays all kinds of games with transparent veils, bamboo scrims that filter light and complex layers of color and space. In one tour de force, a cat has become playfully entangled in a sheer length of purple fabric being sewn by a gaily grinning young woman. Along the fabric's length the depth of color shifts according to the number of layered folds, moving from transparency to opacity. The layered image becomes a visual memory of the strata of multiple printing blocks with which the print was made.

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