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An Appreciation of Norma Morgan: Engraver to Engraver

By Andrew Raftery


I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with the artist Andrew Raftery in 2013-2014, while I was Senior Curator of 19th and Early 20th Century Art at the National Academy Museum in New York, and Andrew organized a wonderful exhibition featuring prints in the Academy's collection as well as some of his own work. Over the past two years we have been in touch regarding the art of Norma Morgan, whose exhibition is on view at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum through September 10th. Andrew and I met up last summer in Philadelphia at the Dolan/Maxwell gallery where we looked together at engravings by Morgan. Andrew offered eye opening comments about Morgan's work, which I share in the piece that follows. In addition to Andrew, I would like to thank Jonathan Eckel, Assistant Director of Dolan/Maxwell, for his myriad help on the exhibition. -- Bruce Weber


UPCOMING TALKS


Sat. July 8 Hist. Society of Woodstock 3 p.m.

Gallery Talk on Works on Paper Exhibition


Sunday July 9 Christian Science Church 2:30

Panel Discussion - Early Colony Artists & Church

Don Macrae (?-1968)

Norma Morgan at Mallaig, Scottland, August 1966

Wilkinson Family Collection


In 2016 I visited the Syracuse University Art Galleries to see “About Prints: The Legacy of Stanley William Hayter and Atelier 17”, curated by Domenic Iacono. This exhibition gathered most of the prints illustrated in Hayter’s 1962 book, About Prints. I always bring my optivisor to print exhibitions and when I came to Norma Morgan’s Granite Tor from 1955, I was glad to have it. I did not know her work or anything about her, but I was thrilled to be in the presence of a great engraver. The powerful composition and tonal structure stopped me in my tracks. Close examination revealed an imagination that coordinated tiny engraved marks into an enveloping pictorial experience. Of all the wonderful, accomplished and even famous prints in the exhibition, Morgan’s work stayed in my mind.


When Bruce Weber invited me to look at some of Morgan’s prints at Dolan Maxwell in Philadelphia, I did not hesitate to make the drive down from Providence. Spending time with a group of her works confirmed everything I experienced seeing Granite Tor for the first time in Syracuse. I have been showing Morgan’s work to my engraving students. She has some followers in the new generation!


I made a few notes after that visit. They are published here as a supplement to the excellent catalog essay Bruce wrote for the exhibition, Norma Morgan: In the Lands of the Moors and the Catskills, at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum.

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Turning Forms, 1950

Copper engraving

Dolan/Maxwell


This almost sculptural copperplate has all the hallmarks of Atelier 17 student work. The biomorphic abstraction, the radiating energy of the lines and deep work with burins and scorpers, almost to the point of obliterating the metal, is seen in many examples from the New York period of the workshop. Morgan tried many techniques: open biting in acid, burin work, scraping, burnishing and punch work. The plate took many hours of strenuous labor, and shows Morgan’s eagerness to try out Hayter’s methods of composition and platemaking. Hayter described teaching methods in his shop in almost mystical terms in his manual New Ways of Gravure (1949).


Morgan’s platework is distinctive for the fine evenly spaced engraved lines that would print as almost solid black (it would be wonderful to find an impression). More interesting in light of her later work are the scaly patterns of curved lines that articulate some forms. This controlled use of marks will be used for more descriptive ends in later landscape and figurative engravings by Morgan.

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Erosion, 1960

Engraving on paper

Dolan Maxwell


Among the prints examined, Erosion, 1960, is apparently the closest to the Hayter style. It reads as an abstraction, large vertical dark forms seem to float upward as smaller versions of the same configuration move in the background, suggesting fibrous objects suspended in liquid. This tiny print is made from fine closely spaced marks, arranged in an even web of hatching. Despite its improvisational feeling, reminiscent of the automatic drawing behind many Atelier 17 prints, every line in Morgan’s engraving is carefully controlled. Looking beyond the title and into her representational prints, Erosion relates to the remarkable textures she invented for stones and earth.

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Wild, 1952

Copper engraving on paper

7 3/4. x 12 ¾”

The Michael K. and Marian E. Butler Collection


Wild, 1952, shows how decisively Morgan had moved away from the Atelier 17 aesthetic within a few years after leaving the studio. Unlike the spiky, surrealist inflected abstractions made by many other Hayter alumni, Morgan creates engravings of extreme technical refinement, carefully calibrated composition and inventive descriptive realism. Like her Atelier 17 peers, she aims to depict extreme emotional states, in her case represented by the embracing lovers, but her pictorial logic and narrative situations always remains plausible.

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Detail of Wild, 1952


Morgan’s originality comes alive upon close looking. The rendering of the grasses in the foreground is accomplished by angular lines set against smaller pointed marks and pushed forward by dense areas of dots that make the parallel engraved black lines read as positive forms. Every mark in this section of the print bristles with energy.


Morgan did not use lines to depict smooth tonal transitions on the skin. The delicate modeling is created by dots in a technique called stippling. Stippling is used in combination with engraved line on some of the drapery, as seen on the male figure’s sleeve.

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Detail from Wild, 1952


The depiction of the stone and landscape show Morgan’s virtuosity with stippling at its most extreme. Individual stones are lightly outlined, but each different type of stone is made up unique patterns of dots. Most striking is the staining that drips down from the roof of the most distant barn. This ultra-specific touch is just part of what make the emotional impact of the print so powerful.


New variations of stippling are found in the topography of the hill. Here Morgan does without any supporting linework to show the rock outcroppings and the clinging greenery. Her most daring move was to leave large areas of the hills at the right of the print as blank paper, separation of the land masses indicated merely by a line. The dark clouds approaching on the horizon are composed entirely of stippling.

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Granite Tor, 1954

Engraving and aquatint

14 9/16 × 17 13/16” (sheet)

The Michael K. and Marian E. Butler Collection


Granite Tor, 1954, explores a combination of line and stipple in an image devoid of human presence or habitation. Rocky outcropping, barren terrain and sky provide the structure for unprecedented textural effects in engraving.

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Detail of Granite Tor, 1954

Engraving and aquatint


Dozens of combinations of lines and dots make up the stone formation. Morgan’s pictorial invention emerges at a microscopic level and manages to add up to monumental form. Her descriptive patterns even achieve effects of color – certain areas created with relatively light, perhaps drypointed, lines give off a warmer gray than the crisp engraved dots found over most of the surface.


The density of the rocks is relieved by the openness of the grassy landscape beyond. Here, tense and angular vertical lines play against smaller marks that add up to light tones articulating successive planes of space. All Morgan’s marks seem grounded in observation, convincing us that she experienced this world in reality and her imagination, filtered through the tools on her engraving table.


The dominating stippled sky would have taken days or even weeks to complete dot by dot. Engravers love complete control over every mark. Morgan calibrated her atmospheric effects through careful transitions between defined edges of the cloud banks and practically imperceptible tonal shifts within the clouds.

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Stony Clove, Catskill Mountains, 1974 Engraving on paper

Image: 8 3/4 x 13 7/8”; sheet: 15 x 19 7/8"

Historical Society of Woodstock, Woodstock, NY

Norma Morgan (1928-2017)

Moorland Sanctuary, XXXX Engraving on paper

Dolan/Maxwell


Stippling is especially prominent in two later engravings. Stony Clove, 1974, and Moorland Sanctuary. Morgan gathered and distributed stippled tones to achieve magical effects of light such as the beams illuminating Stony Clove or the farm pond in Moorland Sanctuary.

Even though there is some engraved line, especially in the buildings of Moorland Sanctuary, the prevalent granular effect brings to mind stone lithography rather than intaglio prints. The lithographic effect is heightened by Morgan’s printing. Her plates are polished and wiped clean with very little plate tone.


There is a long tradition of stipple engraving, beginning in the early 16th century with Giulio Campagnola’s experiments in rendering the works of Titian and intermittently until the late 18th century when Francesco Bartolozzi created an industry of stipple prints in England, notably with his engravings after the designs of Angelica Kaufmann. Stipple was so successful because it achieved smooth effects of modeling on copperplates that were slow to show wear in printing. Although there were some distinguished 19th century practitioners, such as Patrick Henry Reason, the first black engraver recorded in the USA, by Hayter’s time such prints were considered hopelessly commercial and uncreative. Morgan’s genius added something new and revitalized stipple prints. She approached the dot as the increment of form, never as a filler. The same can be said for all her engraved work. In this most technically determined medium – outcomes are powerfully defined by the tools – she was always inventive and never mechanical.

It is notable that Morgan labeled Wild (along with Erosion and Stony Clove) as “engraving” or “copperplate engraving”. She insisted that these plates were made using direct methods, without acid. She was obviously proud to be an engraver in a time when pure engraving was rare and her work is a lasting contribution to this distinguished medium.


I went to Domenic Iacono’s About Prints exhibition at Syracuse to participate in a symposium about the legacy of Stanley William Hayter. Hayter had an enormous influence on the teaching of intaglio printmaking in the 20th century – his vision, especially of the significance of engraving, was passed on through his direct pupils and the legacy continues in subsequent generations of printmakers. My own engraving teacher, Sidney Hurwitz, studied with a pupil of Hayter and I consider myself part of the third generation.

Andrew Raftery

December: Contemplating in the Snow, 2016,

Engraving, transferred to

glazed white earthenware

13" diameter

From Autobiography of a Garden on Twelve Engraved Plate

Courtesy Ryan Lee Gallery


It was wonderful to meet the sons and daughters of Atelier 17 greats and even see the press they used to make their prints. As much as I appreciate the contribution of Hayter and his students to printmaking, their tendency to valorize experimentation for its own sake is very different from my personal approach to engraving. I seek ever greater refinement based on the individual marks of the burin. I believe imagination can be exercised on the microscopic level in the service of a complete creative work. In Norma Morgan, I found a kindred spirit and an example of excellence to strive toward. Her prints hold the wall at a distance and reward viewing under high magnification, all in the service of deeply personal images.


I teach the fourth generation of Hayter’s descendants in my engraving elective at Rhode Island School of Design. The students are very excited when I show them Morgan’s work. She clearly has much to offer future generations of artists.



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