Self-taught. Self. Taught. One of the most remarkable etchers of the first half of the twentieth century taught himself how to etch after his wife gave him an “etching kit” for Christmas. What the hell. John Taylor Arms (American, 1887–1953) made stunning etchings of architecture in New York, Europe, and Japan, and Mexico. No doubt his experience as an architect gave him a leg up. In those days, there were no computers with CAD programs to assist with rendering buildings. Back then, architects hand drew every drawing for a project. With that bit of information, Arms’ etchings make more sense. They are, after all, seriously accurate images of architecture. But still.
Interestingly, rather than portraying contemporary buildings, Arms more often portrayed Gothic architecture, which he considered “the most significant expression of man’s aspirations.” His early etchings focus on New York’s skyscrapers, but he soon decided “I can admire the skyscrapers of New York, that unbelievable city which is a very gold mine for the architectural etcher, but I do not love them and I cannot etch what I do not love.” Once New York lost its appeal as a subject, Arms traveled extensively making detailed drawings of towns and churches across Europe and Mexico that would be the basis of etchings once he was back home. He made some five hundred etchings during his fifty-year career and was quite successful over the course of his lifetime.
Why do I love his etchings? After all, they are hyper-realistic, full of fine details, and are highly representational. They don’t exactly fall into my tight-conceptual-circle model. What gives? Maybe it’s because they take me away to whatever place is represented. And maybe those day-dreamy trips have an extra hold on me during these long winter, quarantine days. Wouldn’t it be nice to be riding a vaporetto along the Grand Canal passing the Ca’ d’Oro? I can almost smell the sea air and every other scent that comes with wandering around Venice.
Also, I can’t wrap my head around how he portrays the crumbling stone texture of the gargoyles, the intricacies of Venetian facades, the church porticos, not to mention the reflections, light, and shadows. He apparently used sewing needles and magnifying glasses to make such fine marks.
But the image that I really want for myself is Wasp, the image of two planes dive-bombing some target or other, printed in blue ink. I love the flatness of the image, the pattern made by the searchlights, the potential energy of the planes. It sits at the intersection of abstraction and representation and it hits so many notes. Love. It.
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Ann's art blog
A small corner of the interwebs to share thoughts on objects I acquired for the Baltimore Museum of Art's collection, research I've done on Stanley William Hayter and Atelier 17, experiments in intaglio printmaking, and the Baltimore Contemporary Print Fair.