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Charles Quest: Visions in Copper and Wood

Charles Marvin Fairchild Memorial Gallery
May 15, 2002
October 18, 2002

Introduction

Charles Quest, a successful artist and fine art instructor, worked in a diverse array of media including mosaic, stained glass, mural painting, and sculpture, but is perhaps best known as a printmaker. Born in 1904 in Troy, New York, his talent was evident when as a teenager he began copying the works of masters such as Michelangelo on his bedroom walls. Quest grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and studied at the Washington University School of Fine Arts where he later taught from 1944 to 1971. He spent some time in Europe after his graduation in 1929, studying at La Grande Chaumière and Academie Colarossi, and drew great inspiration from the works of the Old Masters. After returning to St. Louis, Quest received a number of commissions to paint murals in public buildings, schools, and churches, including one from Joseph Cardinal Ritter to paint a replica of Velasquez’s Crucifixion over the main altar of the Old Cathedral in St. Louis.

Quest soon became interested in the woodcut medium which he seemingly learned through his study of J. J. Lankes’s book, A Woodcut Manual (1932) and Paul Landacre’s articles in American Artist magazine of 1941. Copies of his letters to these two great printmakers in the Library’s Special Collections Division credit them with his success, “since no artists in St. Louis were working in wood” at that time. Quest also revealed that for him wood cutting and engraving were “more enjoyable than any other means of expression.” In the late 1940s his graphic works began attracting a lot of critical attention with several of his woodcuts winning prizes and being acquired by major American and European museums. A wood engraving entitled Lovers was included in the American Federation of Art’s traveling print exhibition in 1947. Two years later Quest’s two prize winning prints, Still Life with Grindstone and Break Forth into Singing were exhibited in major American museums in a traveling show organized by the Philadelphia Print Club. His work was included in the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition Woodcut Through Six Centuries, and the print Still Life with Vise, which The St. Louis Post-Dispatch described as “a low, horizontal panel in which file, funnel, brace and bit are arranged in a square-cut design,” was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. All the above-mentioned prints are included in the present exhibition.

In 1951 he was invited by artist-Curator Jacob Kainen to exhibit thirty wood engravings and color woodcuts in the Graphic Arts Division of the Smithsonian’s National Museum (now known as the American History Museum). This one-man exhibition was a remarkable achievement for Quest, who had been working in the medium for only about ten years. In the press release for the show, Kainen praised the “technical refinement” of Quest’s work:

“He obtains a great variety of textural effects through the use of the graver, and these dense or transparent grays are set off against whites or blacks to achieve sparkling results. His work has the handsome qualities characteristic of the craftsman and designer.”

At the time of the Smithsonian exhibition, Quest’s work was represented by three New York galleries in addition to one in his home town. He had also won 38 prizes, and his prints were in the collections of the Library of Congress, the Chicago Art Institute, the Metropolitan Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others. In cooperation with the Art in Embassies program, his color woodcuts were displayed at the American Embassy in Paris in 1951. Recognition at home came in 1955 with his first solo exhibition in St. Louis. Press coverage of the show heralded the “growth of graphic arts toward rivaling painting and sculpture as a major independent medium” as prints were becoming elevated into the realm of fine art, in contrast to a lingering notion of prints as a commercial tool for copying or reproducing well known works of art.

Charles Quest retired from teaching in 1971 and made relatively few prints in his later years, as the rigors of the medium were too demanding. He moved to Tryon, North Carolina, with his wife Dorothy, an artist and portrait painter, and remained active as a painter until his death in 1993. An exhibition of his prints at the Bethesda Art Gallery in 1983 attracted the interest of Curator Emeritus Joseph A. Haller, S.J., who began purchasing his work for the University’s collection.

In 1990 Georgetown University Library’s Special Collections Division became the grateful recipient of a large body of Quest’s work including prints, drawings, paintings, sculpture and stained glass, as well as his archive of correspondence and professional memorabilia.1 These extensive holdings, including some 260 of his fine prints from which this exhibition was mounted, provide a rich opportunity for further study and appreciation of this versatile and not-to-be-forgotten mid-Western American artist of the twentieth century.

LuLen Walker
Art Collection Curator

Notes

  1. We wish to thank long-time volunteer Joyce O’Brien for cataloging the Quest archive and creating the invaluable finding aid for the use of Special Collections staff and visitors.

The Craft of Still Life

The exhibition begins at the east wall with a selection of prints revealing Quest's fascination with the craft of print making, as he employed ordinary studio tools, fractured into Cubist planes, as the subject of several prize-winning works. It is useful to compare and contrast the different effects he achieved with identical images using woodcut and aquatint. Almost forty years after creating Still Life with Vise, he reworked the same block, scraping away more of the wood to reveal denser areas of white paper in the print. This same image was interpreted in aquatint in 1949. His Work Bench of 1949, for which we have only the wood block and the copper plate but no original impressions, was graciously printed by Penny Barringer, who exhibits and teaches at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia.

Note: * denotes prints included in Quest's solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum in 1951.

Charles Quest in his St. Louis studio

photograph by Tom Stewart

Still Life with Grindstone
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
soft ground etching, numbered 3/12
22.2 x 29.8 cm

exhibited with the copper plate

Still Life with Grindstone
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
wood engraving, numbered 12/25
22.7 x 30.5 cm

Collections: Print Club of Philadelphia; Toledo Museum of Art; Library of Congress

Included in Quest's solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum in 1951.

Labyrinth
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
color woodcut, numbered 10/25
30.5 x 23 cm

alt. title: The Gorgon's Knot

Still Life with Lantern
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
color woodcut, numbered 12/25
22.6 x 30.5 cm

alt. title: Still Life with Tools
Included in Quest's solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum in 1951.

Furnace
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
wood engraving, numbered 7/25
30.2 x 20.3 cm

Collections: Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution

Included in Quest's solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum in 1951.

Work Bench
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
etching and aquatint
30 x 11.2 cm

exhibited with the copper plate and wood block

posthumously printed in 2000 by Penny Barringer
Collection: St. Louis Artists' Guild

Still Life with Vise
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
wood engraving, numbered 3/25
11 x 30.6 cm

Collections: Museum of Modern Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Brooklyn Museum; Bibliothque Nationale; Victoria & Albert; British Museum

Included in Quest's solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum in 1951.

Still Life with Vise
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
engraving, soft ground, and aquatint, numbered 6/12
11 x 30.1 cm

Still Life with Vise
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
wood engraving, marked Ed. no. 2 - #1
11 x 30.6 cm

Figures

Moving on to the west wall we show a selection of figural images inspired by African sculpture. The abstract fragmentation of the body into planes is particularly effective as expressed in the woodcut medium.

Break Forth Into Singing
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
wood engraving, numbered 9/25
30.1 x 22.5 cm

Included in Quest's solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum in 1951.

Two Nudes
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
wood engraving, numbered 11/25
30 x 22.5 cm

alt. title: Nude Women
exhibited with the wood block
Collections: Art Institute of Chicago; Springfield Art Museum (Missouri)

Included in Quest's solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum in 1951.

Two Women
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
color woodcut, numbered 8/25
30.6 x 22.9 cm

Included in Quest's solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum in 1951.

Venus
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
color woodcut
30.4 x 11.5 cm

proof A

Lovers
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
color woodcut, numbered 8/15
30.4 x 22.8 cm

alt. title: Embrace

Lovers
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
wood engraving, numbered 14/25
23 x 30.2 cm

Girls Playing Ball
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
color woodcut
30.4 x 22.8 cm

alt. title: Basketball Players; Playground
artist's proof [exhibited with its key block and two tone blocks]

Included in Quest's solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum in 1951.

Abstract Figuration

Continuing with the wall to the right we come to examples of Quest's abstract figurations wherein aspects of the human form are abstracted into patterns of shapes and planes. They recall similar manipulations of form by his contemporaries Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning (all born the same year).

Two Figures
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
aquatint, numbered 6/7
29.8 x 22.6 cm

Venus and Adonis
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
wood engraving, numbered 12/25 [state 2]
30.2 x 22.3 cm

Lovers
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
wood engraving, numbered 16/25
22.9 x 30.5 cm

Lovers
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
wood engraving, numbered 14/25
23 x 30.2 cm

Jazz
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
wood engraving, Edition: 20
22.5 x 30.3 cm

alt. title: Endymion
Collections: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Multi-Color Works

Turning to the north wall overlooking the Healy lawn we come to a selection of multi-color woodcuts. Quest once described the process as follows:

“Lately I have been employing a rather complicated technique in producing the color woodcut. First, I cut out parts of the design on four or five large blocks and print these in the press. Then I add to the multiple printing by using as many as fifty additional separate blocks, all of which have been cut on a jig saw. These I print by hand pressure and by using a Japanese baren.

The color is applied to the blocks with rollers, brushes and cotton pads. Printing inks, oil colors, wax colors and etching inks are all used in parts of the same design, thereby obtaining a variety of transparent and opaque textures.

The printing is done on dry stock Whatman etching paper and Japanese rice paper. Each day’s work is allowed to dry thoroughly before printing in resumed.”

From a letter dated August 2, 1951
Charles Quest papers, G.U. Library Special Collections

Vertical Forms
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
color wood-linocut, numbered 8/12
30.3 x 11.1 cm

Included in Quest's solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum in 1951.

Etching Press
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
color woodcut, numbered 18/20
22.4 x 30.2 cm

Still Life with Gourds
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
color woodcut
11.2 x 30.2 cm

proof A, Edition: 15; [1st state of 2]

Music
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
color woodcut, numbered 1/20
30.3 x 22.7 cm

Seated Woman
Charles Quest, United States; 1904 - 1993
color woodcut, Edition: 12
30.3 x 20.7 cm

proof B