The Lithographs of John C. Menihan

by Ron Netsky

One of the most important chapters in the long and varied artistic career of John C. Menihan (1908-1992) was his two-decade-long involvement with lithography. From the early 1930s to the early 1950s, Menihan, who lived in Rochester, New York, created more than 100 lithographs which constitute a significant body of prints that rivals the finest work of regionalist and American Scene printmakers.

Although Menihan's expressive realism may draw comparisons with the work of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, his style has distinctive qualities that set him apart from other artists of his generation. His fascination with rural and urban life, recreation and industry, and people in their environments imbues his prints with an authenticity seldom matched. And his technical knowledge of the medium gleaned from his mentor, master lithographer Bolton Brown, is equal to that of the period's greatest printmakers.

Menihan's first encounter with lithography came in the late 1920s while he was attending the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. Exhibitions he attended in Philadelphia galleries by Joseph Pennell, James A. McNeill Whistler and Robert Riggs spurred his interest in the medium.

Menihan found his way to Brown's studio at the urging of Walter Cassebeer, a Rochester architect who also made lithographs. Menihan had seen an exhibition of Cassebeer's lithographs in the early 1930s and asked him for advice on getting started in the medium. Cassebeer recommended Brown's recently published book Lithography for Artists, and once he acquired it, Menihan was anxious to study with its author. Brown's name was already familiar to Menihan because he had received a book of lithographs by George Bellows (many of which were printed by Brown) for a graduation present.

In Menihan's 1940 application for a National Endowment for the Arts grant he wrote that his approach to lithography was "mainly based on a way of thinking acquired at the feet of Bolton Brown."

"...the richness of my association with him is indescribable. He was unsurpassed as a technician and inspiring as a man, demanding perfection and capable of instilling his ideals in others willing to hear him. He was truly the only important influence on my life as an artist."

Menihan was at the beginning of his career when he encountered Brown, who was near the end of his. Brown (1864-1936) had been a founder of Byrdcliffe, the artists' colony in Woodstock, NY and the printer of more than 100 lithographs by Bellows. Although Brown was himself an accomplished painter and lithographer, he was not adequately recognized for his significant contributions to lithography at the time. (Brown's work began to attract interest in the late 1970s.)

The lack of attention to his work during his lifetime was a major source of Brown's bitterness about the art world in 1934 when Menihan became his last student. Brown had witnessed the ascent of men like Joseph Pennell, who knew very little about the complex process of lithography, while his own career languished. He nevertheless created hundreds of delicate, technically unsurpassed lithographs. He also undertook more experimentation in the chemistry of lithography and the making of lithographic crayons than anyone in the history of the medium. When Menihan studied with Brown in 1934 and 1935, it is no exaggeration to say that he was under the tutelage of the world's foremost expert in lithography.

By the mid 1930s, however, Brown was practically destitute. His modest home, on Zena Road, two miles from Woodstock, had no electricity or running water, and his studio, located behind the house, was heated by a wood-burning stove. Brown was suffering from cancer at the time, but he refused to go to a hospital, preferring instead to spend his last years in familiar surroundings.

Brown sat in a fan-back wicker chair and instructed Menihan through chapter after chapter of his book. While Menihan worked stones, Brown, whose quest for knowledge was undiminshed, read Hacklet's Vogages, a history of the world composed of original documents. A sign hanging in Brown's studio proclaimed, "Into the making of a perfect work, time is an element that does not enter."

Menihan learned how to make his own grease crayons, a skill few lithographers possessed, and he learned the intricacies of etching and printing stones. He also learned, in no uncertain terms, the meaning of the sign hanging in the studio.

One summer, when Menihan had finished his work, Brown asked him to separate his lithographs into three piles: best, medium and discards. After discussing the quality of the work, Brown asked Menihan what he planned to do with the prints, and Menihan said he guessed he would take them home. Brown struggled up out of his chair, hobbled over to the prints, picked up the "discard" pile and, tossing the prints into the flames of the wood-burning stove, said "This is what you do with work that's not perfect." He then picked up the "medium" pile and tossed them, too, into the stove, leaving only the two perfect prints.

Menihan obivously learned his lesson well because his lithographs were meticulously executed. Over the next two decades (1935-1955) Menihan produced more than 100 lithographs, each of them beautifully drawn and flawlessly printed. At a time when many artists merely drew images on stone and hired professionals to make the prints, Menihan did it all himself. Consequently, his lithographs exemplify a wonderful union of content and technique.

Brown's influence is evident in Menihan's early lithographs. In several of them, Menihan outlined the composition with an unruled line in a manner characteristic of Brown's work. In early prints, he also used the expressive, autographic strokes that were all hallmark of Brown's landscapes. As Menihan grew more confident in his own style, these characteristics gave way to a subtle, continuous-tone shading in combination with a strong line.

After Brown's death, Menihan, who had studied business in college, helped Brown's family with his artistic estate. Apparently in appreciation for his help, Brown's family sent several packages of prints to Menihan in the months that followed. In 1988 he and his wife, Margaret, donated their collection of more that 50 of Brown's lithographs to Rochester's art museum, the Memorial Art Gallery, endowing the gallery with one of the most significant collections of Brown's prints in the United States.

Menihan's NEA grant application also sheds light on his motivation and the aesthetic ideals behind his lithographic career. His goal, he writes, was to "produce a group of lithographs which would interpret the life and thinking of the Northeastern section of the United States."

At a time when many artistis of his generation were turning to the various forms of abstraction in vogue in the 1940's, Menihan wrote of his impluse to deal in a representational manner with subjects "...intermixed with the course of my life, factories in which I worked as a boy, cities in which I've studied, lake freighters, county fairs, summer resorts, farm houses, tenements, and country clubs."

He did not see his work as "photographic" documents but, rather as expressions of character. One of the reasons he gives for employing a print-making medium is the ability to "disperse among laymen the benefits derived from possession of works of art."

Menihan's characteristic modesty is apparent when he deals with the "presumable significance" of his work:

"It can only be said that I bring to the project honesty, energy, a degree of skill and love of my work...Whether or not the world will choose to consider the result "significant art" is a matter I cannot here decide."

Through his long involvement with the Rochester Print Club, Menihan also met and became friends with such printmakers as Albert Winslow Barker and Norman Kent. Barker, who had also studied with Brown, shared his lithographic technical research with Menihan in Rochester and at his home in Moylan, Pennsylvania.

Kent wrote about Menihan's lithographs in a 1945 article in American Artist magazine, quoting the artist extensively during the peak of his lithographic activity. In the article, Menihan discussed the unique properties of the lithographic drawing.

"Experience has shown me that because of the distinctive qualities of lithographic stone as a drawing medium it is almost useless to develop final drawings on paper, simply because no paper will provide the same surface for work as a lithograhic stone. The stone itself is an inspiration; it provides many effects which are especially "lithographic." Therefore, I adopted the practice of drawing the large preliminary sketch right on stone, and pulling a proof or two, with the idea of graining another stone for the final rendering."

He also discussed the reason he preferred to print his own stones at a time when many artists simply drew on the stone and had a professional printer pull the prints: "The service of these several excellent lithographic printers are available, but to me drawing on a stone and having someone else do the printing is comparable to owning a new bathing suit, and have friends wear it in swimming."

Menihan's knowledge of the crayon formulas, gleaned from Brown and Barker, was especially helpful in making his lithographs distinctive.

"Graphite (as an ingredient in the crayon) is Albert Barker's idea and he should have full credit for working it out. It has meant the difference between nothing and a whole new technique to me, inasmuch as I have made big chunks of crayon which do beautiful "grays" with one fell swoop."

Menihan's enthusiasm for the vocabulary of lithography is indicative of an artist who embraced a given medium and extracted from it all the particular properties it was capable of yielding. The lithograhic oeuvre of John Menihan embodies the ideal of art as a part of everyday life, a chronicle of the perceptions and reactions of the artist to the world around him.

Ron Netsky is Chairman of the Art Department
at Nazereth College in Rochester, NY

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