When painting student Jennifer Tam studied a series of Marcel Duchamp prints of boldly colored, spinning discs, she became convinced that the enigmatic works had to be included in the big new show opening Sundayat the Baltimore Museum of Art.
"Twelve Rotoreliefs," the 1935 series by the French Surrealist master, is deceptively simple. Duchamp originally conceived of the record-shaped platters as children's toys and tried unsuccessfully to sell them at Macy's. But a professor later used the reliefs to restore the illusion of three-dimensional sight to a World War I veteran who had been blinded in one eye.
"Art can have value in the most unexpected ways," the 22-year-old Tam told her classmates in the Johns Hopkins University's museums and society program. "Duchamp's prints didn't just have artistic merit. They had scientific merit as well."
Tam's fellow students were convinced by her argument, so for the next five months, visitors can examine the six revolving discs on display in "Print by Print: Series from Durer to Lichtenstein."
The exhibit — the last major show at the museum until the renovated Contemporary Art Wing opens next fall — includes 350 prints culled from the museum's collection of more than 65,000 works on paper. Most visitors will notice no difference in concept or execution from the thoughtfully curated displays typically mounted in the galleries.
But unlike other art shows, "Print by Print" was put together partly by nonprofessionals. Ten college students from Hopkins and the Maryland Institute College of Art worked under the guidance of Rena Hoisington, the museum's curator of prints, drawings and photographs.
The students selected the pieces that would be shown from a list prepared by Hoisington, wrote the wall text and planned educational programs. Though student curators have contributed to previous exhibits at the Museum, 'Print by Print" is by far the largest and most ambitious collaboration of this type to date.
"I didn't expect the museum to let us have such a large role in putting this show together," says Tam, a senior at the Maryland Institute who's studying painting and art history.
"I thought we would be observing more than actually contributing. I can't believe that I can tell people that I helped to curate a show at the Baltimore Museum of Art."
The 29 series are being shown in their entirety, as the artists intended, and range from the late 15th to the early 21st centuries. More than half of the individual prints have never before been shown in Baltimore.
The exhibit includes works by such masters as Albrecht Durer, who is represented by 16 nightmarish, detailed woodcuts inspired by the Bible's depictions of the apocalypse; two satiric plates by Pablo Picasso in which the Spanish fascist leader Francisco Franco is rendered as a malignant growth; and pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's decidedly idiosyncratic response to the famous series of haystacks painted by Claude Monet.
But in the show, centuries-old masterworks intentionally are set up next to pieces by contemporary artists. At times, the juxtapositions create intriguing resonances.
For instance, an urgent and almost journalistic impulse underlies two series of engravings relating wartime atrocities — though the series are divided by more than three centuries.
In 1695, the artists Augustin Coppens and Richard van Orley created 12 etchings to document the French bombing of the Belgian stronghold of Brussels. Nearly 150 years before the invention of photography, the prints were the only means the Flemish artists had of informing neighboring nations of the devastation they'd experienced.
"They wanted all of Europe to know what had happened to the city of Brussels," Hoisington says.
On the opposite wall hang eight engraved portraits of former detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In 2006, Philadelphia artist Daniel Heyman sat in on interviews in which the prisoners reported being tortured by U.S. military officials.
Initially, the drawings dominated the prints, with just a few words from the interviews as a counterpoint. Gradually, as Heyman became engrossed in the testimony, the men's words began to occupy more and more space. Eventually, the text starts to crowd the sketches. The detainees' ordeal becomes the defining experience of their lives, the most important thing about them.
Museum director Doreen Bolger says that her institution is perhaps singularly situated to make those surprising links.
"The BMA is uniquely qualified to look at art in the present, and connect it to the masterpieces of ancient times," she says.
"Most museums have departments of contemporary art. But here at the BMA, our focus is on 19th-century contemporary and modern art in the context of the great achievements of art history. We can make connections back and forth in time and space that are really exciting."
Hoisington said that an exhibition of prints was ideal for a student-curating project. Partly, that's because the Baltimore museum is acknowledged as having one of the most significant collections of works on paper in the nation.
And unlike watercolors or oil paintings, works on paper can be examined unframed, and viewed up close by her student helpers — some of whom had little background in the fine arts. For example, the class included a freshman studying mechanical engineering, as well as an aspiring lawyer.
"The students came in with fresh perspectives, and they had ideas about how to display the series that never would have occurred to me," Hoisington says.
"I was impressed with how much research they did. They would sometimes find out things about these works that I didn't even know."
Hayley Plack, 23, says that the opportunity to closely examine a series of prints in which artists developed visual ideas and solved problems will be invaluable as she pursues a career in art history.
In particular, she was fascinated by a series of 20 19th-century etchings by Ludovic Napoleon Lepic of views of the bank of the Scheldt River in France and Belgium. Today, Lepic's name is far less known to the general public than that of his close friend, the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.
But it was Lepic who devised a method of variable etching, in which an artist creates "copies" that differ significantly from the original based on the amount and pattern of ink applied to the plate. And it was Lepic who taught the technique to his famous friend.
"I'm such a visual person, and for most of my classes I had to learn about art from textbooks and lectures," says Plack, who graduated from Hopkins in May with a degree in art history.
"Being able to examine the prints and see how they were created made the process much more real to me. It gave us so many practical skills. This class was more helpful than a lot of the internships I've had."
If you go
"Print by Print: Series from Durer to Lichtenstein" runs through March 25 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.