Creating Vital Space: 50 years of prints by Black Artists

August 25, 2020 Online Exhibitions
"…Illustration is one thing, and creating vital space is another."*

 

Robert Blackburn's words, where he distinguishes his artistic vision by comparison to works of Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, both of whom he knew and admired, are a worthy guide to selections in this exhibition. 

Blackburn was one of America's most significant catalysts tirelessly working to create artists' opportunities while maintaining his practice as a maker of his own extraordinary body of work. We celebrate his genius and legacy by sharing his excellent prints with others made by artists who worked with him and benefited from his expertise and high standards set by his example. That he is esteemed by so many who we love and respect (Hayter, Fred Becker, Terry Haass, Camile Billops among them), should be enough, yet Blackburn played an important role in each seminal moment in the history of 20th Century American printmaking. He began making lithographs at his Bronx high school, and studied at the Art Students' League, found work with the WPA in the 1930s, and established his Printmaking Workshop parallel to Atelier 17 in New York in the 1940s. Blackburn was hired for his mastery to create lithographs for the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns at the start of the publishing explosion of the early 1960s. Against formidable odds, he fought to keep his Printmaking Workshop viable and highly productive until the end of his life in 2002. His efforts earned him a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992.

With Robert Blackburn serving as the cornerstone for this exhibition, the rest of this collection is rife with connections between makers. Most apparent are Ron Adams's portrait of Blackburn and prints made at Blackburn's workshop by Herbert Gentry (also a portrait of Blackburn), Romare Bearden, Ed Clark, Eldzior Cortor, and Vivian Browne. 

While most of our selections for this exhibition are products of the collaborative process vital to a printmaking workshop, others are the creative result of the knowledge acquired in a collaborative workshop early in the artists' career. These skills were then adapted to suit the artist's individual and varied artistic sensibilities so they could create prints independently, by their hand and inspiration. Norma Morgan began her long career in printmaking while working at Atelier 17 in the 1950s. She continued to produce exquisite engravings from her mastery and power. Rachelle Puryear likewise creates beautifully crafted prints from her studio. At the same time, both Dexter Davis and Cheryl Warrick employ printmaking processes learned in college to generate collage material. 

Even when extended beyond the boundary of a print shop, the influence of collaborations upholds that good things come from working together for the common good. 

 

 *Blackburn, Robert. H., & Deborah Cullen. Robert Blackburn: Passages: September 18-December 19, 2014. College Park: The David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland.