Creative Space: Fifty Years of Robert Blackburn's Printmaking Workshop

Following his high school graduation in 1940, Blackburn attended the Art Students League in New York on scholarship until 1943. There he worked with painter and printmaker Will Barnet, who became a life-long friend. For four years, Blackburn freelanced as a graphic artist for institutions including the philanthropic Harmon Foundation, the China Institute of America, and Associated American Artists, while his vision of a career in printmaking developed. By late 1947, he had acquired his own lithographic press. In 1948, he opened his own studio in Chelsea, printing for artists and encouraging his friends to experiment in lithography. In 1950, when the innovative Parisian printmaking studio, Atelier 17 returned to Europe after a war-time hiatus in New York, Blackburn installed an intaglio press at his shop a few blocks away. Between 1951 and 1952, he worked with Barnet on a groundbreaking suite of color lithographs that were featured in the contemporary art journal ARTnews.

Charles White studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, Art Students League in New York, and Taller de Gràfica Popular in Mexico. He also taught at the WPA Southside Community Art Center in Chicago. In 1948, White printed at the Workshop of Graphic Art, a brief-lived, politically motivated project that produced two portfolios: Yes, the People (1948), and Negro USA (1949). During the same period, Blackburn printed We Have Been Believers (1949), among other images, for White, who considered Blackburn to be his primary printer in New York.

Charles White (1918–1979), We Have Been Believers, 1949. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (6)

 

Antonio Frasconi was born in Argentina and moved to Uruguay at an early age. During the 1930s, he worked as a political cartoonist and illustrator before coming to New York in 1945, where he studied at the Art Students League. In 1947 he traveled to Mexico to work with Los Tres Grandes (The Big Three): Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros. After returning to New York, he made prints at the Workshop of Graphic Art and Blackburn's printmaking studio. Frasconi's work also draws on such influences as German Expressionism and Japanese woodcuts.

Antonio Frasconi (b. 1919), Untitled, 1948. Lithograph. © Antonio Frasconi/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (7)

John Von Wicht came to the United States from his native Germany in 1923. After settling in New York, he worked at a lithographic printing company and with stained glass, mosaics, and murals. Blackburn has often credited Will Barnet and Von Wicht for being vital supporters of the budding Printmaking Workshop. Blackburn noted: “I think most of our learning was sitting down at the coffee table with Von Wicht and Will and Ronald [Joseph] and drinking coffee and working together. . .”

John Von Wicht (1888–1970), Dawn, 1953. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (8)

Thomas Laidman studied with Will Barnet at the Art Students League and became one of the earliest founding members of the Printmaking Workshop. He remembers: “There was an open arrangement, whereby students and artists had unlimited access. . . . Bob was a dynamo of energy . . . He'd go right to the stone, draw an image, etch it, roll it up, and print it. Then he'd draw on another stone, print that over his first image, then evaluate the result. He always had five or six blank stones around while he was working. He used them like paintbrushes.”

Tom Laidman (b. 1927), Water Hole, 1954. Woodcut. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (9)

 

Eldzier Cortor is best-known for his figurative works, particularly images of proud and beautiful black women. Among his interests are the cultures of Haiti and Mexico and some of the designs in this abstract woodcut suggest indigenous symbols of Haitian ritual veve (symbol) drawings, and Mexican glyphs and codex styles. Cortor studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia University in New York. He was a founding member of the Southside Community Art Center in Chicago, worked as a WPA painter, and made prints at the Workshop in the late 1970s.

Eldzier Cortor (b. 1916),  Carnival, 1960. Woodcut. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (10)

 

During the 1930s, Reuben Kadish assisted Mexican master David Alfaro Siqueiros in painting murals in Southern California and served as head of the San Francisco Federal Art Project. Lilith was made at New York's Atelier 17 printmaking studio, a year after a landmark exhibition of prints from the Atelier at the Museum of Modern Art. A central quest of Atelier 17 printmakers was to redefine what an etching is and to push the medium to its fullest potential. Although Kadish made prints at the Workshop in the 1970s, this one comes from Blackburn's private collection.

Reuben Kadish (1913–1992), Lilith, 1945. Intaglio. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (11)

Czech-born artist Terry Haass studied in Paris before moving to New York. There she studied at the Art Students League with Will Barnet and met classmate Robert Blackburn. She worked at New York's Atelier 17 beginning in 1946 and helped direct it, when founder and artist Stanley Hayter (1901–1988) returned to Paris in 1950. In 1951, she returned to Paris to study color intaglio printmaking. The same year, a trip to Norway inspired the artist to create her Cycle Nordique series, printed between 1952–1953 at the press of Roger Lacourière in Montmartre, Paris.

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Prominent artist Will Barnet was an early teacher of and mentor to Robert Blackburn as well as a founding member of the Printmaking Workshop. As their relationship evolved from teacher and pupil to colleague and friend, the two printmakers were eager to explore the artistic and technical potential of lithography. Barnet remembers: “We wanted the stone and what we did on the stone to express the same ideals of painting, only they were graphic in nature.” Child Alone is one in a series of color lithographs the artist printed with Blackburn between 1951 and 1952 and was featured in the prestigious journal ARTnews.

Will Barnet (b. 1911), Child Alone, 1951. Lithograph. © Will Barnet/Licensed by VAGA, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (13)

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