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

During the mid 1950s Robert Blackburn's printmaking workshop was run by a loose cooperative of artist-friends while he spent a year and a half in Paris and Europe, under the auspices of a prestigious John Hay Whitney Traveling Fellowship. After his return, he was hired in 1957 as the first master printer at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), the lithographic venture founded by Tatyana and Maurice Grosman, based in West Islip, Long Island. At ULAE, he printed for an emerging generation of artists including Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, and Robert Rauschenberg. His own predilections and fluency with the medium contributed to the new “look” of these works, which would go on to define the American “graphics boom.”

During this active period, Blackburn's color graphics reached a creative and technical zenith. In 1963, he began to operate his own Manhattan workshop full time, providing an open graphics studio for artists of diverse social and economic backgrounds, ethnicities, styles, and levels of expertise. Under his direction, the Printmaking Workshop became one of the most vital collaborative art studios in the world.

Girl in Red is a pivotal workin Blackburn's development as he turned towards abstraction and away from figurative work. Using a rich color palette, Blackburn combines age-old artistic themes of still life, landscape, and portraiture. His subject, a young black girl, engages the viewer directly and wryly, her arms crossed. In 1951, Girl in Red was exhibited in the National Exhibition of Prints at the Library of Congress. The same year Blackburn was honored with a Purchase Award from the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

Robert Blackburn (1920–2003), Girl in Red, 1950. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Library of Congress (14)

Blackburn spent 1953 and 1954 in Europe (primarily Paris) on a Jay Hay Whitney Traveling Fellowship. When he returned to New York in 1955, he entered a new creative period. During the 1950s and 1960s, he produced a series of small, Cubistic table top views in both intaglio and lithography. His explorations of this theme show Blackburn's continuing interest in mark-making as a representational sign or as an abstracted, compositional element.

Robert Blackburn (1920–2003), Interior, 1958. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Library of Congress (15)

From 1958 to 1961, Blackburn worked on variations of the lithograph Heavy Forms. The imagery can be seen as deriving from Blackburn's earlier tabletop still lifes. However here, the image matches its “tabletop” to the printed surface, tipping it up to mimic the linked edge of the lithographic stone and print process itself. Blackburn treated the stone with tremendous fluidity, re-orienting the image and frequently signing his work on both top and bottom margins, allowing options for viewing.

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From 1957–1963, Blackburn served as the first master printer at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). As he helped other, better-known artists with their productions, his own work reached its zenith in color abstraction, as seen in Color Symphony. At ULAE, Blackburn collaborated with prominent artist practitioners of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, including Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. In most cases, he taught the artists how to make lithographs, sharing his sensibility of the medium and his approach to the stone.

Robert Blackburn (1920–2003), Color Symphony, 1960. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Library of Congress (17)

In his lithograph Faux Pas, Robert Blackburn winks with reference to Robert Rauschenberg's Accident, the “gaffe” which would become such a key event in the history of contemporary printmaking. Through the middle of the image, a white stripe of paper breaks the image, alluding to the fragile nature of the limestone. Blackburn would continue to explore the broken stone concept with a suite of elegantly calligraphic works, including Curious Stone, that also recall his interest in Sumi ink drawing.

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