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

With incorporation came increased sponsorship and funding from sources such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Their contributions allowed Blackburn to invite a wide range of artists to his workshop. He conceived and produced varied, ambitious, collaborative projects such as Impressions: Our World (1974), a portfolio by notable African American artists with introductory texts by artist Romare Bearden and art historian Edmund Barry Gaither.

The lively intellectual exchange within his workshop stimulated Blackburn's own graphic pursuits. He investigated abstract color woodcuts throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. During this period, artist Krishna Reddy taught his innovative viscosity technique at the Printmaking Workshop. Romare Bearden's work in photoetching and stenciled monoprints also inspired both Blackburn and the workshop community.

These three prints are from a series of related woodcuts Blackburn created between the 1960s and 1980s. Reworking several large blocks, he created images that were bold and masterfully graphic. He began with a monochrome image of three ovals, framed by black lines of varying widths—hearkening back to his earlier exploration of Cubist language and revealing the texture of the wood itself. A later experiment, in which he filled certain areas with directly printed woodgrain, led him to create Woodscape, which vertically reorients the imagery in Three Ovals.

1 of 3

 

Celebrated artist Romare Bearden was a longtime friend of Blackburn and one of the original trustees for the non-profit Printmaking Workshop, incorporated in 1971. The two first met around 1936 in Harlem, when both attended meetings at “306” (an informal artists' group) and produced work at the Harlem Community Art Center. Bearden's celebrated mastery of the collage and its layered, shape- and texture-driven aesthetic, carries over to this composition. The Train was printed at the Printmaking Workshop with master printer Kathy Caraccio and Emily Trevor.

Romare Bearden (1911–1988), The Train, ca. 1974–1976. Photoetching. © Romare Bearden Foundation /Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (24)

In his woodcut Yellow Flash, Robert Blackburn creates a heavenly space where the seam of the blocks reads like a revelatory crack in the heavens. It registers as a jewel-like yellow diamond embraced by red. This is part of a series of large related woodcuts, in which Blackburn continued his practice of recycling and re-visioning blocks and imagery.

Robert Blackburn (1920–2003), Yellow Flash, 1972. Woodcut. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (25)

Collage artist and master printer Kathy Caraccio opened her own thriving New York printing studio in 1977, where she has collaborated with such artists as Emma Amos, Robert Kipniss, Louise Nevelson, and Adam Pitt. Sky Door is the culmination of a plate which the artist recycled, re-cut, and re-etched, and created under the inspiration of artist Shiou-Ping Liao's work. Caraccio was particularly struck by his use of the combed aquatint technique, seen here in the textured red passages. The delicate colors in the sky area were made using a “rainbow roll” of ink to the plate.

Kathy Caraccio (b. 1947), Sky Door, 1972. Intaglio and relief. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (26)

 

Between 1974 and 1983, Romare Bearden came to the Printmaking Workshop, where he made collographs, etchings, and lithographs, and monotypes—one of printmaking's most spontaneous, painterly processes. This work was made by first applying vertical “rainbow rolls” of colored ink to a smooth matrix. The artist then painted directly on the matrix— freely moving, blending, and pulling back color. He punctuated the design by printing dark areas, such as hands and mask-like heads, from stencil cut-outs. Also shown are working materials for his monotypes.

Romare Bearden (1911–1988), Jazz at Montreux, ca. 1982. Stencil #1 - Stencil #2. Monotype with stencils
© Romare Bearden Foundation /Licensed by VAGA, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (27A and 27B)

From Robin Holder's Warrior Women Wizard series, this magical print shows a woman in silhouette, with shadowy shapes including birds, trees, and African masks. The questing attitude of the woman's upturned face, symbolizes for Holder “a search for faith, empowerment, and humility, with the understanding that the human condition exists within a larger configuration of universal elements and powers.” At the Printmaking Workshop, Holder worked to mobilize the community outreach program and organize traveling exhibits from the Workshop's print collection.

Robin Holder (b. 1952), Show Me How II, 1990. Stencil monotype. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (28)

Michael Kelly Williams was born in France to American parents. He moved to New York around 1973 to work at Robert Blackburn's Printmaking Workshop. According to Williams, he found an international community of artists and an atmosphere rich in idea-sharing where “printmaking was the common language.” At the Workshop, Williams produced prints, taught, and conducted outreach. As a woodcut artist, he has explored German, African, and Japanese traditions and methods. This enchanting image draws on all of these, as well as the artist's passion for jazz and ancient Egypt.

Michael Kelly Williams (b. 1950), Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, 1985. Woodcut. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (29)

 

This work by Lucy Hodgson refers to the 1890 battle of Wounded Knee in which 300 Native Americans were massacred. She recalls that this print “was made after I had crossed the country in the sixties on the obligatory VW bus pilgrimage. I loved the landscape in the Dakotas. The title was taken from the last line of Stephen Vincent Benet's poem American Names.” Hodgson worked at the Printmaking Workshop from 1963 to1974, and was an important contributor during the time when Blackburn was organizing for the Workshop's incorporation as a non-profit in 1971.

Lucy Hodgson (b. 1940), A Long Time After Wounded Knee, 1970. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (55)

 

Painter/printmaker Vincent Smith has produced an extraordinary body of prints with strong narrative, social, and political themes. Smith first came to the Printmaking Workshop in the late 1960s. Over the course of thirty years, he produced intaglios, lithographs, and monoprints at the Workshop and developed a close relationship with Blackburn. First Day of School, part of a series about the American South in the mid-1960s, shows young children on their way to school, watched by an ominous crowd across the street.

Vincent Smith (b. 1930), First Day of School, 1965. Etching (reprint, 1994). Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (57)

 

Though known for his collage paintings, Benny Andrews shows his mastery of line in this composition. Scathing and humorous, this work continues the artist's longstanding social and political activism. In 1969, Andrews established the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, to protest the exclusion of minorities from the mainstream art establishment. It was also during the late 1960s that Andrews started coming to the Printmaking Workshop. Between 1970–1975, Andrews produced a series of drawings entitled Symbols, Trash, Circle, Sexism, War, and Utopia.

Benny Andrews (b. 1929), Sexist (Sexism Study), 1974. Intaglio. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (58)

 

Born in India, Krishna Reddy is known for his pioneering work in viscosity etching, a technique in which a metal plate is deeply etched at multiple levels, then printed using inks of different viscosities. This etching method was developed in Stanley William Hayter's Atelier 17in Paris, where Reddy was codirector from 1957 to 1976. Made around the time of the Gulf War, Sorrow of the World is a personal expression by the artist against war.

Krishna Reddy (b. 1925), Sorrow of the World, ca. 1990. Viscosity etching. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (59)

Back to top