Master printmaker Robert Blackburn (b. 1920, Summit, New Jersey; d. 2003 in New York City) changed the course of American art through his graphic work and the Printmaking Workshop, which he founded in New York City in 1948. His pioneering contributions to the technical and aesthetic development of abstract color lithography is as legendary as his generosity in encouraging and training thousands of diverse artists to experiment in the graphic medium.
Growing up in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, Blackburn was influenced by the intellectual and artistic legacies of the Harlem Renaissance as well as European abstraction and the artistic ideologies and political tendencies of both American social realism and Mexican modernism. He learned lithography as a teenager at a community center on 125th Street sponsored by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA). While in his twenties, he studied at the Art Students League for three years. Later, he did freelance artistic work for institutions such as the Harmon Foundation and began to forge his signature abstract style amidst the varied modernist currents he encountered. In 1948, he opened his own studio, the Printmaking Workshop, launching the oldest and largest non-profit print workshop in the United States.
After a period of travel and study in Europe, in 1957 Blackburn became the first master printer for the prestigious Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). He printed the first seventy-nine editions for the seminal workshop, setting the standard by which ULAE exerted a powerful influence on modernist printmaking in America. His own complicated, varicolored abstractions prefigured or complemented more familiar ULAE works. In particular, his experiments in color lithography during the 1950s helped fuel the explosion of graphic art that occurred in the next decade.
In 1971, the Printmaking Workshop became a non-profit corporation, with a mission to maintain creative and artistic quality, support and encourage innovation, create opportunities for Third World and minority artists, and foster public appreciation of the fine art print. The Printmaking Workshop was renowned for its open, informal, and accommodating atmosphere. Through the workshop, Blackburn has been teacher and friend to thousands of artists—as master printer, technical advisor, fund raiser, diplomat, catalyst, and instigator.