Works by influential printmaker on display at The Hyde – The Daily Gazette
Robert Blackburn’s name may not be familiar to many in the Capital Region, but that could change with a new exhibit at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls.
“Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking” explores the development of his career and how it helped shape the printmaking movements of the mid to late 20th century. It is organized by the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service and curated by Deborah Cullen.
It opens with a lithograph depicting several black figures in a boat, paddling away from the viewer. A figure is draped over the side of the boat, hands in the water as if to help propel the boat. Titled “Refugees (aka People in a Boat),” Blackburn created the piece in 1938 when he was a teenager.
The artist grew up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, after his family moved there from Jamaica. He was heavily influenced by the rise of the black arts community around him and began printmaking at an early age. He studied with influential artists like Charles Alston, Ronald Joseph, and Riva Helfond, and in high school took printmaking lessons at the first Print Shop in Harlem, funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Blackburn then received a scholarship from the Art Students League where he met a host of other printmakers. He struggled financially in the early years after school, however, he was able to acquire a lithographic press and in 1947 he opened a printmaking studio in New York that encouraged collaboration between artists and printers, which was not common at the time.
In a quote included in the exhibit, Blackburn explains, “The magic and alchemy wielded by the creative technician enriches the experience. . . but it should never dominate or dictate the creative drive.
Throughout his career he became a respected color lithographer, inspired by Cubism and other contemporary movements. One of his well-known early works was “Girl in Red” (1950), a vibrant portrait and still life, with varying shades of blues, reds and greens.
Later in his career, he leaned more into abstract styles, as seen in “Quiet Instrument”, which features the neck of a guitar among an array of shapes. Some of his abstract works feature repeating shapes, as seen in “Lightening Flash” and “Purple Flash III”, where he reoriented the position of a woodcut block and used different colors to create unique effects to both comps.
Blackburn’s works were not exhibited often during his lifetime. However, through his studio, he generously shared his printmaking skills with a long list of artists from around the world, some of whom are featured in the exhibition.
This includes Grace Hartigan, a painter known for her Abstract Expressionist style. In “The Hero Leaves His Ship III,” a lithograph by Hartigan on display, his painting skills shine through with splashes of black, smudged lines evoking a strange type of sea.
It is easy to see Blackburn’s influence in the piece, however, it does not overpower Hartigan’s style, which echoes the engraver’s ethos.
Hartigan was a member of Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), where Blackburn was the first master printer. He printed editions for Hartigan, as well as for Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers.
“’Bob said, ‘If it’s on stone, I can print it.’ Bob was for me the soul of ULAE,” noted Hartigan.
“Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking” celebrates the life and legacy of an artist who has inspired many contemporary artists. While Blackburn passed away in 2003, he continues to inspire through the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop Program, which is run by the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in New York.
The exhibition will be on view at The Hyde until April 24. For more information, visit hydecollection.org.
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Categories: Art, Life and Arts