Black Printmakers and
|"Claude Clark biting plate to bring out design: carborundum process" (detail)|
While there have been shows about the WPA Graphic Arts Section and exhibitions
of Black artists of the '30s, none has focused specifically on the impact
of the Federal Arts Projects upon the work of Black printmakers. This
exhibition is intended to reveal the esthetic and technical contributions
of these artists.
The Great Depression might easily have brought to an end that period of extraordinary richness and vitality in Black American cultural life known as the Harlem Renaissance. Instead, the years from 1934 to 1943 proved to be rich with new opportunities. Acting as employer of last resort, the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration provided dignified jobs for professional artists, Black as well as white. Paradoxically, many artists were able for the first time to devote themselves uninterruptedly to their creative work instead of dissipating their energy scrambling for a living. Young people who could not otherwise have afforded it received instruction from artists employed as teachers in newly established art centers. If in a very real sense the WPA created the conditions that made possible the triumphant emergence of American art as a major cultural force in the post-World War II period, it also helped to ensure the continued development of the arts in the Black community.
As well as fostering the talent of numerous individuals, the WPA had a particularly significant impact in the field of print making. By providing sophisticated equipment and employing artists with technical expertise as teachers, the Project stimulated interest in the graphic arts and developed the skills of artists who would contribute to the extraordinary resurgence of print making in the second part of this century. Black artists participated actively in this process. Robert Blackburn, whose early works may be seen in this exhibition, went on to work for Tatiana Grosman at Universal Limited Editions, pulling prints for Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Larry Rivers, and Robert Rauschenberg. As the founder and head of the Printmaking Workshop in New York, he has transmitted his enthusiasm and his expertise to countless artists, both minority and mainstream, over the years. In a number of the WPA art studios, Blacks worked alongside whites, and in
Philadelphia, it was Dox Thrash, a Black man, who developed a strikingly
effective new lithographic technique known as the Carborundum print.
When the Federal Arts Projects closed down in 1943, no provisions were
made for cataloging or archival storage. Some prints were turned over
to libraries, and individual works remained in the hands of artists and
their friends. The works of only a few of the better-known artists have
since been extensively documented and acquired by museums. That is not
the case for most of those represented here. The ma jority of the prints
included in this exhibition are being shown for the first time.
Thanks are due to Leslie King-Hammond, whose efforts uncovered so many fine prints that have remained virtually unseen since they were first made, for introducing us to a number of unfamiliar artists who are surely deserving of our notice. Elisabeth Lorin's careful fact checking was invaluable in the preparation of biographical entries that shed some light on the activities of these artists. We are most grateful to the individuals and institutions who have loaned works to the exhibition.
An exhibition of this complexity could not have happened without the efforts and assistance of many individuals and institutions.
Special thanks are offered to Dierdre Bibby, Curator of the Schomburg
Research Center; J.B. Post, Curator, and Gloria Hibbit, Librarian, at
the Free Library of Philadelphia, Logan Square; Robert Killian, Secretary,
Department of Graphics, National Museum of American Art, Beth Rhodes and
Conna Clark, Department of Prints and Photographs, Philadelphia Museum
of Art; Robert Blackburn Artist and Director of the Printmaking Workshop;
Alice Loranth, Librarian, Cleveland Public Library, Jay Fisher, Curator
of Prints and Drawings, Baltimore Museum of Art; and Lowery Sims, Metropolitan
Museum of Art, as well as the following individuals: Richard Clarke, Ouida
Lewis, Ernest Crichlow, Corrine Jennings, Allegra Ockler, Sandy Ray, Julia
Lisowski and Pamela Scherch We would also like to express our appreciation
to the Gallery Association of New York State for its collaboration and
assistance in organizing the show and making it available to other institutions.
Kelly Fiske and David Ferguson were especially helpful, and Molly Sullivan
of our own staff did a heroic job of coordinating the unusually complex
logistics of this project.
LENDERS TO THE EXHIBITION