Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking

“There was no other place like it. It was a place where all kinds of people came, worked with and accepted each other,” recalled the artist Chaim Koppelman when describing the printmaking workshop that Robert Blackburn launched in 1947 with a single press installed in his Chelsea loft in New York. Born to Jamaican immigrants, and an heir to the Harlem Renaissance, Blackburn (1920-2003) was a pioneering artist with a passion for printmaking. He was also an influential teacher who embraced democracy in terms of the creative process and access to art. The diverse artists he welcomed into his studio frequently cited his eagerness and ability to proselytize on behalf of the medium, introducing the creative possibilities of printmaking while bringing thousands of converts into the fold. As a testament to Blackburn’s commitment to both printmaking and inclusivity as well as his persuasive powers, the artist Mel Edwards asserted, 

“. . . if Bob Blackburn is standing at the door of the Printmaking Workshop and a dog walks by and pauses, Bob will get him in the shop and convince him to make a print. And if the dog stays a while, Bob Blackburn will convince him to become a printmaker for life!”

Over a career that spanned six decades, Blackburn’s generous spirit, avant-garde ideas and technical expertise affirmed printmaking as fine art and transformed it in the process. Making its debut at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the traveling retrospective Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking celebrates Blackburn as a key figure in the development of printmaking in the 20th century and situates him beside his teachers, friends and collaborators with whom he engaged throughout his life. Blackburn’s legendary contributions to the technical and aesthetic development of abstract color lithography and successful encouragement of others to explore printmaking — from lithography and etching to woodcut and monotype — are evident in the exhibition’s approximately 60 prints and related materials by Blackburn and the artists with whom he worked and inspired, including Grace Hartigan, Robert Rauschenberg, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold, among others. 

Spanning galleries in both the historic Nelson-Atkins building and the Bloch building, Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking follows the trajectory of Blackburn’s career. It traces his artistic evolution from the figurative to the abstract while mapping the creative community in which he was ensconced. Through six sections, the exhibition takes visitors from the 1930s, when Blackburn was a student in Harlem, to the establishment of his own printmaking workshop in the late 1940s that he expanded beyond lithography in the 1950s. It includes his extremely productive period during the graphics boom of the 1960s, when he also served as the first Master Printer for United Limited Artists Editions, and showcases the decades of the 1970s through the 1990s, during which Blackburn’s workshop was a hotbed of innovation that attracted artists from around the world. The exhibition concludes with the last years of the artist’s life when he was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and ends with his final major project — a commission from the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York to create 12 permanent mosaics inspired by his lifetime of printmaking, for the 116th Street subway station — which is represented in the exhibition by a new video by Argenis Apolinaro.

This free exhibition opens at the Nelson-Atkins March 28 and runs through Aug. 2, 2020. It is curated by Deborah Cullen-Morales and comes to the Nelson-Atkin courtesy of the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Services in cooperation with The Trust for Robert Blackburn and The Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, a program of The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, and is supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. In Kansas City, the exhibition is supported by the Robert Lehman Foundation. For additional information about related programs visit: nelson-atkins.org/events/robert-blackburn-printmaking/

–Stephanie Fox Knappe, Samuel Sosland Curator, American Art, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

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