ROBERT BLACKBURN, 1920-2003
"We console ourselves with the knowledge that he had an extraordinary and productive life" - Jane Stephenson,Executive Director, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts
NEW YORK, NY -- Artist Robert Blackburn died on April 21, 2003. He was 82.
"Bob Blackburn's groundbreaking vision and achievements have influenced American Arts, African American culture, and generations of artists throughout the world. Master printer, mentor, teacher, brother, uncle, friend -- Bob made a major difference in the lives of so many of us. His legacy -- as aprintmaker and as the founder and director of the Printmaking Workshop -- will long continue in the arts community; his countless acts of kindness to thousands of artists and many others will remain in the hearts of people everywhere," said Ted Berger, Executive Director of the New York Foundation for the Arts.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Blackburn was born in Summit, NJ and grew up in Harlem. As a teenager, he was mentored by Harlem Renaissance artists such as Charles "Spinky" Alston, Augusta Savage, and James Lesesne Wells and studied lithography, etching,woodblock, and silk-screening with Riva Helfond at the WPA Harlem Community Art Center. He also studied lithography at the Art Students League with Will Barnet.
In his early figurative drawings and prints, African Americans --as refugees in a boat; bearing heavy burdens; sitting slumped in a schoolyard -- are solidly and centrally placed on proto-abstract expressionistic backgrounds. (1938, REFUGEES, Lithograph; 1936, MAN WITH LOAD Charcoal, ink, and graphite; 1938 SCHOOL YARD). The compositions and figures in these works suggest a transposing of 19th century European imagery into the African American culture of his time.
Later he produced lush, color-intensive, abstract prints -- such as HEAVY FORMS/PINK (1958, lithograph); COLOR SYMPHONY (1960,Lithograph); and FAUX PAS (1960-1963, lithograph). Transition works, such as GIRL IN RED (1950, lithograph), merged the early figurative and the later abstract approaches.
It its online documentation, the Library of Congress exhibition CREATIVE SPACE - FIFTY YEARS OF ROBERT BLACKBURN'S PRINTMAKING WORKSHOP displays a series of three woodcuts created from the1960s-1980s: RED INSIDE; WOODSCAPE; and THREE OVALS. Demonstratinghow Blackburn explored and re-explored the relationships of forms and textures, these works present elemental oval and rectangular shapes in different contexts -- involving the viewer in the artist's evolving and transcendent approach to the making of abstract art.
"...SIDE BY SIDE IN THE STUDIO, ARTISTS, BLACK, WHITE, YOUNG, OLD,AMERICAN, FOREIGN BORN, HAVE SOUGHT TO RENDER THEIR ARTISTIC VISIONS IN PRINT. BOB BLACKBURN BELIEVES THAT THE LIGHT CAST BY ARTISTS ILLUMINATES US ALL..." - Barry Gaither (in AMERICANVISIONS, February/March 2000)
Robert Blackburn's deep involvement in his work was expressed in tandem with an understanding of the needs of artists and a desire to work with other artists and help other artists.
In 1948 in his studio in Chelsea, he started an informal cooperative for experimenting with innovative lithographic techniques; that cooperative would later become the Printmaking Workshop. In the late fifties and early sixties, he worked as a master printer at Universal Limited Art Editions (founded byTatyana and Maurice Grosman in West Islip, Long Island) where heprinted lithographs for Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, and Robert Rauschenberg. He then returned to the Printmaking Workshop where he fostered creative graphic work by thousands of artists -- including Kathy Caraccio, Roy DeCarava, Ernest Crichlow, Mel Edwards, Terry Haass, Antonio Frasconi, Mohammed Khalil, Thomas Laidman, Krishna Reddy, Faith Ringgold, John von Wicht, and Charles White among many others -- and was influential in the international printmaking community, producing such works as IMPRESSIONS: OUR WORLD (1974), a portfolio of prints by African American artists with introductory texts by artist Romare Bearden and art historian Edmund Barry Gaither.
In 2001, because of financial difficulties, he asked the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts to provide a home for the workshop. It isnow housed in the foundation's quarters on West 39th Street inManhattan. The Foundation has mounted a fundraising campaign to continue to operate the Printmaking Workshop, and it is alsoworking to raise funds to house the Printmaking Workshop'sarchives and Blackburn's papers at the Library of Congress.
"The loss of Bob's physical presence makes it all the more imperative that we preserve his legacy by getting the printmaking workshop up and running as soon as possible. It was Bob's fervent wish that this should be done," Jane Stephenson, ExecutiveDirector, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, emphasized in an email communication.
In her tribute to Blackburn, Jane Stephenson, quotes Barry Gaitheras writing (in AMERICAN VISIONS, February/March 2000):
"Doggedly, Blackburn has held onto the belief that artists matter and that their expressions affirm the most important elements ofour humanity. Under his guidance, the Printmaking Workshop has helped accomplished artists and fledglings realize their dreams. Portfolios from the workshop include works by sculptors and painters as well as graphic artists, because Blackburn has encouraged all artists to express themselves in the print medium.Side by side in the studio, artists, black, white, young, old, American, foreign born, have sought to render their artistic visions in print. Bob Blackburn believes that the light cast by artists illuminates us all.
Fueled by this certainty and a willingness to sacrifice, he has created a sanctum in which visions are realized. We require such a place, just as we need the humanism, insight and determination of Robert Blackburn.
"Blackburn taught at Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, School of Visual Arts, Columbia University, New York University, Maryland Institute College of Art, and Rutgers University, among others. He exhibited his work internationally and is represented incollections including the Library of Congress, the Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Museum, the United Negro College Fund, the Baltimore Museum of Art, Asilah Museum (Morocco), and the Tel Aviv Museum.
In 1992 he received a John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. In 2000, he received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the College Art Association and The National Fine Print Association.
The funeral was April 24th at the ELIM Church in Brooklyn.
Robert Blackburn's work is currently included in AFRICAN-AMERICAN ARTISTS, 1929-1945: PRINTS, DRAWINGS, AND PAINTINGS IN THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 6, 2003.
The Memorial to celebrate Robert Blackburn's life, originally planned for May 29, 2003 at 4:00 PM. at El Museo Del Barrio, ("Robert Blackburn,1920-2003", NYFA CURRENT, May 7, 2003) has been changed to the 3rd week ofSeptember. For more information, contact Jane Stephenson, Executive Director, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts at JAS@efa1.org
(Note that information will not be available until mid-June).