By Alice Bernstein
ABOVE PHOTO: Installation with Louis Dienes 1957 photo of Blackburn Printmaking Workshop at West 17th Street in Manhattan. The exhibition was curated by Megan Johnston, Executive Director of LaGrange Art Museum, and Maribeth Crocker, Assistant Curator, at the Cochran Gallery.
A landmark exhibition of prints from the Cochran Collection opened April 2nd at LaGrange Art Museum’s Cochran Gallery in Georgia: “Legends of the Printmaking Workshop: Will Barnet, Robert Blackburn, Chaim Koppelman, and Tom Laidman.” The opening celebrated the 100th birthday of Will Barnet.
Here are 50 prints: etchings, lithographs, woodcuts, silkscreens, by four eminent artists, black and white, whose work and lives profoundly affected one another and the history of American printmaking in the 20th Century—and beyond. Their prints, spanning six decades, are diverse in subject matter and employ an exciting range of techniques to show depth as surface, surface as depth.
For example, in lithography, images drawn with waxy substances on stone, are the medium of transferring ink to printed sheets, while in etching, images are scratched into a metal plate; in woodcuts they are dug out of wooden blocks; while silkscreen is a stencil method whereby an image is created by blocking areas in a fine mesh and forcing ink through the openings onto the print surface.
History, Art, and Life
In 1948, Robert Blackburn, who grew up in Harlem, founded the Printmaking Workshop in New York City—a place where graphic artists could learn, work, explore, and share techniques of producing multiple impressions of their work—prints—from a single image or matrix. Blackburn recognized the need for such a facility when, as David Finn wrote, “the art of lithography and etching experienced periods of severe neglect,” adding that, “The Workshop has played a seminal role in perpetuating a long and revered tradition.”
Blackburn, an African American, opened the Workshop to artists of all races, backgrounds, and nationalities, regardless of ability to pay—a fact which almost resulted in its closing more than once. Through the years, Will Barnet and Tom Laidman dug deep into their own pockets to keep the doors open. Bob Blackburn often expressed gratitude to Chaim Koppelman for coming up with the idea that saved the workshop in the 1950s, when there was no money to pay the rent, by proposing that the artists form a Co-op. The Workshop survived for fifty-three years, in what Jane Stephenson, Executive Director of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, described as “the biggest and longest running artist-operated facility of its kind in America.”
The installation at the center of the Cochran Gallery embodies that exciting history. A printing press stands near a table on which two huge photographs, back-to-back, capture interactions among artists at the Workshop in 1957. The photos are within a display of printmaking tools, plates, inks, etc. Blackburn, Koppelman, and Laidman can be seen in these photographs by Louis Dienes, which evoke the discovery, excitement, seriousness, and true collaboration that made the Workshop beloved. Walking around this installation, a visitor can feel a rhythm between artists, their tools, and the art on the gallery walls. For example, in Laidman’s abstraction, Bob Steal #2 (silkscreen), bold-colored forms and strong lines suggest flowers and musical instruments which are at rest and in motion, too; in Barnet’s Way to the Sea (lithograph), four figures are separate from and also joined to sky, land, and sea; in Koppelman’s Who Are You? (etching) two people confront one another through a wide space, in a way that helps to ask and answer this large question; and in Bob Blackburn’s Curly Q (lithograph), orderly and mischievous shapes simultaneously meet, interlock, and flee.
While the Blackburn Printmaking Workshop was forced to close in 2001, thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. Several years later, it was permanently established at the nonprofit Elizabeth Foundation in New York City, and continues today, under the direction of Phil Sanders.
A Cultural Journey
When I learned about the Legends exhibition, I was stirred by the mingling in it of art, history, life, and ethics—subjects that matter greatly to me. As a journalist, historian of civil rights, and speaker on the answer to racism, my work is informed by my study of Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by the American educator and critic, Eli Siegel. For over 50 years, I have been privileged to study this principle, stated by Eli Siegel, “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” This explains what all people have in common: we want to be like art. One result of studying this is that racism can end!
Three currents in my life come together through this exhibition:
1) I first met Bob Blackburn in 1967 at the Society of American Graphic Artists (SAGA), where I worked as assistant to Chaim Koppelman, then president. Chaim and I were colleagues in the study of Aesthetic Realism, and I was thrilled by the opportunity to learn from him how printmaking puts opposites together—e.g., severity and gentleness in etching, where the use of sharp needles and acid can result in the most tender image—and to see prints by hundreds of artists in SAGA’s annual exhibitions. Today, visitors at the Cochran Gallery can see historic video clips: of Blackburn and Barnet talking about the beginnings of the Workshop, its tribulations and successes; artists from around the globe speaking gratefully about working there; and a 2000 clip, in which Blackburn and Koppelman, lifelong friends, side by side, discuss a print Koppelman made at the Workshop 50 years earlier!
2) In 2010 I gave a presentation on what Aesthetic Realism explains is the cause and answer to racism, at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg—the city which, in the 1960s, was the scene of a massacre fueled by racism. Coincidentally, the Stanback Museum at SCSU had just opened a major exhibition: 20th Century Masters from the Cochran Collection, with 200 works, including prints by Picasso, Johns, Rauschenberg, Theibaud, alongside works by African American artists—Camille Billops, Norma Morgan, Whitfield Lovell, Elizabeth Catlett. This exhibition was thrilling! It brought new evidence for what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism: that art by its very nature is democratic, entirely for equality, and, therefore, against racism. The Cochran Collection is a fresh chance to ask: What goes on in a work of art?—and, What can art teach us about how to see people different from ourselves? I have seen that if the quarrel between opposites, like black and white, light and dark, can be resolved in a print, then there’s an answer in art to racism. If colors can blend and contrast, lines join and separate in a print in a way making for beauty, then art can teach people how to be fair to what’s not us.
3) I respect and admire Wesley and Missy Cochran, pioneering art collectors from the deep South, for recognizing African American artists, collecting and exhibiting their work on the basis of quality, not as a matter of fame or race. The Cochrans’ dedication to making their collection accessible, not to a select few, but to everyone, is beautiful and adds to knowledge and ethics in this world. That is why I was grateful to interview them in LaGrange, as unsung heroes, for my oral history project, “The Force of Ethics in Civil Rights.” The Legends of the Printmaking Workshop exhibition, is evidence of this ethical force, and I am writing this in the hope that many, many people will see it. (Through August 27, Cochran Gallery on the Square, LaGrange, Ga. Hours: Wed-Sat, 1pm-5pm.)
Alice Bernstein is an author, Aesthetic Realism Associate, and Director of the nonprofit, Alliance of Ethics & Art in New York City.