On Exhibit in Glens Falls: Works by influential printmaker on view at The Hyde

Edition 4.Collection of NCCU Art Museum, North Carolina Central University Robert Blackburn, “Refugees (aka People in a Boat),” 1938. Lithograph

Edition 4.Collection of NCCU Art Museum, North Carolina Central University
Robert Blackburn, “Refugees (aka People in a Boat),” 1938. Lithograph

The name Robert Blackburn might not be familiar to many in the Capital Region but that may change with a new exhibit on view at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls.

“Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking” explores the development of his career and how it helped to shape printmaking movements in the mid-to-late 20th century. It’s organized by the Smithsonian Institution 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. One figure is draped over the side of the boat, their 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 teen.

The artist grew up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, after his family moved there from Jamaica. He was heavily influenced by the rise in 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, he took printmaking classes at the first printmaking workshop in Harlem, which was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Blackburn was later awarded a scholarship to 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 lithography press and in 1947 he opened a printmaking workshop in New York City that encouraged collaboration between artists and printers, which wasn’t common at the time.

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In a quote included in the exhibition, Blackburn explains “The wizardry and alchemy that is wielded by the creative technician enriches the experience . . . but it must never dominate or dictate the creative thrust.”

Throughout his career, he became a respected color lithographer, inspired by cubism and other contemporary movements. One of his first well-known works was “Girl in Red,” (1950) a vibrant portrait and still life, with varying shades of blues, reds and greens.

Further on in his career, he delved more into abstract styles, as seen in “Quiet Instrument,” which features the neck of a guitar amongst an array of shapes. Some of his abstract works feature repeat 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 for the two compositions.

Blackburn’s works weren’t exhibited often during his lifetime. However, through his workshop, he generously shared his printmaking skills with a long list of artists from across the globe, some of which are featured in the exhibition.

That includes Grace Hartigan, a painter who was known for her abstract expressionist style. In “The Hero Leaves His Ship III,” a lithograph of Hartigan’s on view, her skills as a painter shine through with splashes of black and smudged lines evoking a strange kind of sea.

It’s easy to see Blackburn’s influence in the piece, however, it doesn’t dominate Hartigan’s style, which echos the printmaker’s philosophy.

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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 Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers.

“ ‘Bob said, ‘If it’s on the stone, I can print it.’ Bob for me was the soul of ULAE,” Hartigan noted.

“Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking” celebrates the life and legacy of an artist who inspired many contemporary artists. While Blackburn died 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 City.

The exhibit will be on view at The Hyde through April 24. For more information visit hydecollection.org.

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