By Special to the Daily World
A landmark exhibition of prints from the Cochran Collection has opened at LaGrange Art Museum’s Cochran Gallery: “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 — two Black and two 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 dug 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.
In 1948, Robert Blackburn, who grew up in Harlem, founded the Printmaking Workshop in New York City — 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 53 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, it was later permanently established at the nonprofit Elizabeth Foundation in New York City, and continues today under the direction of Phil Sanders.