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Black, Sleek, and Minimal

The Evolution of Printmaking from the Great Depression to the 1960’s at the Philadelphia Museum of Art 

By Brendan L. Smith

Art is full of happy accidents and despairing failures, but Robert Rauschenberg’s lithograph called Accident illustrates how a mistake can be nudged into a transformation.

The lithographic limestone that Rauschenberg used broke in half during his work on the piece. Instead of starting over, he incorporated the diagonal white line of negative space created by the stone’s fissure into a series of 29 prints in 1963. The jagged line creates tension that divides large swaths of black ink and veiled images conveying traditional notions of masculinity and the threat of pending calamity. A frenzy of motion surrounding a race car in pit row, a pitcher bearing down on home plate in mid-throw, and an overloaded life raft pulled by weary soldiers through waist-deep water.

The lithograph illustrates the ongoing education of an artist who crossed artistic borders between the layered depths of his large-scale assemblages into the flat and exacting plane of printmaking.

1964-157-1-pma2016Accident by Robert Rauschenberg

Accident is included in an enlightening exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called Breaking Ground: Printmaking in the U.S., 1940-1960. On view until July 24, all of the prints, textiles, and sculpture were drawn from the museum’s collection. Printmaking often has been demoted to second-tier status, deemed an afterthought to painting or a merely commercial means for cranking out copies. But printmaking is a complex art form in its own right, combining artistic talent, ingenuity, and technical prowess.

The exhibition begins with work created in the 1930’s from the Graphic Arts Division of the Federal Art Project, which put 10,000 artists back to work during the Great Depression and singlehandedly kept the arts alive in the United States. The FAP also lead to the creation of more than 200,000 works of art branching across artistic disciplines including murals, painting, photography, sculpture, and printmaking. The project supported artists who would later create some of the most important work of the 20th century including: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. If that level of public arts funding still existed today, the art world would be a much more diverse and inclusive place.

The Great Depression took a staggering toll, with the unemployment rate skyrocketing from 3 percent in 1929 to 25 percent just four years later. By offering a stable income of $25 per week, the Graphic Arts Division encouraged artists to experiment with both the old and the new, reviving traditional printmaking techniques such as woodcuts and co-opting the commercial territory of screen printing and graphic design. Artists working in the Federal Art Project took very different tacks in exploring the social themes of the day, including two works at opposite ends of the spectrum in the Philadelphia exhibition.

In Unemployed, a color screenprint by Chet La More, three men with thin torsos and elongated arms cast a weary gaze toward something unseen. Two men wear flat caps common among the working class while the third is bald. Despite their grim faces, the men still possess a sense of pride and forthrightness, bent by the weight of poverty but still unbroken.

2-1943-56-pma2016Blues Singer by Russell T. Limbach

By contrast, a color lithograph called Blues Singer by Russell T. Limbach revels in the power of music to lift both the voice and spirit. A blonde singer wearing a green dress, with arms stretched downward and mouth agape, leans toward a microphone in a transfixing moment of bravado. Limbach, who had worked as a political cartoonist and in a Cleveland advertising agency, served as the technical advisor for the Graphic Arts Division and helped train a generation of artists in printmaking techniques.

As the Great Depression gave way to World War II, the chaos spreading across Europe forced acclaimed printmaker Stanley William Hayter to move his groundbreaking Atelier 17 studio from Paris – where he worked with Picasso, Miro, and Kandinsky – to New York, where he developed new printmaking techniques and taught at the New School.

1960-67-1-pma2016Cronos by Stanley William Hayter

A black-and-white film in the Philadelphia exhibition shows Hayter working in his studio, dipping an etched plate into an acid bath before laying it inside a press to be stamped onto paper. The exhibition also features Hayter’s print called Cronos, created using a complex process of engraving and soft-ground etching on a copper plate printed on paper.

Showing Surrealist influences, a web of tangled lines appears to be drawn apart by two hands resting atop a geometric field. In Greek mythology, Cronos was a diabolical god who castrated and killed his father Uranus and then ate his own children, but he is more closely associated with the personification of time. The tangled marionette strings in Hayter’s work show humanity subject to forces beyond its control. The constant ticking of the clock, the unending cycle of the seasons, and the inevitability of death.

2014-49-9-pmaHydrogen Man by Leonard Baskin

The most visually arresting and powerful work in the exhibition was created by sculptor and printmaker Leonard Baskin. Created in 1954, Hydrogen Man is a life-size figure of a man printed in blood-red ink from a woodcut. On March 1, 1954, the United States detonated the Castle Bravo thermonuclear hydrogen bomb on the remote Bikini Atoll islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The massive 15-megaton blast, approximately 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki atomic bombs, signaled a dramatic escalation in the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and the very real potential for the annihilation of the human race. Hydrogen Man envisions this deadly fallout in the embodiment of one man whose skin has been stripped to reveal a maze of twisting blood vessels, wildly curving bones, and torn limbs. His right arm is missing and his right leg is loosely attached to a dislocated hip. The man’s head, with its blank eye sockets and bared teeth, rests precariously atop the body and threatens to roll to the ground with the slightest movement. Other prints of Hydrogen Man, some in black ink rather than red, are in the collections of the National Gallery of Art and Museum of Modern Art.

Baskin, who hated the pretentiousness of pop art, voiced the concerns of the common man, the same concerns that remain today because we haven’t learned the lessons of the past or the dire possibilities of the future.

“There is a general anxiety in contemporary life… nuclear bombs, inequality of possibility and chance, inequality of goods allotted to us, a kind of general racist, unjust attitude that is pervasive,” Baskin said. “Art is man’s distinctly human way of fighting death.”

*****

Brendan L. Smith is a freelance journalist, mixed-media artist, and father of two rambunctious boys in Washington, D.C.     

Breaking Ground: Printmaking in the U.S., 1940-1960  is on view until July 24 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Images Provided by the Philadelphia Museum:

Blues Singer, 1938
Russell T. Limbach (American, 1904-1971)
Color lithograph
Plate: 17 x 12 5/8 inches
Image: 15 1/8 x 10 inches
Published by Works Progress Administration (WPA), Federal Art Project, New York City, 1938, Color lithograph, Federal Works Agency, Work Projects Administration, on long-term loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from the Fine Arts Collection, U.S. General Services Administration, 1943
This work is in the public domain and requires no copyright notice.

Cronos, 1944
Stanley William Hayter, (English (active England, France, United States, 1901-1988)
Printed at Atelier 17, New York, 1944
Soft ground etching and engraving with scorper
Plate: 15 11/16 x 19 13/16 inches
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gift of Mrs. Joseph Wood, 1960
© Estate of Stanley William Hayter/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London

The Hydrogen Man, Leonard Baskin, 1954
Color woodcut, printed in red ink
Sheet: 70 x 40 inches
Image: 61 ½ x 25 ½ inches
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Print Club of Philadelphia Permanent Collection
© The Estate of Leonard Baskin, Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York

Accident, 1963
Robert Rauschenberg, (American, 1925-2008), Printed by Robert Blackburn (American 1920-2003), Printed by Zigmunds Priede (American, born Latvia, b. 1935), Published by Universal Limited Art Editions, Inc., West Islip, New York, 1963, Lithograph
Image: 37 ¾ x 26 ¾ inches

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