Robert Blackburn's life explored at DIA exhibit

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

    An exhibit exploring the life and works of Robert Blackburn, an influential Black artist, teacher and master printmaker, opens Saturday for a five-month engagement at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

    "Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking" explores Blackburn’s evolution as an artist and features more than 75 works, including his lithographs, woodcuts, intaglio prints and watercolors. Also featured are original prints from some of the iconic artists with whom he collaborated. They include Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Grace Hartigan, and Robert Rauschenberg. His innovative printmaking also helped define the American graphics boom.

An exhibit exploring the life and works of Robert Blackburn, an influential Black artist, teacher and master printmaker, opens March 20 for a five-month engagement at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

    Born to Jamaican immigrants, Blackburn grew up in Harlem, where he was mentored by artists of the Harlem Renaissance, a time of flourishing arts centered in New York’s creative Black community. He began studying lithography and other printmaking techniques in his youth, pursued painting at the Art Students League, and in the late 1940s, he founded the Printmaking Workshop in New York City, a creative space for artists of all levels that remains open today. Blackburn died in 2003.

“For more than five decades, Robert Blackburn ran a workshop open to everyone. His printmaking knowledge and skills were legendary, and his generosity opened printmaking to generations of artists from all over the world,” said Clare Rogan, the DIA’s curator of prints and drawings, adding Blackburn was also deeply connected to Black artistic circles, including the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

“He’s a real connector. He’s an incredible printmaker but also an artist who connects people and who opens doors for others,” Rogan said, noting the exhibit expands beyond the traditional -- focusing solely on the works of the artist -- to include others he collaborated with. “His impact was much more broad. He worked with a much larger range of artists than is usual. He was interested in working with other people, teaching and collaborating.”

Robert Blackburn (American, 1920–2003). Girl in Red, 1950. Color Lithograph; 18 ¼ x 12 ½ in. The Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art

    Blackburn’s early lithographs reflected the powerful example of Mexican muralists with social and political messages, as well as the activist views of Social Realists who were addressing issues such as poverty and race in the 1930s. Among Blackburn’s black-and-white lithographs from this era in the exhibit is "Refugees (aka People in a Boat)," 1938. 

“This image of people in a boat with a bleak landscape behind is something I think we can all project onto,” Rogan said. “Where are they going? What is in the sacks? What is happening? What is moving them forward? It’s 1938 and I’m thinking about what is happening with the Mississippi flooding in 1937… Scholars have also connected (the work) to the idea of the great migration north … and to echoes of the Underground Railroad, of people leaving, moving. His lithographs are still powerful works.”

Robert Blackburn (American, 1920–2003). Refugees (aka People in a Boat), 1938. Lithograph; 11 1/8 x 15 ¾ in. Edition 4. Collection of NCCU Art Museum, North Carolina Central University, Gift of Christopher Maxey.

Blackburn eventually shifted from figurative work to highly colored abstraction. He was among the Black artists of his day who openly embraced other styles of art, inspired by European modernism and artists like Picasso and Matisse. One of his color lithographs that illustrates that transition to abstract art is "Girl in Red." Rogan describes "Girl in Red" as  a complex lithograph containing a number of colors printed from several stones to make the image. The girl’s self-aware gaze is among the features that strike Rogan.  

“Blackburn had an expertise that few had in 1950,” she said. “He is one of a small number of people who could do something that complicated. You can see him moving to abstract work. He wanted to explore vitality and abstract ideas of vitality, movement and form ... you can see it in his wood blocks later. 

    Another lithograph that stands out in the exhibit is by Charles White, who collaborated with Blackburn. White’s work is John Brown, a black-and-white lithograph that looks like something that was pulled right from a Mexican mural. 

    “It’s this heroic image of the abolitionist,” she said. “It’s just a striking image, something of the sort of an inspired political image.”

    Before leaving the exhibit, visitors will see a color lithograph titled Blackburn, from 2002. It’s an homage to Blackburn by Ron Adams and is part of the DIA’s collection. The DIA does not have any of Blackburn’s works in its collection but does have a small group of prints he did with artists as the master printer. Adding a Blackburn piece to the DIA’s collection is something Rogan hopes to achieve one day. 

    “Ron Adams was one of the other African American master printers. He was a little bit younger than Blackburn,” she said. “They were expected to do a joint exhibit but that show never came to pass. It was near the end of Blackburn’s life.

“I really enjoy this idea of one master printer profiling another master printer. You can see the press and Blackburn pulling paper right off the press,” she said. 

    Rogan hopes visitors walk away from "Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking" with a better understanding of printmaking as an art, how artists have used the medium to explore, create and open up new worlds. Working on the show, she delved deeply into Blackburn’s work and his personal story, from the beginning of his life in Harlem to his middle and later years. He died at age 82.

“I want people to leave with a sense of a life well-lived, not just beautiful artwork and stunning colors, but also to understand the scope of a life well-lived,” she said. 

The exhibit was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and curated by Deborah Cullen-Morales. Cullen-Morales will discuss the inspirational life of Blackburn and the ways his accomplishments and values resonate today with a virtual lecture at 5:30 p.m. April 13. For more information, visit dia.org/AheadofHisTime. 

The exhibit was previously at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and then moves onto the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, after its Detroit engagement.


'Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking'

Saturday - Sept. 5

Detroit Institute of Arts

5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit 

(313) 833-7900

Admission: Free to residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Advance reservations required; (313) 833-4005 or Dia.org