Black Printmakers and
  the WPA

     Leslie King-Hammond, Curator

    Essay by
Leslie King-Hammond
    Selected Images with Biographical entries
    by
Elisabeth Lorin
    Bibilography

 

 

"Claude Clark biting plate to bring out design: carborundum process" (detail)

 

Preface

While there have been shows about the WPA Graphic Arts Section and exhibitions of Black artists of the '30s, none has focused specifically on the impact of the Federal Arts Projects upon the work of Black printmakers. This exhibition is intended to reveal the esthetic and technical contributions of these artists.

The Great Depression might easily have brought to an end that period of extraordinary richness and vitality in Black American cultural life known as the Harlem Renaissance. Instead, the years from 1934 to 1943 proved to be rich with new opportunities. Acting as employer of last resort, the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration provided dignified jobs for professional artists, Black as well as white. Paradoxically, many artists were able for the first time to devote themselves uninterruptedly to their creative work instead of dissipating their energy scrambling for a living. Young people who could not otherwise have afforded it received instruction from artists employed as teachers in newly established art centers. If in a very real sense the WPA created the conditions that made possible the triumphant emergence of American art as a major cultural force in the post-World War II period, it also helped to ensure the continued development of the arts in the Black community.

As well as fostering the talent of numerous individuals, the WPA had a particularly significant impact in the field of print making. By providing sophisticated equipment and employing artists with technical expertise as teachers, the Project stimulated interest in the graphic arts and developed the skills of artists who would contribute to the extraordinary resurgence of print making in the second part of this century. Black artists participated actively in this process. Robert Blackburn, whose early works may be seen in this exhibition, went on to work for Tatiana Grosman at Universal Limited Editions, pulling prints for Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Larry Rivers, and Robert Rauschenberg. As the founder and head of the Printmaking Workshop in New York, he has transmitted his enthusiasm and his expertise to countless artists, both minority and mainstream, over the years. In a number of the WPA art studios, Blacks worked alongside whites, and in

     

 

 

Philadelphia, it was Dox Thrash, a Black man, who developed a strikingly effective new lithographic technique known as the Carborundum print.


The artists in our exhibition used a broad range of graphic techniques to create virtually every kind of print made at the period. The variety of styles and subject matter was equally broad, and equally characteristic of the times, ranging from modernist abstraction to social realism. Portraying the Black American experience, categories of imagery that appear with almost tedious regularity in WPA-sponsored work acquire an added resonance. Images of the Black sharecropper, laborer, or tenement dweller still strike us with their immediacy today. Works of social protest were a staple of the period. Black artists addressed racial issues with the outspokenness and commitment characteristic of contemporaneous works on related themes, often conveying a more complex and personal vision.

When the Federal Arts Projects closed down in 1943, no provisions were made for cataloging or archival storage. Some prints were turned over to libraries, and individual works remained in the hands of artists and their friends. The works of only a few of the better-known artists have since been extensively documented and acquired by museums. That is not the case for most of those represented here. The ma jority of the prints included in this exhibition are being shown for the first time.

Thanks are due to Leslie King-Hammond, whose efforts uncovered so many fine prints that have remained virtually unseen since they were first made, for introducing us to a number of unfamiliar artists who are surely deserving of our notice. Elisabeth Lorin's careful fact checking was invaluable in the preparation of biographical entries that shed some light on the activities of these artists. We are most grateful to the individuals and institutions who have loaned works to the exhibition.

An exhibition of this complexity could not have happened without the efforts and assistance of many individuals and institutions.

 

Special thanks are offered to Dierdre Bibby, Curator of the Schomburg Research Center; J.B. Post, Curator, and Gloria Hibbit, Librarian, at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Logan Square; Robert Killian, Secretary, Department of Graphics, National Museum of American Art, Beth Rhodes and Conna Clark, Department of Prints and Photographs, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Robert Blackburn Artist and Director of the Printmaking Workshop; Alice Loranth, Librarian, Cleveland Public Library, Jay Fisher, Curator of Prints and Drawings, Baltimore Museum of Art; and Lowery Sims, Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the following individuals: Richard Clarke, Ouida Lewis, Ernest Crichlow, Corrine Jennings, Allegra Ockler, Sandy Ray, Julia Lisowski and Pamela Scherch We would also like to express our appreciation to the Gallery Association of New York State for its collaboration and assistance in organizing the show and making it available to other institutions. Kelly Fiske and David Ferguson were especially helpful, and Molly Sullivan of our own staff did a heroic job of coordinating the unusually complex logistics of this project.

Finally, we would like to thank the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Robert Lehman Foundation, Inc., for the financial support that made this exhibition possible. The education programs that enrich our audience's understanding of the exhibition ore supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Aaron Diamond Foundation, the Chase Manhattan Bank, Chemical Bank Inc., and private contributions.

Nina Castelli Sundell
Director, Lehman College Art Gallery

 

Works in the Exhibition

 

 
CHARLES ALSTON (1907-1977)
Who Likes War? or Justice at
Wartime
(n.d.)
Blockprint
7 1/4 x 6 3/18"
Schomburg Center for Research in
Black Culture, The New York Public
Library

Untitled (Barn Scene), c. 1940
Lithograph 11 1/2 x 16"
Unsigned, stamped: New York City
WPA Art Project. Schomburg Center
for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public
Library

Stud Poker, c. 1940
Lithograph
16 x 23"
Signed: Charles H. Alston
Schomburg Center for Research in
Black Culture, The New York Public
Library

ROBERT BLACKBURN (b. 1920)
Abandoned Coal Chute, 1938
Lithograph
16 1/2 x 17 3/4"
Collection of Ouida Lewis

Checker Game (Club Room), n.d.
Lithograph
15 3/4 x 20 5/8"
Collection of Riva Helfond

People in a Boat, n.d.
Lithograph, Artist Proof
15 3/8 x 19 7/9"
Collection of Riva Helfond

Roof Tops, n.d.
Lithograph, Artist Proof
18 7/8 x 14 1/4"
Collection of Riva Helfond

ELMER W. BROWN
(1909-1971)
Wrestlers, n.d.
Etching, ed. 16/25
7 1/2 x l0 l/2"
Cleveland Public Library, Fine Arts
and Special Collections Department

SAMUEL BROWN (b. 1907)
Abstract, n.d.
Lithograph
18 x 131/2" framed
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

Writing Lesson, n.d.
Lithograph
18 x 14" framed
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

Wash Girl and Lemonade Stand, n.d.
Lithograph
29 x 19" framed together
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

FRED CARLO (dates unknown)
Untitled (Tugboat in Harbor), c. 1940
Color blockprint
11 3/8 x 9 3/8"
Signed: Fred Carlo
Schomburg Center for Research in
Black Culture, The New York Public
Library

Untitled (Head of a Young Boy),
c. 1940
Linocut
11 3/8 x 9 3/8"
Signed: Fred Carlo
Schomburg Center for Research in
Black Culture, The New York Public
Library

CLAUDE CLARK (b. 1915)
Time Out, n.d.
Etching
11 x 13 1/2"
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

In the Groove (1 st copy), n.d.
Lithograph
9 1/4 x 11"
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

Boogie Woogie, n.d.
Lithograph
10 1/4 x 11 5/8"
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

Refuse, n.d.
Lithograph
16 1/8 x 11 1/2"
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

ERNEST CRICHLOW (b. 1914)
Lovers, 1938
Lithograph, ed. 23/30
15 x 31 3/4" Paper
Collection of the artist

RIVA HELFOND
Liberty Street Ferry, n.d.
Lithograph, ed. 23/30
151/8 x 20"
Collection of the artist

In the Shaft, 1936
Color lithograph, ed. 21/24
16 x 19"
Collection of the artist.

WILMER JENNINGS (b. 1910)
Still Life with Fetish, 1938
Wood engraving
17 x 21" framed
Courtesy Kenkeleba Gallery

BOAT STATION, 1939
Wood engraving
21 x 17" framed
Courtesy Kenkeleba Gallery

SARGENT JOHNSON (1882-1967)
Dorothy, c. 1938
Lithograph
14 1/8 x 8" image
The Baltimore Museum of Art, on deposit from
the United States General Services Administration.

WILLIAM HENRY JOHNSON (1901-1971)
Folk Family, n.d.
Serigraph and tempera
15 5/8 x 10 3/4" image
National Museum of American Art,
Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Mrs.
Douglas E. Younger

Ezakiel Saw the Wheel, n.d.
Serigraph and tempera
15 1/4 x 10" image
National Museum of American Art,
Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Mrs.
Douglas E. Younger

Off to War, n.d.
Serigraph and tempera
13 1/4 x 17 1/8" image
National Museum of American Art,
Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Mrs.
Douglas E. Younger

 

RONALD JOSEPH (b. 1910)
Graphic Workshop, 1935-37
Lithograph, Artist Proof
14 1/8 x16 1/4"
Collection of Riva Helfond

Bob Blackburn, 1935-37
Lithograph
20 x 15"
Collection of Riva Helfond

Under the Elevator (sic Elevated),1935-37
Lithograph
15 5/8 x 20 3/4"
Collection of Riva Helfond

NORMAN LEWIS (1909-1979)
Musicians, c. 1938
Lithograph
20 1/4 x 13"
Collection of Ouida Lewis

Poll Tax, c. 1938
Lithograph
20 1/8 x 10 3/4"
Collection of Ouida Lewis

Untitled Group, c. 1940
Lithograph
10 3/8 x 12 1/4"
Collection of Ouida Lewis

We Are Americans Too, c. 1938
Lithograph
18 x 11"
Collection of Ouida Lewis

RICHARD LINDSEY (b. 1904)
Colonial Park, c. 1940
Lithograph
16 x 23"
Schomburg Center for Research in
Black Culture, The New York Public
Library

CHARLES L. SALLEE, JR. (b. 1913)
Bertha, n.d.
Etching/aquatint
13 x 10""
Cleveland Public Library, Fine Arts
and Special Collections Department

Emmetta, n.d.
Etching 10 x 8"
Cleveland Public Library, Fine Arts
and Special Collections Department

Swingtime, n.d.
Etching/aquatint
10 x 13"
Cleveland Public Library, Fine Arts
and Special Collections Department

HUGHIE LEE-SMITH (b. 1915)
Artist Life # 1, 1939
Lithograph 13 x 10"
Cleveland Public Library, Fine Arts
and Special Collections Department

Artist Life #3, 1939
Lithograph
10 x 12"
Cleveland Public Library, Fine Arts
and Special Collections Department

RAYMOND STETH (b. 1918)
Apostolic, n.d.
Lithograph
9 1/4 x 14 1/4"
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

Beacons of Defense, n.d.
Lithograph
18 7/8 x 25 1 /8"
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

Evolution of Swing, n.d.
Lithograph
16 1/8 x 20 1/4"
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

Heaven on a Mule, n.d.
Lithograph
15 1/4 x 12" approx.
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

I Am an American, n.d.
Lithograph
11 1/2 x 12 3/4"
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

DOX THRASH (1893-1965)
Abraham, n.d.
"Carbograph" (Carborundum mezzotint)
10 1/2 x 8"
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

Cabin Days, n.d.
"Carbograph" (Carborundum mezzotint)
13 3/4 x 11 1/2"
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

The Champ, n.d.
Carborundum print, signed lower right
14 x 11 3/4" framed
Collection of Richard Clarke

Charlott, n.d.
"Carbograph" (Carborundum mezzotint)
11 3/8 x 9 3/8"
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

Sunday Morning, n.d.
"Carbograph" (Carborundum mezzotint)
12 3/4 x 10 3/4"
Free Library of Philadelphia,
Print and Picture Department

Whiskers, n.d.
"Carbograph" (Carborundum mezzotint)
11 1/2 x 9"
Free Library of Philadelphia, Print and Picture Department

HALE WOODRUFF (1900-1980)
Shanty Town, c. 1939
Woodcut, signed lower right 19 1/4 x 15 1/8" framed
Collection of Richard Clarke

Trusty on a Mule, 1939
Woodcut, signed lower right 14 3/4" x 18"
Collection of Richard Clarke

 

 

LENDERS TO THE EXHIBITION
The Baltimore Museum of Art
Richard Clarke
Cleveland Public Library, Fine Arts and Special Collections
Department
Ernest Crichlow
Free Library of Philadelphia, Print and Picture Department
Riva Helfond
Kenkeleba Gallery
Ouida Lewis
National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,
The New York Public Library