Master Printer: Robert Blackburn (1920–2003)

11.10.2022 – 06.11.2023

Mildred Sandall Scott Galleries

Eleven compositions of bold color and form by influential artist, master printer, and modernist Robert Blackburn are now on view in the first-floor gallery. This exhibition coincides with the long-running exhibition, The Montana Modernists: Shifting Perspectives. Blackburn, an internationally known artist, exhibited throughout the United States and worldwide. His work is held in the collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Howard University, and many others.

Blackburn had an interest in drawing at a young age and was mentored by the collaborative and innovative mileau of the Harlem Renaissance. Encouraged by his mother, he attended classes at the Harlem Art Center, funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA)– a meeting place for writers, artists, and dancers. There, Blackburn befriended fellow artists Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and was first introduced to lithography.

In 1941, Blackburn received scholarships to the Art Students’ League, where he studied painting and apprenticed in Will Barnet’s printmaking studio. In 1948, with Barnet’s help, The Printmaking Workshop was established. Located on 114 West 17th Street in New York City, the Workshop welcomed artists worldwide It became a lively, communal space, nurtured by Blackburn’s philosophy that “artists of all ages, colors and backgrounds could flourish together while developing themselves and the creative potential of the printmaking medium.” In 1949 he was designated a Master Printer by the National Academy of Design.

When the Abstract Expressionist Movement captured the imagination of the commercial gallery world in the 1950’s and ‘60s, printmakers had few real exhibition opportunities. The lithographic medium was so strongly associated with the social realist style of American art of the 1930’s and ‘40s that few galleries conceived of its potential as an expressive medium for this new movement. However, Blackburn, by following the formal boundaries of Cubism, found incredible flexibility in printmaking, leading him to discoveries about form, color, surface, ground, and figure. His still-lives and engraved collage compositions, created out of geometric forms, became translucent and opaque surfaces of color and shape.

After a fellowship in Paris from 1953-54, Blackburn, needing to earn additional income to support The Printmaking Workshop, worked as a master printer at the innovative Universal Limited Editions (ULAE) studio. There, he introduced American artists, often for the first time, to the potential of the lithographic medium, and printed editions for Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell, and Helen Frankenthaler, among others.

In 1962 Blackburn returned to The Printmaking Workshop full-time. His innovative, masterful expertise helped to define the overall aesthetic of the American “graphics boom.” Among his many awards are Skowhegan Governor’s Arts Award and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Award in 1992.