Creative Space: Fifty Years of Robert Blackburn's Printmaking Workshop
Milieu: The Harlem Community Art Center and the WPA
During his youth, Robert Blackburn was mentored and shaped by Harlem Renaissance artists including Charles “Spinky” Alston, Augusta Savage, and James Lesesne Wells. From age thirteen, he created and studied art at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library and the Harlem YMCA. At DeWitt Clinton High School, he contributed artwork, stories, and poetry to the school's literary magazine, The Magpie. He also participated in the Harlem Arts Workshop, the Uptown Art Laboratory, and the Harlem arts salon known as “306.” Lithography classes offered at the WPA-sponsored Harlem Community Art Center introduced him to the art of printmaking.
The center, initiated by Savage and artist and writer, Gwendolyn Bennett, became a model for Blackburn's own workshop years later. Among his colleagues at this time were artists Romare Bearden, Ernest Crichlow, Roy DeCarava, and Jacob Lawrence. Also key to his artistic development were his lithography teacher, Riva Helfond, and his friend, the artist Ronald Joseph. Blackburn's drawings and lithographs from this period won national acclaim in exhibitions from Chicago to New York and were cited and praised by such art critics as Alain Locke and James Porter.
Robert Blackburn absorbed the lessons of the Mexican muralists through his teacher Charles Alston (1907–1977), who met Diego Rivera (1866–1957) in 1933 at Rockefeller Center. Man with Load reprises a “burden carriers” theme that also appeared in Rivera's works. Many of Blackburn's early drawings draw on the conventions of monumentalism found in Mexican mural painting, as well as social realist iconography. This drawing came to the Library from the Harmon Foundation, a New York-based sponsor of African American artists.
Born in the British West Indies, Ronald Joseph moved to New York at the age of thirteen. During the 1930s he studied printmaking along with Robert Blackburn under Riva Helfond at the Harlem Art Center, where Joseph also later taught. He worked in the mural section of the WPA and was a representative of the Harlem Artists' Guild to the New York Worlds Fair (1939–1940). By 1943, prominent art critic James Porter considered him the 'foremost Negro abstractionist painter' in New York.
Ernest Crichlow went to Harlem around 1932 to work with artist Augusta Savage. Crichlow met Blackburn both at Savage's Uptown Art Laboratory and at the Harlem Community Art Center. He founded the Cinque Gallery with Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis and still lives and works in Brooklyn. Lovers can be seen as part of the targeted activism against racism on the part of the Harlem artists of this time.
Early in his career, Hale Woodruff studied painting at the the Art Institute of Chicago and drew political cartoons for The Indianapolis Ledger. In 1925, his work won the Spingarn Competition sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Crisis magazine, inspiring, the magazine's editor, W.E.B. Du Bois to commission from him future cover designs. In 1931, Woodruff accepted a position at Atlanta University, where he founded the first art department and taught for fourteen years. By Parties Unknown, a powerful indictment against lynching, is from a series of woodblock prints about the American South.
Master photographer Roy DeCarava studied at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York and the Harlem Community Art Center. He recalls: “Now, the Harlem Art Center was a wonderful place. That's where I met all the young artists . . . Paul Robeson had an office there, and Langston Hughes was a familiar presence.” During this period, Blackburn and DeCarava first met and shared artistic circles. It was also at this time that DeCarava joined the WPA, where he learned silkscreen printing. By the end of the 1940s he had stopped making prints to focus on photography.