PORTLAND, ME. – Twelve monumental woodcuts that Leonard Baskin (1922-2000) created between 1952 and 1963 comprise a provocative and powerful exhibition that will be on view at the Portland Museum of Art from September 21 through December 1. Although Baskin produced other large-scale prints, including a series of woodcuts memorializing the Holocaust, the focus in this exhibition is on his earlier prints which constitute an innovative breakthrough in American printmaking.
Monumental woodcuts – fashioned from multiple blocks joined together – were made as early as the Renaissance by artists such as Jacopo de’ Barbari, Hans Schäufelin, and Albrecht Dürer. The subjects were usually grand views, narrative compositions, or large ornamental structures. The works were, in a sense, the printmaking equivalent of a large, imposing painting. This form of printmaking went out of fashion by the end of the Sixteenth Century, and with the exception of lithographic posters that became a popular medium at the end of the Nineteenth Century, grand scale was not pursued by printmakers.
In 1952, Baskin, who had previously depicted full-size human figures in sculpture, decided to do the same in printmaking. The monumental woodcuts that followed were pieced together from multiple blocks as had been done traditionally, but in a break with tradition, Baskin then fused the blocks to create a single, united image. The ambition and audacity of this act was based on his experience as a sculptor. The palpable physicality of these prints relates to their creation: the blocks were cut with all the raw force and expression that went into fashioning his sculptures. Several hours of inking and hand rubbing were required to prepare the blocks for printing. The subject matter for these immense woodcuts was humanity in various guises of emotional conflict. Scale, complexity of design, emotional content, and the use of density of the color black, and occasionally deep red, are the hallmarks of this series.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, other artists, especially those associated with the Pop Art movement, began to investigate the possibilities of expanded size in printmaking. Artists as diverse as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, and Ellsworth Kelly created immense prints during this period. Since then, with the proliferation of presses throughout the United States, large-scale prints have become commonplace. Leonard Baskin, however, was first to make prints of this size, and his monuments of graphic art were a technical breakthrough and virtuoso artistic achievement.
Leonard Baskin was an independent, original, and controversial figure in American art. A renowned sculptor, printmaker, and book designer, Baskin followed his own vision. An artist whose work gravitated towards both the real and the imagined anxieties of our subconscious, he was a dark romantic in the American tradition of Edgar Allen Poe, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Hart Crace, and Rico Lebrun.
The Portland Museum of Art is at Seven Congress Square. For information, 207-773-ARTS or 800-639-4067, or www.portlandmuseum.org.