Printmakers You Should Know: Robert Blackburn

Today we're going to take a look at the founder of New York's seminal Printmaking Workshop, Robert Blackburn (1920-2003).

Image courtesy of
Blackburn grew up in Harlem during the Great Depression. His first experiences with printmaking took place during that late 1930s at the Harlem Community Art Center, one of the many federal art centers operated through the WPA (with RMAC itself being another example). Blackburn would study under several artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance and the WPA, including Jacob Lawrence, Augusta Savage, and Charles Alston. He would then go on to attend the Art Students League, with Will Barnet being a particularly influential teacher and friend. Barnet encouraged Blackburn's interest in printmaking, despite it not being the most popular of artistic mediums at the time.

Blackburn teaching. Image courtesy of
In 1948, Blackburn opened what would become known as the Printmaking Workshop in Manhattan. Specializing in lithography, Blackburn became a master printer in the medium, and was particularly skilled with printing complex lithographs that required multiple stones and colors. In the early 1950s, for example, he printed an edition of prints with Will Barnet that used 17 different colors, an extraordinary number of stones for what had been up to that time a predominantly black-and-white medium. From 1957-1963, he also served as the first master printer at Universal Limited Art Editions, collaborating on editions with the likes of Larry RiversHelen FrankenthalerJasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. He also taught at Brooklyn College, Cooper Union at NYU from 1970-1990.

Blackburn working with Robert Rauschenberg, 1962. Image courtesy of
Blackburn encouraged an atmosphere of generosity and diversity in his working environments. As a result, the Printing Workshop was a particularly creative and vibrant place to work, and would play a seminal role in the lithography revival of the 1960s. He was especially supportive of minority artists and artists from third-world countries; Leonara Carrington, Faith Wilding, and Roy DeCarava were just some of the many artists who worked with him over the course of his printing career. Blackburn was also generous when it came to finances, waiving fees or offering money to artists to ensure their editions were printed. Such generosity also meant that the workshop often experienced financial difficulties, even after becoming incorporated as a nonprofit in 1971. The Printing Workshop closed in 2001, but with funding from the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, the Robert Blackburn Printing Workshop opened in 2005, where you can take classes today.

Helen Frankenthaler, Brown Moons, 1961, color lithograph printed by Robert Blackburn, image courtesy of
As an artist, Blackburn moved increasingly from representation to abstraction. Early works such as Refugees (Five Men in a Boat) reflect the Social Realist aesthetic that predominated WPA artwork.

Robert Blackburn, Refugees, ca. 1938, lithograph, image courtesy of
Between the 1950s and 1970s, Blackburn created several abstract lithographs of still lifes and other compositions, pushing the limits of the medium through the use of multiple colors and stones. Influenced by interactions with Jasper Johns and other abstract artists at ULAE, Blackburn incorporated their explorations of line and color into his own work, creating prints that are technically masterful while conveying the spontaneity of painting. During the 1970s, Blackburn focused increasingly on woodblock printing, intaglio and monotyping.

Robert Blackburn, Girl in Red, 1950, color lithograph, image courtesy of

Robert Blackburn, Faux Pas, 1960, color lithograph. Image courtesy of

Robert Blackburn, Color Symphony, 1960, color lithograph, image courtesy of

Throughout his career, Blackburn was a generous artist, teacher, and master printer. He would help instigate a revival in lithography as a creative medium, and his Printing Workshop would help set a paradigm for New Mexico's own Tamarind Institute as well as other lithography studios around the country. He would work with some of the most seminal artists of the twentieth century, all while remaining committed to diversity and inclusion. He is definitely a printmaker you should know.

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