Printmaking Offers Artists New Avenue of Exploration

By Sura Wood

The Museum of the African Diaspora showcases abstract prints by 15 esteemed artists.

 Printmaking has become a vital tool for contemporary artists. This Old World art form—which relies on low-tech, tactile processes dating back to the 1500s—offers artists an invaluable opportunity to experiment outside their practice by exploring new avenues that build on and relate to their primary mediums. “Second Look, Twice: Selections from the Collections of the Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation,” opening this month at the Museum of the African Diaspora, brings together 15 revered artists of African descent whose abstract prints are both different from and similar to the oeuvre for which they’re best known.

For example, one can discern a direct line between the patchwork patterning and bright colors of the quilts sewn by renowned Gee’s Bend quilters Louisiana Bendolph and Loretta Bennett, and their color aquatint etchings that are on view here. Born and raised in rural Boykin, Alabama, they, along with other Gee’s Bend women, were invited to Paulson Fontaine Press in Berkeley to make prints inspired by their bold, improvisational quilt designs. The abstract aesthetics of Bendolph’s quilts easily transfer from fabric to paper as do Bennett’s dynamic, contrasting colors and irregular shapes.

Washington, D.C.-based painter Sam Gilliam, Jr.’s so-called quilted paintings from the 1980s, in which he cut geometric forms from paint-encrusted canvases and rearranged them on other surfaces in patterns recalling the African American patchwork quilts of his Kentucky childhood, bear the closest relationship to his later efforts in printmaking. “Snow Lane # 33 (1996), a digital relief print exhibited here, with the uneven borders of cut cloth, is a busy intersection of effusive colors and shapes raked with an acrylic gel, while “Oval II” (2007), one of two large curved digital reliefs on wood veneer, is similarly painted over with a layer of acrylic that adds texture and dimension.

“A lot of these artists found recognition and success before they went into printmaking,” comments exhibition co-curator Emily Kuhlmann. “Making prints is a way for them to free up and play, and to collaborate with other people. Painting and sculpture can be so solitary, but in printmaking they can work with a team of experts in achieving a color or certain patterning, and a workshop that supports their work. They don’t have as much control, but the mechanisms and mystery of the process intrigue them.”

 “Sunday Afternoon” (2000), an austere, charcoal-toned etching on pulp-stenciled, hand-made paper by the late Robert Blackburn, is exhibited at the entry to the show. Known as “the printmaker’s printmaker,” Blackburn was a pivotal African American figure in the field. In New York, he founded the Printmaking Workshop, an informal cooperative where anyone could walk in and access the presses and materials. Between 1948 and 2001 it was a bustling hub and resource center for generations of aspiring artists and students of color. Growing up in Harlem and exposed to the intellectual and artistic vitality of the Harlem Renaissance and European abstraction, Blackburn became a master printer in his own right. His experimental ventures into color lithography, prior to the print boom in the early 1960s, influenced forms later adopted by better known practitioners; in 1957, he became the first master printer at the esteemed Universal Limited Art Editions (UAE), where he assisted a roster of prominent modern artists, including Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, among others. Though none of the works in the exhibition other than his own are products of the workshop, Blackburn’s presence provides a context for black artistic practice, and for his workshop’s outstanding contribution to contemporary printmaking, which included shows that toured the country and impacted the budding creators who saw them. “His legacy,” says Kuhlmann, “definitely impacted the accessibility of the medium, especially for African American artists.”

A beneficiary of that legacy is New Jersey artist Willie Cole, who has been dubbed “the magician of the mundane” for his use of found materials and discarded consumer items in his assemblage sculptures. Challenging traditional printmaking techniques, he replaced standard printing plates with thrift shop ironing boards, which he dismantled, flattened with a hammer and repeatedly ran over with cars, trucks and skateboards until they could be inked and passed through the printing presses. The unusual approach produced “Dot” and “Fannie Mae,” two huge works here from his 2012 series “Five Beauties Rising,” which examines the history of black women in domestic servitude. The resulting prints, each named after female family members or ancestors who worked as housekeepers, retain the original shape of the ironing boards, which bear the gouges and scars of their tortured journey.

In 2000, American sculptor Martin Puryear was invited by San Francisco’s Arion Press to illustrate a limited edition reprint of “Cane,” Jean Toomer’s 1922 novel of the black experience that is regarded as a literary masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance. Five of Puryear’s woodcut prints, including playful abstract responses to the book’s female characters, are on display. “I had to invent a visual language for these characters that I was totally unaccustomed to,” Puryear told the San Francisco Chronicle. The images he created, he said, took him “in seven different directions, each the work of a different artist.”

Mickalene Thomas, who takes some of her images directly from “The Practical Encyclopedia of Good Decorating and Home Improvement,” injects a jazzy nonchalance and a hip, distinctly 1970s vibe into the colorful, cluttered interiors depicted in both her paintings and architectural, digital collages including the woodblock, silkscreen print “Interior: Blue Couch and Green Owl” (2016). Even more elaborate is her disco-era piece, “Zebra with Two Chairs and Funky Fur” (2014), where Thomas incorporated a dizzying array of materials and techniques from intaglio, lithography and enamel paint to gold leaf and colored pencil.

Though the vibrant works featured in the show stand on their own, they also give visitors refreshing new perspectives on familiar artists they thought they knew.

Sept. 19-Dec.16

685 Mission St., San Francisco