Robert Hamilton Blackburn

Robert Hamilton Blackburn (1920-2003) was the leading lithographer of his generation. His artistic soul and evolutionary process is most apparent in this medium. Despite his innovative and virtuosic prints, however, art-history tends to neglect Blackburn’s oeuvre 1.

Blackburn grew up in Harlem’s artistic community, which at the time afforded Black artists significantly more opportunities than many places in the United States. There Blackburn participated in the Harlem Arts Workshop (HAW), the artistic salon “306”, the Arts and Crafts program at the Harlem YMCA, the federally funded Harlem Community Art Center (HCAC) and the Uptown Art Laboratory. He benefitted from the mentorship of  Charles Alston, Augusta Savage, and James Lesesne Wells and built an extensive professional network that included such well-known figures as Romare Bearden, Ernest Crichlow, Roy DeCarava, and Jacob Lawrence. A prolific artist even as a student, Blackburn won acclaim early in his career, receiving three top prizes at HCAC, as well as the John Wanamaker Medal in 1936 and the prestigious Spingarn Award in 1937. He earned praise from the mainstream (read: white) newspaper the New York Times as well as from the Black cultural critics Alain Locke and James Porter.

His most recognized legacy, however, is the Printmaking Workshop he opened with Will Barnet in the late 40s. Run as a cooperative, the workshop gave artists access to training, the space and technical support to experiment with printmaking processes, and it encouraged innovative approaches to a medium that was slowly gaining recognition and acceptance as a major art form. The Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop had a liberal structure that served as a welcoming hub to people of all backgrounds. It was always full of notable artists and students and had a major impact on American art.  The Workshop’s contributions extend to the preservation of Black arts. Many works on paper by Black artists currently in American art museums (including the Baltimore Museum of Art) are later prints that Blackburn prepared of his colleagues’ earlier work.

Blackburn often focused on the Workshop and its artists during interviews. He seemed almost reluctant at times to put forward his own art. This may explain, in part, why his art has not yet received the historical recognition it deserves. But Blackburn is a pivotal figure in the history of art on many grounds: for his community work, his advocacy for and support of people from diverse cultural backgrounds, and his creativity.

[1] For instance, Blackburn is not even mentioned in Riva Castleman’s Standard Print of the 20th Century.

 

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