Leonard Baskin, who first gained recognition for his monumental woodcuts in the 1950s, enjoyed an artistic career that spanned the better part of the twentieth century and encompassed major accomplishments as a sculptor, printmaker, illustrator and book-maker. This admirable plurality of talents has, however, made it difficult for the public to get a cohesive sense of Baskin’s artistic achievement. Not only did he pursue a multiplicity of art forms with equal dedication and vigor, but he also created discrete cycles and series that tended to be exhibited or published as self-contained units.
A sculpture demonstration at Macy's proved a turning point for Baskin when he was fourteen years old. The boy returned home with five pounds of plasticine clay and the notion that he would become a sculptor. Over the course of his decades-long career, Baskin would earn the distinction he sought as a teenager. Numbered among his works are sculpture commissions for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Holocaust Memorial in Ann Arbor, Michigan. However, concurrent accomplishments as a printmaker, typographer and printer complicate the task of assigning Baskin to any one neatly-defined niche.
Each of Baskin's works reveals an artist in possession of enormous visual and literary vocabularies. The pluralistic nature of his abilities is echoed in wide-ranging (and often recurring) subjects. Baskin's attraction to Old Testament themes perhaps comes as no surprise, considering that he was the son of an orthodox rabbi. However, Greek mythological personages, predatory birds, Native Americans and figures of death and the dead also number among Baskin's considerable cast of characters. Social consciousness and a high regard for humanity connect the numerous and apparently diverse artworks that comprise Baskin's oeuvre.
The second of Rabbi Samuel and wife May Guss Baskin's three children, Leonard Baskin was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on August 15, 1922. The family relocated to Brooklyn, New York, when Leonard was seven years of age. From this time, he studied at yeshiva, until his father permitted him to transfer to a public high school at age sixteen. After becoming enamored of sculpture, Baskin took on extracurricular artistic studies at Manhattan's Educational Alliance under Maurice Glickman, who arranged the boy's first exhibition in 1939.
Baskin attended the Yale University School of Fine Arts on scholarship. While at Yale, he began printing and founded The Gehenna Press, which over the course of his lifetime issued over a hundred finely printed books of textual and artistic importance. Following three years of service in the United States Navy, Baskin traveled to France and Italy to study art under the GI Bill. In the 1950s, he began to receive recognition for his monumental woodcuts, the first of their size executed by any modern artist.
Between 1953 and 1974, Baskin taught art at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. It was here, in 1958, that he made the acquaintance of British poet Ted Hughes, with whom he forged a lifelong friendship and collaborated on some thirty books. In 1974, the artist moved with his family to Lurley, in Devon, England, which brought him into closer proximity to Hughes. The two had a special creative synergy: image-inspired poem, and poem-inspired image. In 1983, Baskin returned with his family to the United States, and he became a Visiting Professor of Printmaking at Hampshire College in Leeds, Massachusetts. Baskin died in Northampton in 2000.
Baskin was at odds with the dominant artistic trends of his time. He abhorred Abstract Expressionism, the devaluation of figural humanism and the practice of specialization. As a lecturer, writer, and public figure, Baskin verbalized his contrarian opinions, consciously separating himself from those who differed with his beliefs, yet never alienating himself from a sizable devoted public.
Photographic Portrait of Leonard Baskin: © Noel Chanan
1922 Born August 15, New Brunswick, New Jersey
1929 Family moves to Brooklyn, NY; Begins studies at Yeshiva
1937 Seward Park High School
1937-39 Student of Maurice Glickman, Educational Alliance, N.Y.
1939 First exhibition of sculpture, Glickman Studio Gallery, N.Y.
1939-41 Attends New York University School of Architecture & Allied Arts
1940 Prix de Rome, Honorable Mention for Sculpture; Exhibits sculpture,
New York University School of Architecture & Allied Arts
1941-43 Yale University School of Fine Arts, New Haven, Connecticut
1942 Founds The Gehenna Press while a student at Yale University
1943-46 Serves in the United States Navy
1946 Marries Esther Tane
1947 Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Fellowship for Sculpture
1949 B.A., New School for Social Research, New York
1950 Académie de la Grande Chaumière, Paris, France
1951 Accademia di Belle Arte, Florence, Italy;
First exhibition of prints, Galleria Numero, Florence, Italy
1952 Instructor, Printmaking, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester,
Massachusetts; First exhibition of work at Boris Mirski Gallery,
Boston, MA; Print Club of Philadelphia, Purchase Prize;
Library of Congress, Washington D. C. Purchase Prize
1953 Brooklyn Museum Print Annual, Purchase Prize;
1953-74 Professor of Art, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts
1954 First exhibition of drawings and sculpture at Grace Borgenicht Gallery,
N.Y. ; Japanese National Museum of Tokyo, Ohara Museum Prize
1957 Son Tobias born
1961 American Academy of Arts and Letters, Academy Award for Art;
Art Institute of Chicago, Alonzo C. Mather Prize;
São Paulo Bienal, Best Foreign Engraver
1963 Elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters
1964 Begins living with Lisa Unger
1965 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Widener Medal;
American Institute of Graphic Arts, Special Medal of Merit
1966 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, New School for Social Research, N.Y.;
Honorary Doctor of Humane Laws, Clark University, Worcester, MA
1967 Divorced from Esther Tane, marries Lisa Unger;
Honorary Doctor of Humane Laws, Rutgers University,
New Brunswick, N.J.
1968 Son Hosea born; Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts,
University of Massachusetts, Amherst MA
1969 XXXIV International Biennial Exhibition of Art, Venice, Italy;
The American Academy of Arts and Letters,
Gold Medal for Graphic Arts
1970 Exhibition at the National Collection of Fine Arts,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
1973 Lives in London, at Hamilton Terrace, purchases Lurley Manor;
Skowhegan Gold Medal for Graphics
1974 Daughter Lucretia born; Moves to Lurley, Devon, England
1978 Elected to the Royal Academy, Belgium
1979 Reactivation of The Gehenna Press at Lurley Manor, Devon, England
1983 Returns to the United States, Leeds, Massachusetts
1984 Retrospective Exhibition, Albertina Museum, Vienna, Austria
1984-94 Professor of Art, Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts
1985 Elected to the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, Florence, Italy;
Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, Portland School of Art, Portland, ME
1986 Elected Associate, National Academy of Design
1987 Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, University of Judaism,
Los Angeles, CA
1988 Sculpture Medal, National Academy of Design
1989 Gold Medal, National Academy of Design
1992 The Gehenna Press: Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition
1994 Cultural Achievement Award, National Foundation for Jewish Culture;
Holocaust Memorial, Ann Arbor, Michigan
1997 Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, DC.
1998 Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Spertus Institute, Chicago, ILL;
Woodrow Wilson Memorial, Woodrow Wilson Foundation,
2000 Dies 3 June, Northampton, Massachusetts