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ESSAYS AND ARTICLES

Leonard Baskin

LEONARD BASKIN

Proofs and Process

Toward the end of his lengthy career, Leonard Baskin (1922-2000) often encountered people who were surprised to learn that he was still alive. Perhaps these people associated him with the 1950s and '60s, the period when Baskin first achieved acclaim for monumental woodcuts that gave graphic voice to Cold-War-era anxieties. Some people may have been familiar with Baskin's portraits of Native Americans, which in the 1970s triggered a boom in Southwestern art. Bibliophiles would have known Baskin for his work with the Gehenna Press, which between 1942 and 2000 issued over 100 deluxe limited-edition books, combining original graphics (usually by Baskin) with elegant typography. Many probably thought of Baskin primarily in connection with his close friend and sometime collaborator, the British poet Ted Hughes, or more generally, as an illustrator of texts by such classical authors as Dante and Homer. And there were those who saw Baskin chiefly as a Jewish artist, a rabbi's son who regularly used the Old Testament as a moral touchstone. Last and far from least, Baskin had a huge following as a sculptor, with patrons ranging from the Vatican to the U.S. government.

 

Leonard Baskin's many faces have made it difficult for the public to get a cohesive sense of his artistic achievement. Baskin himself encouraged this situation, not only by pursuing a multiplicity of different art forms with equal dedication and vigor, but by creating discrete cycles and series that tended to be exhibited or published as self-contained units. Yet there was remarkable continuity over his sixty-year career. Baskin's themes are for the most part interrelated, one to the other and across the various mediums that he employed to address them. Our fragmented view of his achievement is not really intrinsic to the work itself, but rather to the way in which it has been presented and received over the decades. Each of the mediums that Baskin chose--printmaking, book making, book illustration and sculpture--allowed the artist to recruit and engage his public directly. Baskin presented his work piecemeal, cultivating a slightly different audience for each component part, because he felt shut out of the mainstream art world. At a time when abstract formalism reigned supreme, he remained firmly committed to figurative humanism. It is perhaps only today, in an art world open to a wealth of traditions from all ages and all parts of the globe, that we can begin to see Baskin's accomplishments whole.

 

Baskin's sense of himself as an outcast and rebel dated to his youth. His education at a rigorous Brooklyn yeshiva instilled in him a lifelong passion for intellectual inquiry, but the teachers' cruelty also taught him early on to question authority. Although his rabbi father was extremely learned, he had absolutely no awareness of art, and Leonard's older brother and younger sister poked fun at the middle sibling's unusual enthusiasms. Leonard's artistic epiphany came at the age of fourteen, when he saw a sculpture demonstration at Macy's. The boy brought home five pounds of plasticene clay, and his career as a sculptor was, so to speak, inaugurated. After finishing his yeshiva classes at 7 PM, Leonard would rush into Manhattan to take art courses at the Educational Alliance. When he was sixteen, his father allowed him to transfer from the yeshiva to a public high school, but Leonard seldom bothered to attend. His education from here on was willfully self-directed, cobbled together largely from long hours in libraries and museums. In later years, he would advise aspiring artists to apprentice themselves to an older colleague, and he himself found such a mentor in the sculptor Maurice Glickman, whom he met at the Educational Alliance. Baskin chafed at any more structured environment. He was nearly expelled from Yale, suffered disciplinary problems while serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and walked out of Osip Zadkine's studio in Paris, where he had gone to study on the G.I. Bill. Burning with talent and ideas, however ill-formed, Baskin resented being dictated to by elders less wise.

 

Baskin's commitment to social justice and his ancillary faith in the redemptive power of art also date to his youth. Having come of age during the Great Depression, he was acutely aware of the ubiquity of human suffering and the inequities produced by industrial capitalism. The Marxist politics and social realism then common in urban artistic circles melded with Baskin's grounding in Jewish thought to form the basis of a lifelong philosophy. "I burned with youth's ardency to create a better, a more equitable, a fairer world," he recalled, "and I used my art to express and to communicate that zeal." Then, as later, the human figure seemed the ideal vehicle for capturing what Baskin wished to express. Although he had a fling with Synthetic Cubism while enrolled in a WPA class during the 1930s, he never was seriously attracted to modernism's more abstract tendencies, and this aversion in Baskin became more pronounced as those tendencies became more rigidly enshrined in the years following World War II.

 

In the 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant American style--championed by an art-world elite looking to best European modernists at what had until then been their game, and by the U.S. government seeking to win hearts and minds in its struggle against international Communism. Unlike realism, which was tainted by its association with the leftwing politics of the 1930s, abstraction was ideologically neutral and therefore could be used by the government to promote democratic freedom. One of the principal architects of the theory that helped achieve the so-called triumph of American painting was the critic Clement Greenberg, who wrote for the CIA-supported Partisan Review. "Content is to be dissolved so completely into form that the work of art or literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself," Greenberg decreed in his seminal essay "Avant Garde and Kitsch." "Avant-garde culture is the imitation of imitating." Anything else--anything with recognizable content--was kitsch. To which Baskin replied: "Cant is what we must excise, not content." When Baskin declared, quoting the type designer Eric Gill, that "all art is propaganda," he had no idea how right he was. Few people realized that ostensibly content-free, abstract art was being used to fight the Cold War.

 

And so, Baskin's status as an outcast was confirmed, at least in his own mind. "I see myself very much embattled," he said, "very much isolated." Occasionally, he would meet a comrade-in-arms. The artist Rico Lebrun was one such, but he died prematurely, in 1964. Ben Shahn was another, though they eventually parted ways. By and large, however, Baskin found company in the community of ideas housed in his ever-expanding library. His closest colleagues were artists of the past, whom he revered and frequently memorialized in his art: Thomas Eakins, a similarly embattled realist; William Blake, because of his radical politics, his interest in book making and his facility for combining art with poetry; Käthe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach, for their shared appreciation of the tactile affinities between sculpting and printmaking; the German and Austrian Expressionists in general, for their humanistic values. Leonard Baskin picked his way through the paths blazed by these and other artists, gradually accumulating the creative wherewithal to give voice to his own unique vision.

 

By Baskin's own account, he first found his creative voice when he was in his thirties. Prior to that time, as he explained, "My interest was so profoundly engaged by the social weal that I was insensitive to the modalities of form and those formal attributes of monumentality that are the cardinal entities in the broadest definition of sculpture." Like the German artist Max Klinger (whose essay "Painting and Drawing" influenced numerous graphic artists, including Kollwitz), Baskin gradually discovered that printmaking was better suited than sculpture to the communication of social and political ideas. Not only did this free his sculptures from the cumbersome ideological burden they had been carrying, but it launched Baskin on a career as one of the most innovative and versatile printmakers of the twentieth century.

 

In 1952, Baskin began a series of monumental woodcuts, crudely piecing together boards of various sizes to get sheets as tall as 82 inches. He was the first artist outside the realm of commercial lithography to create such large prints in the modern era--starting a trend that found many followers in the 1960s and thereafter. Carved with the same verve as Baskin's sculptures, the monumental woodcuts were powerful commentaries on the state of humankind. The two best-known images in the series, Man of Peace and Hanged Man, trenchantly encapsulate the artist's ambivalent stance: the one an offering of hope tinged with hopelessness, the other a memorial to an anonymous figure who might be either a victim or a criminal.

 

During the 1950s, Baskin, who had been studying and traveling since he got out of the navy, settled in Massachusetts, where he found jobs teaching art, first in Worcester and then at Smith College in Northampton. In 1951, he revived the Gehenna press, which he had started as a student at Yale in 1942. "Gehenna" was a punning reference to Milton's Paradise Lost, wherein Gehenna is characterized as "the type of hell." Baskin loved books, which he passionately collected, not just for their contents, but for their visceral physical qualities. He appreciated beautiful fonts, elegantly composed pages, generous margins, sumptuous handmade paper and printerly craftsmanship as much as the original artwork that went into his Gehenna publications. Contained within a custom-made box or a luxurious but restrained binding, each publication was a perfect little universe unto itself.

 

In many respects, Baskin continued the tradition of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), which had been central to advanced artistic thought in early twentieth-century Austria and Germany. The idea of uniting disparate aesthetic components in a single coordinated expression was key to the Gehenna enterprise. Whether the task entailed mating images with text, or music to a libretto, the Austrian and German avant garde believed that neither element should be subordinate to the other, but rather that both should independently pursue the same goal. And this is how Baskin worked with his closest literary collaborator, Ted Hughes.

 

Like the founders of the Wiener Werkstätte design collective, who thought that if one were truly an artist one should excel in every craft, Baskin believed in being a "Jack of all trades and a master of all." This belief not only allowed him to oversee every aspect of the Gehenna productions, but to develop his creative ideas in disparate mediums.

 

Each medium brought its own specific characteristics to Baskin's subjects. Carving, modeling and drawing were the artist's favorite techniques, but he had a particular feeling for the indirect processes whereby a singular image is turned into a multiple. He was as comfortable with a burin or an etching needle as with a pen. Baskin pulled countless proofs of his prints, painting or penciling in corrections and adjusting the image, the inking, the color until they were exactly right. When, in 1980, he began making monotypes (more or less unique impressions pulled from painted plates), the resulting prints had a vibrancy and spontaneity far greater than that of many watercolors. Baskin rarely made preparatory studies; he preferred to work out his ideas by jumping from one medium to another. "I try to penetrate the hot essence of a theme by doing a series of drawings of it, or numbers of prints," he explained, "elaborating and finding nuances and discovering diversions and variations. . . . As the idea seems to be exhausted, I conceive of the theme anew, as a low bronze relief or as a large wood carving. The subject can thus be reinvigorated and reinvested with a set of new meanings."

 

Early on, Baskin's political ideas had been expelled from his sculpture into his prints, but the woodcuts gave these thoughts a graphic monumentality that was then reintroduced to the sculpture. So, for example, the "hanged man" became a leitmotif for the artist, reappearing across the span of his career not just in prints, but in watercolors, drawings and bronzes, large and small. Another recurrent motif was the raptor--the bird of prey--which for Baskin represented man's inherent predaciousness. It is clear from the penises on some of the birds that Baskin considered aggression a male attribute, just as his mourning mothers (much in the tradition of Kollwitz) reflect the reality that women are the most common victims of violence. Yet Baskin's views were hardly monolithic or unnuanced. One of his favorite mythological characters was Medea, the sorcerer who punished her unfaithful husband, Jason, by murdering their children. And the owl is not just a raptor, but the sibyl's familiar and an emblem of wisdom. Thus Baskin intertwined his own symbolic iconography with figures from literature, mythology and the Bible to explore humankind's existential predicament. Ambiguity was his forte, reflecting his conviction that we are all equally culpable for man's inhumanity to man, and likewise all its victims. Baskin believed in the possibility of redemption, and his art was at once a benediction and an act of atonement. "However debased, man . . . is marvelous," he wrote. "Freed from the gestures and manner of his destructive and coercive society, man is glorious."

 

Despite its sometimes grim subject matter, Baskin's art was essentially optimistic. He felt that the only way to triumph over the horrors of modern life was to address them directly. It was the denial of these realities in contemporary trends like abstraction and Pop Art that he found truly nihilistic. Although Baskin consciously bucked these trends, he experienced a considerable degree of professional success. Formalism did not conquer the art world overnight or completely, and for a time in the 1950s and early '60s, Baskin was broadly embraced. William Lieberman, then Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Museum of Modern Art and later head of the Department of Twentieth-Century Art at the Metropolitan Museum, was an early supporter. In 1959, MoMA included Baskin in its "New Images of Man" exhibition, and two years later, the museum's International Council sent a one-man show of his work abroad. The New York Times called Baskin "one of the best artists of his generation," and in 1964 he was the subject of a feature article in Life Magazine. Even as attitudes hardened against humanistic realism in the later '60s, Baskin was able to slip under the radar. This was partly due to his penchant for producing multiples, which could be marketed directly to the public with minimal art-world mediation, and partly because the mediums that interested him were considered relatively unimportant. The art-world's aesthetic battles were being waged chiefly in the realm of painting.

 

As Baskin approached the middle of his professional life in the early 1970s, he found himself in a strange predicament. On the one hand, he was increasingly embittered by the art-world's formalist preoccupations, which he saw as an abdication of moral responsibility. On the other hand, he was equally bothered by his own success, fearful of losing his youthful integrity of vision. In 1974, he gave up his teaching post at Smith and moved with his second wife, Lisa Unger, to England, purchasing a house in Devon near that of his friend Ted Hughes. Not only was Baskin thereby effectively insulated from the American art scene, but his work was warmly received in England, home to such artists as Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. In this congenial atmosphere, Baskin's creativity blossomed: he began to explore color in greater depth, and to broaden his explorations of the female persona, a subject that had not appeared in his work before he met Unger. A momentary dip in energy, documented in a haunting series of self-portraits, plagued the artist in the late 1970s, when he was suffering from an undiagnosed pituitary tumor. Neurosurgery in 1979 literally gave Baskin a new lease on life, and his productivity soared thereafter. In 1983, the Baskins returned to the United States, where the artist, now something of an elder statesmen, was feted with awards and exhibitions. Ironically, the U.S. government, which had once spurned his brand of social realism, became a major patron, commissioning a contribution to the Franklin Roosevelt memorial in Washington, D.C., and installing Baskin's Woodrow Wilson memorial in the Federal Triangle Building. Baskin died in Northampton, Massachusetts, in June 2000.

 

Leonard Baskin's career spanned most of the twentieth century, from the Depression through World War II to Vietnam and the first Iraq war. Baskin believed that it was his duty, as an artist, to reflect upon these dire events and the circumstances that had allowed them to occur. He believed that "the human figure is the image of all of us. It contains all and can express all." And he believed that a work of art must be both original and tied to tradition. Excluded from the dominant artistic trends of postwar America, Baskin sought his inspiration in the art of other times and places, and he honed his own vision. As we now know, the postwar attempt to define modernism exclusively in terms of rote formalism was simplistic and misguided, for the prewar Europeans did not wish to expunge art of all humanistic content, but rather to invent a new visual language suited to the realities of contemporary life. Just as art historians have recently been excavating modernism to its fullest depths, young artists today are interested in exploring all the many facets of art-historical tradition, including its once despised realist elements. In this, Leonard Baskin, out of sync with his times, is a role model for our own.

 

We would like to thank Lisa Unger Baskin for her generous help in organizing this exhibition: for her hospitality, her advice and for the many tireless hours spent reviewing and discussing her late husband's work. Where applicable, checklist entries are accompanied by references to the catalogue raisonnés, The Sculpture of Leonard Baskin by Irma B. Jaffe; The Complete Prints of Leonard Baskin by Alan Fern and Judith O'Sullivan; and The Gehenna Press: The Work of Fifty Years, 1942-1992 by Lisa, Hosea and Leonard Baskin. Image dimensions are given for the prints, full dimensions for the watercolors, drawings and monotypes.