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Blackburn, Robert

Blackburn, Robert

December 10, 1920
April 21, 2003

The lithographer and teacher Robert Hamilton Blackburn was born to Jamaican parents in Summit, New Jersey, in 1920 and moved to Harlem in 1926. He took art classes at P.S. 139 in Harlem under the instruction of Works Project Administration (WPA)-sponsored teachers Rex Gorleigh and Zell Ingram. In 1935 he studied at the Harlem Community Arts Center and joined the Uptown Community Workshop. In 1941 he received a scholarship at the Art Students League and apprenticed in the studio of printmaker Will Barnet (19411943).

In 1948 Blackburn opened his own studio, the Printing Workshop, on 17th Street in New York City, offering evening classes and space for artists to operate printing presses. He created a collaborative relationship between the artist and lithographer so that printing became part of the artistic process. He remained involved with the workshop for over forty years, teaching printmaking and creating his own prints. Artists who used the facility included Romas Viesulas, Clare Romano, Sue Fuller, and Chaim Koppelman.

While teaching at the workshop, Blackburn was also an instructor at the National Academy of Design (1949), the New School for Social Research (19501951), Cooper Union (19651971), the School of Visual Arts (19671971), and at the Painting and Sculpture Division of Columbia University's School of the Arts (19701991). He exhibited at community galleries and in larger venues, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina.

In 1957 Blackburn became the master printer for Tatyana Grosman's Universal Limited Art Editions, a printing house that operated from Grosman's living room in West Islip, Long Island, in New York State. While at Universal, Blackburn was the lithographer of choice for many artists of the New York School, including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. He also printed works by many black artists, including Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff.

In 1971, the Printing Workshop was incorporated as a nonprofit organization and began teaching lithography in economically disadvantaged communities. Some of Blackburn's own prints include "Girl in Red" (1951), "Strange Objects" (1959), and "What Is Apartheid" (1984). Blackburn died in 2003 at the age of eighty-two.

See also Art; Bearden, Romare; Woodruff, Hale Aspacio


Art in Print: A Tribute to Robert Blackburn. New York: New York Public Library, 1984.

Gaither, Edmund "Barry." "Millenium Portrait: Robert Blackburn." American Visions 15, no. 1 (February 2000): 22.

Jemisin, Noah. Bob Blackburn's Printmaking Workshop. New York: The Workshop, 1992.

Robert Blackburn: A Life's Work (exhibition catalog). New York: Alternative Museum, 1988.

renee newman (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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Blackburn, Robert 1920–

Robert Blackburn 1920


Flourished in Harlems Workshops

Founded Printmaking Workshop

Contributions to Others Outshone His Own Art


Writer Dulcie Leimbach of the New York Times called print-maker Robert Blackburn a mix of artist, teacher, and visionary and wrote that there was nothing quite like Blackburns Printmaking Workshop. Having benefitted as a boy from several of the Work Projects Administrations (W.PA.) artist workshops, Blackburn was inspired to build a place where artists could flourish. An accomplished lithographer and teacher, Blackburns greatest accomplishment was the longevity and community of the Printmaking Workshop, which was open to all artists who wanted to learn and practice the art of printmaking.

Robert Hamilton Blackburn was born in 1920 in Summit, New Jersey, to Jamaican parents. He began his public school education when his family moved to Harlem in 1926. He was 13 when he took his first formal art class, which was sponsored by the W.P.A., which made it possible for black artists to work during the Great Depression. From 1935 to 1939, Blackburn studied at the Harlem Community Art Centeranother W.P.A. projectand apprenticed with artist Riva Helfond, who introduced him in the process of lithography.

In lithography, the artist draws on a stone, which is then wetted, inked, and, along with a sheet of paper, passed through a press. From Helfond, Blackburn learned the entire processhow to operate the press, process and prepare stones, and make prints. Helfend later remembered trying to help build Blackburns belief in himself. He was the youngest in the class, but he looked after people, she told the New York Times. He was self-conscious, lacked confidence. I worked on that.

Though his parents did not encourage their sons interest in art, Blackburn found support in the Harlem community, which, in the face of the Depression, remained somewhat empowered after the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. His years spent in Harlem artist workshops would later influence Blackburns commitment to his own workshop community.

Flourished in Harlems Workshops

In her book Through a Master Printer: Robert Blackburn and the Printmaking Workshop, art historian Nina Parris noted that Blackburns art education also

At a Glance

Born Robert Hamilton Blackburn in Summit, NJ, in 1920, to Jamaican parents. Education: Harlem Community Art Center, 1935-39; Art Students League, 1940-43; Wallace Harrison School, 1950-52; Jacques Desjobert Workshop, Paris, 1953.

Career: Creative Graphic Workshop (renamed the Printmaking Workshop c. 1963), founder, 1948-; Cooper Union Art School, teacher, 1949-67; New School for Social Research, teacher, 1950; Universal Limited Art Editions, master printer, 1957-62; New York University, teacher, 1965-71; School of Visual Arts, teacher, 1967-71; Columbia University, teacher, 1970-90.

Awards: Purchase Award, Library of Congress, 1950; Purchase Award, Brooklyn Museum, 1951; MacArthur Award, 1992; Printer Emeritus Award, Southern Graphics Council, 1993; J. Eugene Grigsby Award, National Arts Education Association, 1993; and five honorary doctorate degrees.

Address: Office Printmaking Workshop, 19 W. 24th St., 9th Floor, New York, NY, 10010-3203.

exposed him to the first generation of 20th-century African-American artists.At the Harlem Community Art Center and Uptown Community Workshop, Blackburn and his fellow students were taught by faculty artists Norman Lewis, Augusta Savage, Selma Burke, and Gwendolyn Bennett. Blackburn benefited from the master-pupil relationships between older and emerging African-American artists, wrote Edmund Barry Gaither in American Visions.

That was one of the most meaningful periods for me, Blackburn told JoAnn Whatley in ABA: A Journal of Affairs of Black Artists. Blackburn was the youngest student, and was like the mascot around the various workshops. He also was the errand boy, and often was sent by the older students to run down to Father Divines and buy cheap soul food, he said. The workshops promoted an atmosphere that was open to visits from the likes of artist Romare Bearden, writer Richard Wright, and dancer Ed Bates. It was a very interesting group atmosphere, Blackburn added.

Blackburn continued to study art after he won a scholarship to attend the Art Students League (A.S.L.), a top-ranked training ground for New York artists. He was one of a select few black students at the school. He studied painting with Vaclav Vytlacil and lithography with Will Barnet, with whom he would develop a lifelong friendship. Blackburns natural bent toward lithography became evident to Barnet quickly. Bob always felt the richness of the stones, the grains, Barnet told the New York Times. He got those wonderful blacks.

Founded Printmaking Workshop

Though he was distinguishing himself as a talented lithographer, Blackburn still yearned to work with many types of artists. Once out of school, he had no studio in which to work and so opened his own studio in 1948. The Creative Graphic Workshop, later renamed the Printmaking Workshop, specialized in lithographic printing. Blackburns studio was open to artists from all over the world to teach classes, or just stop by, and Barnet was heavily involved. His achievement is making printmaking so accessible to people, David Kiehl, the curator of prints at the Whitney Museum of American Art, told the Neu; York Times. His workshop was not segregated.

By 1949, the National Academy of Design had designated Blackburn a master printer. In 1953, he earned a fellowship to study art in Paris. It gave me a chance to get out of Harlem, Blackburn told American Visions. It gave me a breath of air. I realized that there were other possibilities for blacks. From 1957 to 1962, he was the master printer at Universal Limited Art Editions, a noted workshop on Long Island, where he printed the works of such notable artists as Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, and Helen Frankenthaler.

With Barnets help, Blackburn also had a prolific teaching career. Barnets intervention helped Blackburn obtain teaching positions otherwise denied to African Americans. Blackburn taught at Cooper Union Art School, the New School for Social Research, New York University, the School of Visual Arts, and Columbia University. He lived modestly and much of his teaching salary went back into the workshop, which was always strained by limited financial resources. The workshop did not pay for itself, Blackburn told American Visions, so I had to pay the rent and I had to support myself. I never figured that I would support myself through the workshop.

Contributions to Others Outshone His Own Art

His own work was never seen as groundbreaking, but Blackburn was still considered an important artist and has been part of numerous exhibitions. His prints, such as Boy with Green Head (1948), Blue Thing (1968) and Space Shape (1972), have been widely exhibited. Two major exhibitions of Blackburns work were Robert Blackburn: Inspiration and Innovation in American Printmaking at the Wilmer Jennings Gallery in New York City, in 1994, and Alone in the Crowd, which toured nationally. More important to him than his own work, however, was his vision for the workshop. He told the Neu; York Times that he finds time for his own prints a little here, a little there. When he does find the time, though, To watch him dust a plate is like watching a perfect action, writer Whatley noted in ABA, as precise and fine as the actions performed by a master watchmaker.

When he was not teaching, Blackburn could always be found at the Printmaking Workshop, and the studio always ran pretty much as Blackburn had intended. Artists of all types, not just printmakers, paid a nominal fee and took classes, watched demonstrations, or used the facilitys lithographic and etching presses, marble slabs, rollers, acid bath trays, grinding wheels, and other printmaking equipment. Gaither wrote, This atmosphere, burgeoning with activitythe encouragement and the sharing of ideas and technical knowledge, the scholarship, camaraderie and communicationwas just how Blackburn intended the workshop to operate.

In 1992, Blackburn was awarded the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation Award, worth #375, 000. Most of the award was used to support the workshop. The Printmaking Workshop moved to a less-expensive space in 1997. In 1998, PBS aired a documentary about Blackburn, called Lasting Impressions, to commemorate the Printmaking Workshops fiftieth anniversary.

Bob Blackburn has become a national treasure, Richard Mayhew, head of the Printmakers Workshop board of directors, told American Visions. He is an artist who gave up his own work in order to support everyone elses. Though he was one of a number of printmakers to emerge from the W.P.A., Blackburns contribution to black American art stands out. Being a black artist and person is a thing I try to do, he told the New York Times. Not talk about it, but to be it. I try to make sure that the Printmaking Workshop keeps that freshness and vision of the black experience.



American Visions, October-November 1992, p. 14; February 2000, p.22.

New York Times, February 8, 1998.

Brenna Sanchez

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