views updated May 11 2018


Historically, printmaking has fallen into the category of graphic arts, and includes relief printing, engraving, etching, aquatint, silkscreen printing, and lithography. Although the African forebears of African Americans had their own traditions of printed and/or multiple arts (as seen in the relief and resist textile-printing techniques of numerous West African peoples), there is no evidence that these printing traditions survived in the Americas. Therefore, a discussion of African Americans in the graphic arts rightfully belongs within the larger historical picture of printmaking in America.

Occasional African-American graphic artists emerged from the late eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century. Possibly the earliest known black American printmakerand the most obscurewas Scipio Moorhead. Moorhead's talents were praised by a fellow black Bostonian, the famous Senegalese-born poet Phillis Wheatley, in her poem "To S.M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Work." A copperplate engraving of the poet, which appeared as the frontispiece to the 1773 London edition of her volume of poetry, has been attributed to Moorhead.

Moorhead, like many of the African-American artists who came after him, learned to paint and/or make prints through an apprenticeship with a sympathetic white artisan. Numerous black artists during the antebellum period, such as Robert M. Douglass Jr. and Patrick Reason, trained with artisans and cultivated clients from the growing ranks of northern white abolitionists. Reason's skillfully realized 1848 copper engraving of the runaway slave and antislavery lecturer Henry Bibb demonstrates that these black artists were capable of both mastering the intricacies of the various graphic arts techniques and making their work a part of the abolitionist movement.

In contrast to those antebellum black artists whose careers were linked with the struggle for black emancipation, many nineteenth-century artists of color avoided social issues altogether, choosing instead to do common portraiture, picturesque landscapes, and other forms of nonracial art. For example, Jules Lion in New Orleans and James P. Ball in Cincinnati both headed thriving lithography businesses that catered to largely white clienteles. After the Civil War and continuing into the first decade of the twentieth century, African-American lithographer Grafton Tyler Brown produced numerous stock certificates, street maps, and landscapes, mostly of California, the Pacific Northwest, and the Nevada territories.

Henry Ossawa Tanner and his student William Edouard Scott, although known primarily as painters, were the first African-American graphic artists to move beyond commercial work and create fine art prints. Working through the first two decades of the twentieth century, Tanner and Scott borrowed art techniques learned from the French impressionists and applied these to their respective etchings and lithographs of landscapes, marine settings, and occasional portraits and genre scenes. Etchers William McKnight Farrow, Allan Randall Freelon, and Albert Alexander Smith, though active at the height of the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression, also subscribed to this belated/modified form of visual modernism.

Two graphic artists who, during the period of the Harlem Renaissance, broke away from European-American artistic conventions and embraced more avantgarde, African design sensibilities were Aaron Douglas and James Lesesne Wells. Douglas's bold, angular renderings of African Americans, as seen in his series of relief prints illustrating the Eugene O'Neill play The Emperor Jones (1926), recalled the highly stylized and distorted representations of human anatomy found in traditional African sculpture. Similar approaches to the human figure and to two-dimensional design appeared in Wells's graphic works, such as his relief print African Fantasy (1929).

With the onset of the Great Depression, Douglas and Wells continued their experiments in design and form, but their innovations were tempered by the social and economic realities of the times. Consequently, these graphic artists and others turned toward an art of social realism, an approach that placed humanity, social concerns, and the environment at the center of artistic matters.

A more socially engaged art scene in America, with the graphic arts playing a major role in this ideological shift, was further encouraged by the creation of the Works Progress Administration/Federal Arts Projects, or the WPA/FAP, in 1935. This government program, apart from helping to put Americans back to work, provided support for the creation of art in public places, the implementation of scholarly inventories of American design, the development of community art centers, and the establishment of artists' workshops. Significant numbers of African-American artists participated in WPA/FAP graphic workshops in Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C. A few of these black print-makerssuch as the Philadelphia-based Dox Thrash, who helped develop a new printmaking processwere considered major figures in their respective art communities, regardless of race.

From the end of World War II to the historic signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, African-American art and culture underwent numerous shifts and emphases, which are reflected in the graphic arts of those transitional years. Toward the end of the 1940s, visual commentaries on the racial inequities in America were present in the prints of several black artists, most notably Elizabeth Catlett in works such as her relief print I Have Special Reservations (1946). Concurrent with these images of black protest were the more idealistic and uplifting representations of an artist such as Charles White, whose relief print Exodus #1 (1949) focuses on black aspirations and Afro-America's sense of racial pride.

By the 1950s and early 1960s many African-American graphic artists worked with themes and stylistic approaches that differed radically from the political and/or culture-specific works of Catlett and White. Etcher/engraver Norma Morgan and relief printmaker Walter Williams, though two very different artists, developed essentially nonracial formulas for their work. Williams subscribed to a figurative expressionist sensibility, as seen in his relief print Fighting Cock (1957), while Morgan's copper engraving David in the Wilderness (1956) illustrates her adherence to a romantic realist agenda.

Beginning in the late 1960s the rumblings of the civil rights movement and the strong identification with an African heritage propelled many African-American artists to revisit social themes and ethnic styles that had been pioneered by Catlett and Wells. The results were works that spoke to the issue of black solidarity, such as the silkscreen Unite (1970) by Chicago artist Barbara Jones-Hogu, and works that recalled African colors and imagery, such as the relief print Jungle Rhythms #2 (1968) by New York artist Ademola Olugebefola.

This atmosphere of a heightened racial consciousness ushered in an abundance of work from about 1968 to 1976 that reflected African-American sensibilities, most often in the form of a race-specific figurative art. This new black imagery among artists, coinciding with a newfound enthusiasm within the greater art world for the art of the print, resulted in many different examples of African-American graphic art. Among the many artists who produced important graphic works during this period were Samella Lewis, Ruth Waddy, Lev Mills, and Leon Hicks. Injustice Case (1970), a relief "body" print by David Hammons, and The Get-A-Way (1976), a lithograph by Margo Humphrey (b. 1942), show the wide range of approaches to the figure, as well as to issues of culture, that African-American graphic artists grappled with during the 1970s. Nonfigurative art was explored in depth during this period as well, as seen in the abstract prints of etcher and lithographer John E. Dowell Jr.

The 1970s and 1980s, like the Depression years, were a period in which graphic workshops among black artists proliferated. Apart from the important printmakers and printmaking activities based within college and university art departments (such as the printmaking department at Howard University, headed by etcher Winston Kennedy [b. 1944]), several African-American-managed graphic arts workshops produced major works. These include Workshop, Inc., in Washington, D.C., founded by silkscreen artist Lou Stovall; WD Graphic Workshop, also in Washington, founded by etcher Percy Martin; Brandywine Graphic Workshop in Philadelphia, founded by lithographer Allan Edmunds Jr.; and the Printmaking Workshop in New York, founded by master printmaker Robert Blackburn. Major African-American artists known primarily as painters and sculptors, such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Betye Saar, Sam Gilliam, Richard Hunt, and Mel Edwards, have all produced prints under the supervision of these workshop founder/directors. Since the 1980s these workshops and others have provided many African-American artists with the opportunity to explore new graphic-arts techniques, as well as traditional printmaking media, in service to contemporary issues and ideas in the visual arts.

See also Art in the United States, Contemporary; Folk Arts and Crafts; Harlem Renaissance


Porter, James A. Exhibition of Graphic Arts and Drawings by Negro Artists. Washington, D.C., 1947.

Porter, James A. Modern Negro Art (1943). New York: Arno, 1969.

Powell, Richard J. Impressions/Expression: Black American Graphics. New York, 1980.

Powell, Richard J. "The Afro-American Printmaking Tradition." PrintNews 3, no. 1 (February/March 1981): 37.

Powell, Richard J. "Current Expressions in Afro-American Printmaking." PrintNews 3, no. 2 (April/May 1981): 711.

Wye, Deborah. Committed to Print: Social and Political Themes in Recent American Printed Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988.

richard j. powell (1996)


views updated May 23 2018


PRINTMAKING. The first print executed in the American colonies is a crude woodcut portrait of the Rev. Richard Mather, made by the Boston artist John Foster in 1670. Some fifty years later, Peter Pelham, the émigré British artist who settled in Boston, created several mezzotint portraits of New England personalities between 1728 and 1751. The most celebrated American print from the eighteenth century is the silversmith and patriot Paul Revere's The Boston Massacre (1770), based on a print by Henry Pelham. At the outset, prints were intended to convey information: portraits of notable people, maps, views of cities and towns. Even after the establishment of the United States of America, these practical requirements dominated graphic arts well into the first quarter of the nineteenth century, although the technical caliber of etching, engraving, and lithography was quite high.

In 1857, Nathaniel Currier and James Ives formed a partnership to print lithographs that could be distributed and sold in large numbers. Their scenes of farmhouses, frontier scouts and covered wagons, or life in America's growing cities, became synonymous with popular American taste. But it was not until Winslow Homer etched eight large copper plates in the 1880s, each reproducing a painting by him, that an American artist working in the United States undertook to create important original graphic works. Homer rethought his painted compositions in terms of black and white etchings that capture the drama and energy of his oils, and are in no sense reproductive.

During this same period, many American artists went to Europe to study and visit museum collections. Not surprisingly, these artists experimented with graphic media. Most notably, Mary Cassatt, who settled in Paris, made a series of color aquatints that are among the masterpieces of American graphic art. James A. McNeill Whistler also made etchings in France and England, and his set of Venetian views from 1879 to 1880 became immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, with the prices of his prints soon equaling those of Rembrandt. Although the expatriate status of Cassatt and Whistler was no obstacle to their work being known in the United States, their example did not stimulate other artists to create graphic works of comparable originality.

The most revolutionary art movement of the first decade of the twentieth century, Cubism, had virtually no impact on American graphic art, excepting some small woodcuts by Max Weber, and John Marin's few etchings and drypoints that capture the pace of urban life, such as his celebrated Woolworth Building (1913). In contrast, the artists associated with the Ashcan School did create prints that reflect their fascination with incidents from everyday life in overcrowded metropolises. John Sloan produced numerous etchings of urban life, whether shopping on Fifth Avenue or the grim realities of tenement living. George Bellows, whose preferred medium was lithography, covered a wider range of subject matter than Sloan, from his famous prizefight image Stag at Sharkey's (1917) to the atrocities of World War I. Although not part of the Ashcan School, Edward Hopper's etchings, such as Evening Wind (1921) and Night Shadows (1921), evoke the poetry of the urban experience. At this time, few modernist painters made prints, the notable exceptions being Stuart Davis's black and white lithographs, and Charles Sheeler's coolly observed views of urban and rural America, such as his Delmonico Building (1926).

By contrast, Regionalist painters sought their subjects in rural, Midwest America. Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton made prints that portrayed the isolation and independence of the people living on these vast stretches of farmland. The drama and energy of Benton's lithographs was studied by Jackson Pollock who, before he made his celebrated "drip" abstract canvases, executed several lithographs of Regionalist subjects in a style that closely parallels Benton's.

The Great Depression made life much more difficult for American artists, and many found some help in the Federal Art Project, administered under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The program ran from 1935 to 1943 and included a section devoted to printmaking. The amount of activity was surprising: some 12,581 prints in editions of varying sizes, which were later placed on deposit in American museums. Artists employed by the WPA were expected to work in a representational style and to portray some aspect of American life. Overall, the graphic art produced under this program is unexceptional. It was only after World War II that American printmaking assumed a central position on the international scene.

World War II brought a number of European artists to America; for printmaking, the crucial figure was the British artist William Stanley Hayter, a gifted teacher whose "Atelier 17" in New York City introduced American artists to color intaglio techniques and the stylistic innovations of Surrealism. Another refugee artist was the Argentinean Mauricio Lasansky who arrived in the United States in 1943, and then founded his own graphic workshop at the University of Iowa in 1945. At Yale University the Hungarian Gabor Peterdi also ran a printmaking workshop. These printmakers shared the belief that the artist should be responsible for all aspects of a graphic work's creation, from the original conception to all stages of its execution and printing. In time, this quest for technical excellence was viewed as unexciting. By the late 1950s, print workshops were founded that aimed to create collaborative relationships between artists and printers. On the East coast, the Universal Limited Art Editions (founded in 1957) and the Pratt Graphic Arts Center in New York (founded in 1956) were complemented on the West coast by Los Angeles's Tamarind Workshop (founded in 1960). These workshops focused on the technically demanding medium of color lithography, which requires that an artist work in concert with a master printer.

American avant-garde painting stressed large size, bold gestures, and powerful colors, which placed formidable difficulties in the path of artists wanting to transpose these qualities into graphic works. Few early abstract expressionist painters were interested in printmaking, with the exception of Willem de Kooning. By the mid-1960s, however, most prominent abstract painters also made prints, emboldened by their fascination with the graphic media and guided by expert printers who of ten encouraged experimentation. A case in point is Robert Rauschenberg's color lithograph Booster (1967), an image that incorporates actual-size x-ray photographs of the artist's full-length skeleton. At the time it was one of the largest prints executed, and its scale, bold colors, and dramatic incorporation of photography as part of the graphic process, showed that prints could rival paintings in their impact.

American graphic art now claimed center stage wherever it was shown. Whether artists used Pop Art imagery of wire coat hangers (Jasper Johns), Campbell's Soup cans (Andy Warhol), or were inspired by comic strips and advertising (Roy Lichtenstein), their graphic works were seen on museum walls and in gallery exhibitions throughout the world. Even less approachable Minimalist painters such as Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, and Agnes Martin made their austere aesthetic more widely known through their graphic work, usually color lithographs. Contemporary artists have enlarged the scope of printmaking with computer-generated graphics, another innovation that has expanded the boundaries of graphic media.


Beall, Karen F. American Prints in the Library of Congress: A Catalog of the Collection. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970.

Castleman, Riva. American Impressions: Prints since Pollock. New York: Knopf, 1985.

Shadwell, Wendy J. American Printmaking: The First 150 Years. New York: Museum of Graphic Art, 1969.


See alsoArt: Painting ; Pop Art .