Drawing from the vast collection of prints and multiples accumulated over a lifetime by Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, Museum of the African Diaspora presents an original exhibition of the work of fifteen critically-acclaimed contemporary artists of African descent, including Glenn Ligon, Martin Puryear, and Kara Walker, who have used the medium of printmaking to create vivid and abstracted works. Reveling in the brilliance of gestural compositions, abstract form, and pure color, the works in the exhibition offer a rich look at the various ways in which many of these artists have employed printmaking as an exploratory means of dissemination and new possibility for formulation.
At the entrance to the exhibition is an elegant etching entitled Sunday Afternoon (2000) by one of the foremost printmakers of African American descent in the United States, Robert Blackburn (1920-2003). This historical gesture pays tribute to Blackburn and his important Printmaking Workshop in New York, which was a welcoming gathering place and resource for generations of artists and young students of color from 1948-2001. Beyond this introduction, visitors encounter a wide array of printed works on paper by some of the most celebrated names in art.
Glenn Ligon’s (b. 1961) Warm Broad Glow (Reversed) (1988) is a photogravure aquatint print of his text-based work in neon that reads “negro sunshine.” Kara Walker’s (b. 1969) intaglio print of loosely spiraling black lines, suggestive of a whip, is from a series of six entitled An Unpeopled Land in Unchartered Waters (2010). An untitled 2003 lithograph by Mark Bradford (b. 1961) hints at the mixed media collages he creates from the discarded materials of urban life, particularly cast offs from hair salons.
Included also are several 2005 abstract works by Julie Mehretu (b. 1970, Ethiopia), recently commissioned to create the colossal work HOWL, eon (I, II) for the SFMOMA atrium. An untitled 1997 lithograph by Ellen Gallagher (b. 1965) mirrors her use of repeated images in collaged grids with rows of tiny lips arranged in various rectangles. Several of the works on display represent rare experiments in printmaking by artists very much associated with a single medium. The exhibition includes several aquatint etchings created by celebrated Gee’s Bend quilt makers Lousiana Bendolph (b. 1960) and Loretta Bennett (b. 1960) at Paulson Fontaine Press in Berkeley, CA.
Leading American sculptor Martin Puryear (b. 1941) collaborated in 2000 with San Francisco’s Arion Press to create a series of woodblock prints for a limited-edition reprint of Jean Toomer’s important 1923 novel Cane. The prints, several of which are on view, are the artist’s response to the female characters in the book. Puryear told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000 that, prior to this project, his only other experience with woodblock printing had been during his student days.
A number of works in the exhibition demonstrate an unruly desire to expand the notion of what printmaking is. Willie Cole (b. 1955), known for assemblage sculptures made from everyday objects, used ironing boards as printing plates for the two works on view from his 2012 Five Beauties Rising series. The ironing boards were dismantled and flattened by being hammered and then repeatedly run over by cars, trucks, and skateboards in order to run them through the printing presses. Leonardo Drew (b. 1961), known for exposing natural materials to processes of oxidation, burning, and decay, brought his deeply sculptural sensibilities to a recent experiment with Pace Prints, New York in the creation of pigmented and printed handmade paper, on view in this exhibition. Sam Gilliam, Jr.’s (b. 1933) Snow Lane #33 (1996) is an exuberant multi-layered and collaged relief print coated with acrylic gel that was then raked. Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) employs a variety of techniques including woodblock, silk screen, and digital print collage for her colorful interiors such as her 2014 Interior: Zebra with Two Chairs and Funky Fur. Also on view are a 2005 lithograph by Gary Simmons (b. 1964) entitled Tri-wing Spin and Lorna Simpson’s (b. 1960) 1995 series 9 Props. These lithographs on felt explore how people can be embodied by objects.