This spring, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) presents works from influential Black artist and master printer Robert Blackburn. Open March 20 through September 5, 2021, Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking brings together more than 75 works, including Blackburn’s lithographs, woodcuts, intaglio prints and watercolors as well as original prints by other iconic artists with whom he collaborated, such as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Grace Hartigan, Robert Rauschenberg and more. Together, they form a picture of an artist who consistently innovated, while encouraging and inspiring the work of others. This exhibition is included with general museum admission, which is free for members and residents of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties. All museum visitors must make an advance reservation by phone at 313.833.4005 or online at https://ticketapp.dia.org.
A key artist in the development of printmaking in the United States, Blackburn became known as an influential teacher and master printer, engaging with avant-garde artistic ideas while promoting a new collaborative approach to a traditional medium. The exhibition traces Blackburn’s artistic evolution, together with prints by other American artists with whom he collaborated.
“For more than five decades, Robert Blackburn ran a workshop open to everyone. His printmaking knowledge and skill were legendary, and his generosity opened printmaking to generations of artists from all over the world,” says Clare Rogan, the DIA’s curator of prints and drawings. “At the same time, he was deeply connected to Black artistic circles including the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Through this exhibition by SITES we are delighted to share his legacy with our visitors.”
Programming for Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking includes a virtual lecture by Smithsonian guest curator Deborah Cullen-Morales who will discuss the inspirational life of Blackburn, and the many ways the artist’s accomplishments and values resonate today. This event will be free, streaming on the DIA’s Facebook and YouTube pages on April 13 at 5:30 p.m. For more information, visitdia.org/AheadofHisTime.
Blackburn was born to Jamaican immigrants and grew up in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, a time of flourishing arts centered in New York City’s creative Black community. During this time, the arts were considered crucial to the well-being of society, as well as a medium for activism. This period’s values resonated with Blackburn throughout his life and work. In 1947, he founded a printmaking workshop as a welcoming space where artists of any level could learn and create together, and it remains in operation to this day.
Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking is organized by Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and curated by Deborah Cullen-Morales, in cooperation with the Trust for Robert Blackburn and The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts’ Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop Program. This exhibition is supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation and funding from the Smithsonian’s Provost Office.
At the Detroit Institute of Arts, major funding is provided by the DTE Foundation. Additional support is given by Rhonda D. Welburn.
SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 65 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play. For more information, including exhibition descriptions and tour schedules, visit www.sites.si.edu.
The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to enrich public discourse by promoting innovative scholarship, cultivating new leaders and fostering international understanding. The foundation’s American Art Program, a leader in arts funding since 1982, supports museums, arts organizations and universities, in their efforts to advance the understanding and experience of American and Native American visual arts through research, exhibitions, collection projects and publications. For more information, visit www.hluce.org.
Image: Robert Blackburn, 1987. Photograph by Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy.