Leonard Baskin

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Leonard Baskin
Self-portrait as Priest, 1952
Born(1922-08-15)August 15, 1922
DiedJune 3, 2000(2000-06-03) (aged 77)
EducationNew York University
Yale University
The New School (BA)
Académie de la Grande Chaumière
Accademia di Belle Arti
Known forSculpture, book illustration, printmaking, graphic design, founder of the Gehenna Press
MovementBoston Expressionism
AwardsPrix de Rome, Gold Medal of The American Academy of Arts and Letters, Special Medal of Merit of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Gold Medal of the National Academy of Design, Widener Medal from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art

Leonard Baskin (August 15, 1922 – June 3, 2000) was an American sculptor, draughtsman and graphic artist, as well as founder of the Gehenna Press (1942–2000). One of America's first fine arts presses, it went on to become "one of the most important and comprehensive art presses of the world", often featuring the work of celebrated poets, such as Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Anthony Hecht, and James Baldwin side by side with Baskin's bold, stark, energetic and often dramatic black-and-white prints.[1] Called a "Sculptor of Stark Memorials" by the New York Times, Baskin is also known for his wood, limestone, bronze, and large-scale woodblock prints, which ranged from naturalistic to fanciful, and were frequently grotesque, featuring bloated figures or humans merging with animals.[2] "His monumental bronze sculpture, The Funeral Cortege, graces the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C."[3]

Major work[edit]

Leonard Baskin, Isak, Marabouparken, Sundbyberg, Sweden

A committed figurative artist, and the son and brother of rabbis, Baskin's work often focused on mortality, Judaism, the Holocaust and other angst-ridden themes. Repeating a Baskin quote first published in Time magazine, the New York Times' Roberta Smith cites it to explain Baskin's allegiance to figurative work and respect for tradition, which was at odds with the abstract expressionist movement that dominated modern art for many decades of his life, and which he firmly rejected:

Our human frame, our gutted mansion, our enveloping sack of beef and ash is yet a glory. Glorious in defining our universal sodality and in defining our utter uniqueness. The human figure is the image of all men and of one man. It contains all and can express all.[2]

As a young man, at the height of the flowering Boston Expressionist movement centered around the city's Boris Mirski Gallery, Baskin had his first major solo exhibition there in 1956,[4] on the heels of being one of 11 artists featured in the opening exhibition at the Terrain Gallery. He would go on to participate in another 40 exhibitions.[5] Within a decade, he was featured in the 1966 documentary "Images of Leonard Baskin" by American filmmaker Warren Forma. In 1972, Baskin won a Caldecott honor for his illustrations of Hosie’s Alphabet, written by his wife, Lisa, and sons Tobias and Hosea, and published by Viking Press.[6] In 1994, he received one of his most important commissions for a 30-foot bas relief for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and a bronze statue of a seated figure, also erected in 1994, for the Holocaust Memorial in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The Gehenna Press[edit]

Baskin founded the Gehenna Press in 1942, one of the first fine art presses in the US, as a student at Yale, inspired by the illustrated books of William Blake which so impressed him he decided to learn to print and make his own books. The name was taken from a line in Paradise Lost: "and black Gehenna call'd, the type of hell".[7] The Gehenna Press printed over 100 books and ran until Baskin's death in 2000.[7]

In 1974, Baskin moved with his family to Britain, to Lurley Manor, near Tiverton, Devon, to be close to his friend Ted Hughes, for whom he had illustrated the poetry volume Crow published in 1970.[8] Baskin and Hughes collaborated on several further works, including A Primer of Birds, published by Gehenna Press in 1981.[7] Other poets who collaborated with the Gehenna Press included James Baldwin, Anthony Hecht, Ruth Fainlight, and Anne Halley.[9] Sylvia Plath dedicated "Sculptor" to Leonard Baskin in her work, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960).[9]

"In 1992, a 50-year retrospective of Gehenna Press books toured the country, including a major exhibition at the Library of Congress."[1]

Academic affiliations[edit]

Having vowed to become a sculptor at the age of 15,[2] Baskin studied sculpting as an apprentice to Maurice Glickman from 1937 to 1939 at the Educational Alliance in New York City.[5] Baskin studied at the New York University School of Architecture and Applied Arts from 1939 to 1941.[7] In 1941, he won a scholarship to Yale where he studied for two years, and founded the Gehenna Press.[7]

Baskin served in the US Navy during the final years of World War II, and then in the Merchant Navy. He then studied at The New School for Social Research, where he obtained his B.A. in 1949.[2] "In 1950 he went to Paris where he studied at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, and the following year to Florence to work at the Accademia di Belle Arti."[2]

Between 1952 and 1953, he was an instructor in printmaking at the Worcester Art Museum[3] where he taught the artists Joyce Reopel and Mel Zabarsky. In 1953, he began a twenty-year career teaching printmaking and sculpture at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.[10] He was also a member of the Society of American Graphic Artists. After spending several years in the 1970s in England, Baskin returned to the U.S. in 1984, and subsequently taught at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.[2]

Public collections[edit]

Baskin's work is held by major museums worldwide, including the American Numismatic Society, the Amon Carter Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Boca Raton Museum of Art, the British Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, Detroit Institute of Arts, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Honolulu Museum of Art, Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum, the Library of Congress, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Muscarelle Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the New Jersey State Museum, The Newark Museum of Art, Princeton University, Seattle Art Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Udinotti Museum of Figurative Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, the Vatican Museums, Wesleyan University, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Worcester Art Museum.

The archive of his work at the Gehenna Press was acquired by the Bodleian Library at Oxford, England, in 2009.[9] "A catalogue raisonné of Baskin's graphic works includes 739 works,"[3] and the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Ontario owns over 200 of his works, most of which were donated by his brother Rabbi Bernard Baskin.[11][12] The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a collection of over 800 of his works.

Awards and honors[edit]

Baskin was the recipient of six honorary doctorates, and a member of various national and royal academies in Belgium, Italy, and U.S. The National Foundation of Jewish Culture in the U.S. presented him with its Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in Visual Arts in 2000. Other honors and commendations include the:

Personal life[edit]

Baskin was born in New Brunswick, NJ.[13] When Baskin was seven, the family relocated to the Jewish Orthodox section of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York.[2] Baskin was first cousin to American modern dancer and choreographer Sophie Maslow. His first wife Esther Baskin, a nature writer, the author of Creatures of Darkness and The Poppy and Other Deadly Plants, and mother to son Tobias, died in 1973 at age 47.[14] Baskin died at age 77 on June 3, 2000, in Northampton, where he resided.[13] He was survived by his second wife Lisa Unger Baskin and their two children Hosea and Lucretia.[2]


  1. ^ a b Barnes, Bart (June 6, 2000). "Sculptor, Graphic Artist Leonard Baskin, 77, Dies". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 28, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Roberta Smith (June 6, 2000). "Leonard Baskin Dies at 77; Sculptor of Stark Memorials". The New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2018.
  3. ^ a b c "Leonard Baskin Biography | Annex Galleries". Annex Galleries: 19th, 20th & 21st Century Fine Prints. Retrieved May 28, 2020.
  4. ^ Marks, Claude (1984). World Artists 1950-1980. Wilson. p. 53. ISBN 9780824207076.
  5. ^ a b "Leonard Baskin | Encyclopedia.com". www.encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2020-05-28.
  6. ^ © Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library (March 7, 2018). "Artifex". Artifex: Leonard Baskin and the Gehenna Press. Retrieved May 28, 2020.
  7. ^ a b c d e "Leonard Baskin biography". your dictionary.com. January 10, 2013. Retrieved July 5, 2018.
  8. ^ "Leonard Baskin and the Gehenna Press". brandeis.edu. March 10, 2010. Retrieved July 10, 2018.
  9. ^ a b c "Catalogue of the Gehenna Press, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford". bodley.ox.ac.uk. January 10, 2010. Retrieved July 11, 2018.
  10. ^ Opitz, Glenn B., Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers, Apollo Books, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1988
  11. ^ "McMaster Museum of Art". Emuseum.mcmaster.ca. Retrieved 2018-07-11.
  12. ^ "Leonard Baskin at McMaster Museum". McMaster Museum. May 11, 2009. Retrieved July 11, 2018.
  13. ^ a b LCCN n79--89695 cites an obituary in The New York Times, June 6, 2000.
  14. ^ "Mrs. Esther Baskin Is Dead; Author of Nature Books, 47". The New York Times. January 5, 1973. Retrieved May 28, 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • Alan Fern, Judith O'Sullivan, Ted Hughes, The Complete Prints of Leonard Baskin: a catalogue raisonné 1948-1983, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1984
  • Lance Hidy, "My Studies at the Free Academy of Gehenna", in Parenthesis; 21 (2011 Autumn), p. 5–11.
  • Barbara Blumenthal, "Arno Werner, Leonard Baskin, Harold P. McGrath and the Tradition of Book Arts in Massachusetts", in Parenthesis; 21 (2011 Autumn), p. 17–20.
  • Sidney Berger, "Leonard Baskin and the Art of Printing (The Ego and the Ecstasy)", in Parenthesis; 17 (2009 Autumn), pp. 13–19.
  • Bruce Chandler, Lance Hidy, Barry Moser, In the School of Baskin (2008. Society of Printers, Boston, USA)
  • Lisa Unger Baskin, The Gehenna Press: The Work of Fifty Years, 1942–1992 [exhibition catalogue].
  • Central Conference of American Rabbis, A Passover Haggadah: The New Union Haggadah with drawings by Leonard Baskin, New York: Viking Press, 1982.
  • Jaffe, Irma B., The Sculpture of Leonard Baskin, New York, Viking Press, 1980.

External links[edit]