Robert Blackburn (artist)

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Robert Blackburn
Born December 10, 1920
Summit, New Jersey
Died April 21, 2003 (2003-04-22) (aged 82)
New York City, New York
Nationality American
Education Art Students League
Known for Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop
Awards MacArthur Fellowship 1992
Blackburn and students in the workshop.

Robert Hamilton Blackburn (December 10, 1920 – April 21, 2003) was an African-American artist, teacher and printmaker. Blackburn was born in Summit, New Jersey, to parents who were from Jamaica, and he grew up in Harlem, where his family moved when he was seven years old.[1] He attended P.S. 139 and then Frederick Douglass Junior High School (1932–36), where his English teacher was Countee Cullen. Starting in 1936, he went to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he worked on the literary magazine The Magpie as a writer and artist.[2] He graduated in 1940.

Early life[edit]

And at the age of 13, he began attending classes at the Harlem Arts Community Center operated by the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, studying with Charles Alston and Augusta Savage, among others. He studied lithography and other print-making techniques with Riva Helfond, and he frequented the Uptown Community Workshop, a gathering place for black artists and writers such as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Jacob Lawrence.

From early prints that portrayed cityscapes and figures on abstract backgrounds, he moved into more abstract work. From 1940 to 1943, a work scholarship to the Art Students League made it possible for him to study painting with Vaclav Vytlacil and lithography with Will Barnet, who became his friend. Between 1943 and 1948 he supported himself with difficulty with arts-related freelance work, producing maps, charts and other graphics.


In 1948, Barnet helped Blackburn establish the Printmaking Workshop, an 8,000-square-foot (740 m2) loft at 55 West 17th Street in New York City.[3] In the early 1950s, Blackburn and Barnet produced a suite of Barnet's lithographs that were a technical tour de force, requiring up to seventeen colors and multiple stones in the printing process.[4]

Blackburn was famously generous to other artists who came through the Workshop and fostered an atmosphere of openness to diversity. Among the many artists who have worked with Blackburn at the Printmaking Workshop are Leonora Carrington, Roy DeCarava, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, and Faith Wilding. His commitment to sponsoring minority and third-world students and developing community programs profoundly influenced younger printmakers, who seeded similar workshops around the United States and internationally.[5]

In 1956, when the Printmaking Workshop struggled financially and faced the threat of closing, fellow artist and printmaker Chaim Koppelman devised a means to save the studio by transforming it into a cooperative with annual dues. Blackburn credited Koppelman with saving the Workshop, and in 1992, Blackburn, Barnet, and Koppelman received a New York Artists Equity Award for their "dedicated service to the printmaking community."[6]

Blackburn's most productive period as an artist and printmaker was between the late 1950s and the early 1970s.[4] During this period he produced a large body of abstract still lifes and color compositions, mostly in lithography. In the 1970s, Blackburn turned away from lithography and began producing woodcuts, as well as some monotypes and intaglios.

Blackburn also served between 1957 and 1963 as the first master printer at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), where he produced editions for such artists as Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Larry Rivers.[4]

In 1971, Blackburn put in place a board of trustees to help run the Printmaking Workshop and incorporated it as a nonprofit. Over the years the Workshop had accumulated a large collection of artists' prints, and efforts to find a permanent home for them were led by Deborah Cullen, who was the collection's curator between 1993 and 1996. By 1997, over 2,500 of these works had been deposited with the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Smaller selections of the Workshop's prints have been placed with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and El Museo Del Barrio, New York.

Over the years, Blackburn taught at the New School for Social Research, Cooper Union, Pratt Institute, and Columbia University. In 1981, Blackburn was elected to the National Academy of Design as an Associate member, and he became a full member in 1994. In 1988, Blackburn and the nonprofit Printmaking Workshop received a Governor's Art Award from the New York State Council on the Arts. He also received a MacArthur fellowship in 1992. He died in New York City.[7]

On September 18, 2003, the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City held an exhibition and memorial to honor the work of this master printer, artist, and teacher. Blackburn's early work at DeWitt Clinton High School, where classmates included artists Burton Hasen, David Finn and Harold Altman, was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in 2009.


  1. ^ Leimbach, Dulcie. "ART; A Master and His Mecca on West 24th St.", The New York Times, February 8, 1998. Accessed February 20, 2011.
  2. ^ Berstein, Alice. "Harlem Artist Robert Blackburn Remembered", The New York Beacon, October 22, 2003.
  3. ^ Glueck, Grace. "Printmaking for the Love of It." New York Times, July 12, 1988.
  4. ^ a b c Cullen, Deborah. "A Life in Print: Robert Blackburn and American Printmaking" Archived 2015-03-29 at the Wayback Machine.. Anyone Can Fly Foundation website.
  5. ^ York, Hildreth. "Bob Blackburn and the Printmaking Workshop." Black American Literature Forum, vol. 20, Indiana State University, 1986.
  6. ^ "Chaim Koppelman: Pioneering Printmaker and Teacher." Journal of the Print World, Winter 2010, p. 4.
  7. ^ Cotter, Holland. "Robert Blackburn, Founder of the Printmaking Workshop, Dies at 82." "New York Times, April 25, 2003.

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