American Medium: Early Serigraphs from the Needles Collection
July 2015 – August 2016, PrintsAmerica
American Medium is a survey of work spanning the history of serigraphy, featuring a diverse array of artists and subject matter. Serigraphy in its present form was first developed during the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program active between 1935 and 1943, which was created as part Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal federal stimulus package as an attempt to offset the economic devastation of the Great Depression.
The Federal Art Project, a subset of the WPA, employed artists across the country to create murals, paintings, sculptures, and prints. Serigraphs, or screenprinting, had long been considered a purely commercial medium used only for the reproduction of graphic advertising such as posters and window displays. However, a contingent of artists, spearheaded by Anthony Velonis (1911-1997), recognized screenprinting’s expressive potential and consequently formed the Silkscreen Unit of the Graphic Arts Division of the WPA Federal Art Project. It was through their endeavors that serigraphy garnered respect among the artistic community, and artists began to appreciate the aesthetic effects possible with the screenprinting process. Expansive planes of color, layered imagery, and bold lines all characterize serigraphy’s distinctive style, now appreciated for its intrinsic qualities.
American Medium features artists such as Elizabeth Olds, Guy Maccoy, Harry Shokler, Louis Lozowick, and Harry Gottlieb, among others. The checklist for the exhibition may be found here.
The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade”, 1929-1940
January 13 – April 4, 2015, Grey Art Gallery, New York University
The Left Front highlights work produced by American artists amid the economic and social devastation of the Great Depression. Joining forces in the John Reed Club and its successor, the American Artists’ Congress, a group of intellectuals and artists— among them Isabel Bishop, Louis Lozowick, John Sloan, and Raphael Soyer— tackled themes ranging from class struggle, civil and workers’ rights, immigration, socialist mysticism, and utopian communities to the Spanish Civil War. Presenting prints, posters, paintings, and books—including selections from NYU’s Tamiment Library—the exhibition queries what revolutionary art was then, and what it could be today. Organized by the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, the exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated publication.
Ink, Paper, Politics
September 11 – December 21, 2014, DePaul Art Museum
Ink, Paper, Politics features over sixty prints from the Works Progress Adminstration, generously donated by PrintsAmerica to the DePaul Art Museum in 2013. The Works Progress Administration gave federal financial support to a wide range of artistic projects during the Depression, from fiction to fine art. Printmaking supported by the WPA is perhaps the one of most enduring interest: the design of the program itself, the political climate, and the very nature of the medium together produced a distinctive approach to style and subject matter, impressive technical innovations, and a surprising degree of social fluidity among artists around issues of race and gender.
The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940
January 17 – June 22, 2014, Mary and Leigh Block Museum
The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929–1940 revisits a moment in U.S. cultural history when visual artists joined forces to form a “left front” to make socially conscious art. In the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and at the start of the Great Depression, artists and writers founded the John Reed Club (JRC), which spread to more than thirty chapters nationwide. Named after the journalist who witnessed the 1917 Russian Revolution, the JRC brought together such artists as Isabel Bishop, Stuart Davis, William Gropper, Rockwell Kent, and Chicagoan Morris Topchevsky—embraced the motto “art as a social weapon” and rejected the idea that “the artist can remain remote from the historic conflicts in which all men must take side.” They took their message to the streets—marching, boycotting, picketing, and teaching—while also organizing exhibitions and publishing their artworks.
The Left Front explores the context and legacies of the JRC and its successor organization, the American Artists’ Congress (AAC) in the 1930s. The exhibition also considers the industrial conditions, immigration, labor unrest, and anarchism historically associated with Chicago, as well as its commitment to social reform through such institutions as Hull House.
Paths to the Press: Printmaking and American Women Artists
October 21 – December 18, 2007, Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art
“Paths to the Press: Printmaking and American Women Artists, 1910 1960” was the first major survey of U.S. female printmakers active during the first half of the twentieth century. This traveling exhibition organized by the Beach Museum of Art explored the avenues by which U.S. women pursued studio printmaking and the connections—both social and conceptual—among them and their work.
The work of over eighty women—some well-known and others less recognized—appears in the exhibition. These and other women who turned to printmaking in the decades following 1910 created some of the most compelling and technically sophisticated images in U.S. printmaking history. In 1910 Bertha C. Jaques co-founded the Chicago Society of Etchers and helped launch a revival of American fine art printmaking that counted hundreds of female artists. Among them were Blanche Lazzell and Helen Hyde, who in the 1910s and 1920s made major contributions to color printmaking.
New printmaking programs in art institutions, the WPA, and print societies in the 1920s and 1930s helped artists included in the exhibition, such as Peggy Bacon, Constance Forsyth, and Elizabeth Olds, gain professional training and earn income. These and many artists in the exhibition active after World War II passed on skills to students in university printmaking programs, independent presses, and other spaces.
Examples of work by artists such as Mary Cassatt and Bertha Lum, who were active as printmakers before 1910, set up the period defined by the exhibition and testify to American women’s early and sustained interest in studio printmaking. The exhibition ends its survey about 1960, when an emerging group of print publishers began to offer new production and marketing opportunities for both women and men.
Modern Art: Innovations in Color Printmaking, 1896-1966
May – December 2006, PrintsAmerica Gallery
Paths to the Press: Printmaking and American Women Artists
October – December 2005, Mary and Leigh Block Museum
American women printmakers have always worked both independently and in tandem with their male counterparts creating innovative and arresting works, but they have been underrepresented in the history of printmaking. This exhibition surveyed the graphic work of eighty women, including Mary Cassatt, Elizabeth Catlett, Bertha Lum, and June Wayne, who were active in the medium during the first half of the twentieth century. Paths to the Press was organized by the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas.
Marks of Respect: Labor and Social Justice in Depression Era
January 8 – March 15, 2004, DePaul Art Museum
Like other Americans during the Great Depression, printmakers grappled with economic hardship; these prints reveal their complex experience and their aspirations for change.
The stock market crash of October 1929 brought one of the largest economic crises the nation has ever experienced, and the depression that followed created severe poverty and unemployment. While the event certainly impacted every facet of society, the economic fallout hit artists hard. The traditional systems of patronage were not adequate to sustain artistic practice.
By April of 1935 things began to turn around. The massive, federally funded system of relief known as the Works Project Administration (WPA) provided jobs and paychecks to many sectors of the labor force. In autumn of 1935, the Roosevelt administration recognized the needs of artists and created a branch of WPA called The Federal Art Project (FAP). The program put thousands of artists to work creating pieces primarily intended to decorate public institutions.
The Project consisted of four major divisions: easel painting, mural painting, sculpture, and graphic arts (which included printmaking). At its peak the graphic arts division employed about 790 artists in 36 cities, who worked to produce approximately 239,000 prints, an extraordinary amount of work for the eight-year existence of the program. Print workshops were opened in major cities throughout the country, and they provided the artists access to equipment and technical guidance from master printers.
Many of the works displayed in this exhibition were created on the Project presses. All of them survive as living documents of the history of the Great Depression, and allow us a rare glimpse into the hardships of the time. Without the support of WPA, artists driven into other work would have left no visual legacy of that experience. Creative expression can be most necessary under desperate circumstances.
Prints by American Women: 1880-1960
April 2002, PrintsAmerica Gallery
Dürer to Goya: Three Centuries of Printmaking from the Needles Collection
September 21 – November 21, 2001, DePaul Art Museum
Printmaking has a surprisingly short history in the western art tradition, and the collection of Old Master prints formed by Marian and Belverd Needles, on view at the DePaul Art Museum, provides an excellent overview of rapid technical and functional development in its first three centuries. Beginning with early woodcuts often produced as illustrations to the Bible, the collection includes the brilliantly complex etchings and engravings of the seventeenth century and the remarkably diverse subjects and techniques of the eighteenth century: more than fifty prints in all. The exhibition, which has been curated by Timothy Smith, a member of DePaul’s Art History faculty, is a rare opportunity in Chicago to see works by Old Masters such as Dürer, Cranach, Rembrandt, and Goya. An illustrated catalogue is available.