“I think of the series of twelve large woodcuts as a kind of ambulatory mural. They are insistently black, complexly cut, and reasonably successful in causing alarm, misgivings, and exaltation.” - Leonard Baskin, 1970
One of the 20th century’s most independent artists, who chose to make the human figure the centerpiece of his work at the height of Abstract Expressionism, Leonard Baskin’s name is less well known today than it should be.
A printmaker, sculptor, publisher, professor and friend of poets, he was a true original whose light burns bright again in the Crocker Art Museum’s “A Passionate Muse: The Art of Leonard Baskin,” on view through May 12. Curated by the Crocker’s William Breazeale, the exhibition of more than 40 stellar prints, sculptures and books, most from the collection of William Bronston, moves from his monumental woodcut “Man of Peace,” 1952, to “A Person Wandering in the Terribleness of Death” a blood red and black woodcut from the “Holocaust Series,” 1998.
Born to a rabbinical family in Brooklyn in 1922, after schooling at a yeshiva, he studied art at Yale School of Fine Arts and the New School for Social Research. Discovering the work of William Blake as a young man, he lived a life that paralleled Blake’s. Like Blake, he taught himself printmaking, became a publisher, developed an independent vision, was an intellectual and was active in issues of social justice.
“The Man of Peace,” the first work that brought him national attention, depicts a hesitant, care-worn man standing in a thicket of barbed wire holding a frail Dove of Peace with a bent neck. As relevant today as it was in 1952 when the world was under the shadow of war and nuclear threat, its message is so universal it speaks to us now of border walls, immigrant families torn apart and children kept in cages.
Baskin’s focus on the human figure and how it expresses emotion set him apart from the dominant expressive abstractions of artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Drawing inspiration from ancient biblical and mythological texts, poets such as Leonard Nathan and his close friend Ted Hughes, Herman Melville’s great novel “Moby Dick,” works by Euripides, Shakespeare and Milton, as well as artists of the past such as Andrea Mantegna and Francisco Goya, he addressed the human condition with passion, complexity, and masterful artistry.
Works in the show range from a tiny wood engraving of Mantegna to a towering “Angel of Death,” a flowing woodcut of a winged creature that resembles a brush drawing. While only one work directly addresses the Holocaust, an overweening feeling of death and despair runs throughout the show. “Sated Death,” an imposing etching of an atypical grim reaper is bloated with blood, his huge distended belly filled with the horrors of 20th century plagues and wars and torture, a prosperous death figure as Breazeale describes him.
One section of the show deals with mythological figures. Baskin’s towering woodcut of Saturn devouring his children pays homage to Goya’s famous image of the Titan king of the gods biting off the head of one of his children, though in Baskin’s version blood drips down from his mouth to his chest and Saturn’s name is spelled out in bloody letters.
Color also comes into play in his large woodcut of Icarus, the son of the inventor Daedalus, who flew too close to the sun on wings of feather and wax his father had made for him. Here, it is green, symbolic perhaps of life and hope, that floods the image, yet those hopes are dashed as Icarus’s wings melt and he falls into the sea, becoming an enduring emblem of human aspiration and failure.
Red returns as a symbol of violence in Baskin’s powerful lithograph of Cain, a crude, bloated figure who seems to personify evil, and in his woodcut from the “Holocaust Series,” which depicts a monumental figure lying horizontally wrapped in a black winding cloth on a bloody field. Departing from his usual vertical compositions, the sideways image is disorienting and forces the viewer to look at it from an awkward angle. Other compelling images from literature include Virgil’s Aeneas, Jacob and Sarah from the Old Testament, Captain Ahab from the Moby Dick Suite, and a grieving Othello.
Though Baskin’s culture was Jewish, he disapproved of organized religion and identified as an atheist. Yet aspects of his Jewish heritage run throughout the show, most strikingly in “The Mysterious Rebbe of Northampton, Massachusetts,” a symbolic self-portrait of sorts.
According to Breazeale, this intensely black and white woodcut with flowing curvilinear gouges reflects Baskin’s upbringing as the son of a rabbi, his profession as a teacher at Smith College in Northampton (an art rebbe if you will), and his focus on dark circumstances in the world that can nevertheless be healed or made better.
Other actual self portraits give us an idea of how Baskin saw himself in midlife and old age while a wood engraved portrait by his former student Barry Moser adds yet another aspect to our knowledge of his visage.
NOTE: Hosea Baskin, Leonard Baskin’s son and a rare book collector and dealer, will give a talk on the artist’s life and art, his collaboration with authors Ted Hughes and James Baldwin, and the intersection between art and literature at 2 p.m. Sunday April 28. Tickets $7 for museum members; $14 for non-members are available at the Crocker’s admissions desk or by phone at (916) 808-1182. Guest Speaker: Hosea Baskin on the Life and Art of Leonard Baskin - Sunday, April 28, 2019 | Crocker Art Museum.