The gouge of the chisel
BLOCK PRINTMAKING IN NEW MEXICO
The Carved Line is the cleverly punning name of a show of 143 block prints opening this weekend at the Albuquerque Museum, including a diversity of woodcuts, linocuts, and woodblock prints. The focus is on New Mexico artists and subjects, with examples from famous figures like Gustave Baumann and T.C. Cannon, as well as by many artists who border on the obscure. Some of the most impressive examples are by past and present notables of the state’s art scene who are more often encountered through other artistic media. We take a sneak peek at the show by way of the handsome companion book just issued by the Museum of New Mexico Press. On the cover is an undated color woodcut on paper by David Barbero (1938-1999), Río Grande Gorge; courtesy Albuquerque Museum.
The very name sounds intriguing! Out of the East it came centuries ago! Temple bells of the Orient, sunlight of Italy, snow-crowned mountains of the North, and blue skies of Zeeland cluster about the craft of block printing, giving it a charm that lays hold upon our artistic affection!” Thus did Raymond W. Perry, lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design, leap into his presentation in his 1938 book Block Printing
Craft. The copy that sits on my shelf bears the stamp of the legendary Villagra Book Shop in Santa Fe, and one imagines that the store may have sold quite a few copies back when the artistic image of the city and the surrounding region was being defined, to a not insignificant extent, by the color woodblock prints of Gustave Baumann (who lived in Santa Fe from 1918 until his death in 1971) and the woodcuts and wood engravings of Willard Clark (who intended to stop briefly in Santa Fe in 1928 but stayed put, expiring here in 1992).
Their prints are ubiquitous hereabouts today, but Baumann and Clark were far from the only New Mexico artists to immerse themselves in the medium of block prints. The field gets its moment in the spotlight with the opening of an exhibition this week at the Albuquerque Museum, along with the publication of a handsome companion book by curator Josie Lopez. The show and the book share the title The Carved Line: Block Printmaking in New Mexico. The hundred-plus works reproduced in the book largely coincide with those in the show, although the museum is including a further 26 prints in its exhibition to provide a richer experience of several of the artists and to exemplify certain aspects of block-printing technique.
In the historical survey that occupies the first chapter of her volume, Lopez acknowledges the Asian roots of the genre (“The earliest relief prints were produced in China in 868 CE”) and notes that “while this age-old art has been practiced for centuries, two eras — the late Edo period in Japan and the early twentieth century in Europe — deeply impacted modern and contemporary block printmakers in the United States.”
The essential idea of block printing has a populist element to it. Many people must have first encountered it by carving printing blocks out of potatoes in grade school, and it was long a favored medium for journalistic illustration in cheaply printed magazines and broadsides. But at the level of artistic block prints, the technique is usually far from simple and the expressive possibilities are vast. “Inherent in the process of making a block print,” Lopez writes, “is the simplification of form that only rarely allows for complexity of detail, and stylization and reduction of color field” — an observation that rings generally true when the medium is compared to oil painting, for example. “They reveal a hand and eye working in concert to express with the greatest economy the world in shorthand, reduced to the most crucial of information. They appear simple because of the complex decisions that the artist made while developing the image and cutting the block.” For an example of this, one might turn to the black-andwhite woodcut Christmas Eve, from 1926, in which the artist Barbara Latham pictures herself and her husband, Howard Cook (also a notable Santa Fe artist). They are seated at table, apparently following dinner that night. We see her from the back but also reflected in a mirror. Cook is placed in profile, playing an accordion, but stillness nonetheless pervades this intimate image, in which the subjects, apparently lost in private thoughts, are reduced to their essentials in planes of black and white, and everything is thrown into dramatic relief through the shadows cast by a single candle. It is, in its way, a perfect example of a particular aesthetic of block print.
Lopez provides a run-through of the various types of block prints, each with its distinct technical approach, including printing with single or multiple blocks of wood, linoleum block printing, and wood engraving. Each offers different artistic possibilities. Some are within the reach of amateurs. Others require obsessive patience and attention to detail — for example, color woodblock prints made from multiple blocks that are each carved separately and inked with a different color, requiring absolute perfection in the overlapping of one block with the next, with every step of the process, from carving the blocks through the transfer of ink to paper, being accomplished by the individual artist. The process very much stands at an intersection of art and craft; even Baumann, for example, got into printmaking because he was a woodcarver. Andrew Connors, the Albuquerque Museum’s curator of art, observes in connection with the show, “The hand of the carver, expressing the voice of the artist, is inherent in each image,” he said, “revealing the choices made with each cut of the knife or gouge of the chisel.”
Lopez’s introductory overview touches on such seminal figures of the field as Arthur Wesley Dow, Lyonel Feininger, Frank Morley Fletcher, and B.J.O. Nordfeldt. Most of this discussion is familiar from other books on block printing, and some of it seems a bit off-topic in the present context. Even in cases where some of these formative artists did intersect with New Mexico, their block printing may not have. Nordfeldt, for example, established himself in Santa Fe in 1919 and was a major figure in the city’s art scene for the two decades he lived here (at least part-time). But in