Leonard Baskin

by Friday, October 20, 2017

Leonard Baskin is widely considered one of the preeminent figures of 20th century American art. Creatively active for over five decades as a sculptor, printmaker, painter, illustrator, critic, book publisher, and educator, his work resonates with a rare degree of visual, social, and intellectual intensity.   While he was a student at Yale University, he founded Gehenna Press, a small private press specializing in fine book production. From 1953 until 1974, he taught printmaking and sculpture at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Subsequently Baskin also taught at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.  He lived most of his life in the U.S., but spent nine years in Devon at Lurley Manor, Lurley, near Tiverton, close to his friend Ted Hughes, for whom he illustrated Crow. Sylvia Plath dedicated “Sculptor” to Leonard Baskin. It was the penultimate poem in The Colossus (1960).

As a writer, he offered searing comments on important and often overlooked artists, and as a maker of books his Gehenna Press set the standard against which all fine press books are measured. Baskin was a Caldecott-honored children’s book illustrator, and a watercolorist whose explosion of color burst so unexpectedly, in mid career, like fireworks over his previously black sky. Baskin was also a well known printmaker who reinvented the monumental woodcut, and at his core was a sculptor  who in the estimation of many, was the preeminent sculptor of our time (“Not because I am so great, though I am, but because all the others are so dreadful.”)

His most prominent public commissions include sculpture for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Woodrow Wilson Memorial, both in Washington D.C., and the Holocaust Memorial in Ann Arbor, MI.  Other works by Leonard Baskin are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, The Nation Museum of American Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, The Seattle Art Museum, and the Vatican Museum.

 

Baskin received numerous honors, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Gold Medal of the National Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award. He had many retrospective exhibitions, including those at the Smithsonian, the Albertina, and the Library of Congress.

Inspired by ancient Egyptian and Greek art, Baskin designed monumental figures and reliefs in bronze, limestone, and wood. Among his subjects were poets (Blake, 1955; Barlach Dead, 1959), universal symbols (Hanged Man, 1956; Man with Owl, 1960), and biblical subjects (Prodigal Son, 1976; Ruth and Naomi, 1978). Baskin imbued his sculptures of the human figure with those qualities of spiritual death, decay, and vulnerability which to him were the condition of the 20th-century individual. His sculptures nevertheless possess a kind of forbidding authority. Baskin was particularly noted for his memorials, including the Holocaust Memorial (dedicated 1994) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which features a 7-foot (2.1-metre) figure, seated and in anguish with a hand raised above the head. In his woodcuts Baskin developed a distinctively wiry and nervous linearity. Man of Peace (1952) and Everyman (1960) are among his best-known woodcuts.

Among his numerous honours, Baskin was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1963, and in 1969 he received that academy’s Gold Medal. He also was awarded the Sculpture (1988) and Gold (1989) medals of the National Academy of Design. In addition, Hosie’s Alphabet (1972), which he illustrated and cowrote, was named a Caldecott Honor Book.

 

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