Girls To The Front: Women In Print, at CMA
The thirty works currently on view in the James and Hanna Bartlett Prints and Drawings Gallery are all by women, which is surprisingly a first for the Cleveland Museum of Art. Not that they haven’t shown the work of women printmakers before—there was a 2002-2003 exhibition of Elizabeth Catlett’s prints and sculpture, although of course that’s an entirely different kind of show. Likewise, there was also a 1995 solo exhibition of Dorothy Dehner’s prints, paintings, and sculpture. But as far as an entire show of prints by women, Women in Print: Recent Acquisitions is a first. The CMA is not alone in such an oversight, as the work of women printmakers has rarely been given much attention in the museum or academic world—the large exception being the 2015 exhibition at the New York Public Library featuring the collection of Henrietta Louisa Koenen, wife of the first director of the Rijksmuseum Print Room in Amsterdam. From 1848 until 1861, she acquired an astonishing array of work by women artists of the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. And while their names may not be recognizable, this collection shows that women have been making prints since the medium was invented. But without access to the technology, the training, or the print shops, when it comes to printmaking, women have historically been at a disadvantage.
It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that women artists truly began to flourish as printmakers—and this is primarily due to the increasing access to print shops they were being granted. At places like Atelier 17 and the Art Students League of New York, or the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in New Mexico, a generation of women artists began to learn printmaking. Others worked with established artists like Robert Blackburn, who bought a lithographic press in 1947 and opened a community-focused print shop in Chelsea. There he welcomed artists of all stripes to learn printmaking in the 1950s and 1960s (it is still open to this day).
Women in Print is a refreshing display of just how much the CMA’s print-collecting priorities have shifted over the past several years to focus on artists from groups traditionally underrepresented on museum walls. It is an extremely diverse and international group of women whose work is on view, with themes and subjects as wide-ranging as the techniques used to create them. Thoughtfully assembled by Dr. Britany Salsbury, associate curator of prints and drawings, Women in Print is a decidedly positive step forward in correcting the lack of work by Black artists in the collection, and more specifically the lack of work by Black women artists.
The exhibition includes key works by artists known for their work in print—such as Polly Apfelbaum and Julie Mehretu. A stunningly-huge color aquatint by Mehretu is a key work in the show, and an exercise in her extreme technical virtuosity. It is so very large that it invites viewers to immerse themselves in the wild colors that dance across the surface. Mehretu worked with a master printer to produce a print this large; the imagery evokes the cave paintings she saw on a visit to China. Apfelbaum’s Atomic Mystic Cosmic 16 (2017) is likewise a technical masterwork, made up of hundreds of woodblocks individually inked with rainbow rolls.
Prints by well-known artists, such as Kara Walker, Cleveland’s own Dana Schutz, and Mickalene Thomas, are also on view. Of particular note are two prints by Amy Sherald, the results of the artist’s very first experiments in printmaking in 2020. The large screenprints feature portraits of Alvin Ailey dancers colored in her trademark grisaille. But instead of being depicted dancing or in costume, they stand in casual poses, wearing everyday clothes—indicative of Sherald’s goal, in her words, to “paint Black people just being people.”
But as far as stand-outs, several prints in the show by Black women artists from the 1960s and 1970s are truly remarkable. Many of these women were important members of Black artists collectives, such as Emma Amos. Without Feather Boa (1965), the earliest work in the exhibition, is a daring nude self-portrait that Amos chose for the only exhibition of the Black collective Spiral, of which she was the only female and the youngest member. The artist Dindga McCannon co-founded the artists collective WWA (“Where We AT” Black Women Artists, Inc.) in 1971, alongside thirteen Black women artists, including Faith Ringgold. Made in that same year, Afrodesia & Mira Gandy, a linocut depicting McCannon’s young daughter with a friend, was printed on dazzling red Colorplan paper.
To me, the most powerful work in the show, and the piece that best demonstrates the true ethos of printmaking in the 1960s and 1970s, is Unite (1968, printed 1971) by Chicago artist Barbara Jones-Hogu. Inspired by civil rights protests she had recently attended and the athletes who raised their fists in a Black Power salute at the Olympics that year, the large multi-color screenprint depicts a crowd with fists similarly raised, and the word unite emblazoned in repeated beams of color above their heads. Jones-Hogu was a founding member of the AfriCOBRA Black artist collective formed in Chicago in 1968. Along with members Jeff Donaldson, Gerald Williams, and Wadsworth Jarrell—who now resides in Cleveland with his wife Jae (make sure to swing by the 1973 Jarrell painting on view in the Contemporary Gallery)—AfriCOBRA artists visually expressed the central ideas of the Black Power movement: self-determination, unity, and Black pride. As an accomplished printmaker, Jones-Hogu’s skills were important to the group’s mission. Printmaking has always been a democratic form of art-making; not only does it allow for the fast creation of large numbers of works of art, it also allows the artist to sell them to people at an affordable price. The original print was so successful that she had to do a second printing in 1971. The work on view is from that second printing. It is stamped with an AfriCOBRA mark on the lower left-hand corner that states, “Print $10 Copyright 1971.” Sold for only $10, these prints were not expensive. As she stated in a 2011 interview, “everyone who wanted one could have one.” This particular print was acquired by the CMA just last year. Seeing it in the low light of the print gallery, one can get caught up in all the imperfections. Across the surface are the scars of old folds, cups and bends in the paper. This only emphasizes the unique qualities of this object and the many lives it has had, the many fingers that have touched it, the travels it has made.
While the exhibition labels are sadly a bit thin when it comes to explaining the various printmaking techniques these artists used, interested viewers will be happy to hear that they are planning a series of hands-on printmaking demonstrations to run alongside the show. And in a bid to continue to promote the exhibition’s theme, all of them will be conducted by local printmaking organizations founded by women, featuring local women printmakers.
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