“Block Printing! 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-and-white 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 Santa Fe he was a painter. Although he continued to exhibit woodblock prints here and there, I don’t believe he made any new ones after 1916. Lopez acknowledges this obliquely: “Though Nordfeldt is primarily known as a painter after 1917, his earlier explorations of printmaking impacted the generations of printmakers that followed.” That is surely the case, but the impact came less from his multi-block color prints, like the example reproduced in the book, than from the white-line style he championed in Provincetown, which might have underscored the argument more firmly. In fact, the book might well have demonstrated this by including one of the Provincetown-style white-line woodblock prints by Ruth Hogan, a much-admired contemporary master of that technique who actually lives near Santa Fe and is unaccountably absent from this book.
Many prominent figures of the Taos and Santa Fe art colonies enter these pages, Oscar E. Berninghaus, Will Shuster, and Andrew Dasburg among them. Art aficionados will take delight in discovering their woodblocks and woodcuts, which are likely to be less familiar than their paintings. (One wishes that Berninghaus’ buddy Bert Geer Phillips was not consistently referred to as “Bert Greer Phillips,” a small matter, perhaps, but a howler in a book about art in New Mexico.)
Ensuing chapters are given over to logically considered periods, topics of imagery, or artistic bents: ecclesiastical subjects, landscapes, New Deal artists, abstraction, expressionism. A section on “New Mexico’s Pueblo Peoples and Lands” delivers one of the book’s high points, the elaborate color woodblocks of T.C. Cannon, who studied at the Institute of American Indian Arts. (One of his teachers there was Fritz Scholder, several of whose surprisingly minimal prints are featured later in the book.) Cannon’s large-scale prints, which often provide a wry perspective on Indian subjects, are always a joy to encounter. He lived hard and died young, being snuffed out in a car crash in 1978 at the age of only thirty-one, a major talent who might have been still greater. Lopez’s volume brings us right up to the present, focusing on recent works by Leon Loughridge, Scott Parker, Bob Haozous, Gustavo Muñiz, Melanie Yazzie, Christa Marquez, Yoshiko Shimano, and — most charmingly — Thayer Carter, all of whom contribute prose explicating their work.
Lopez’s presentation does fall into formula, offering several paragraphs of just-the-facts biography on every artist considered and then a lightly analytical consideration of the prints selected for reproduction. It reads somewhat like a series of encyclopedia entries, but it’s not always easy (or even possible) to piece together information one would imagine to be essential in this context, such as when an artist died or when he or she lived in New Mexico. Not all of the artists under consideration lived in New Mexico, to be sure, but most of them did, and at least they portrayed New Mexico subjects. Although this is a generously scaled book at 247 pages, Lopez must have had to exercise considerable selectivity about which artists to include. I regretted one omission particularly. When Lopez wrote of the mark made on American print artists from Edo-period Japan, she was referring especially to the famous prints of Katsushika Hokusai (The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, etc.) and the artistic genre collectively known as ukiyo-e. But Japanese printmaking also evolved, and in the 20th century that school’s descendant, called shin-hanga, exerted its own influence on American artists, bringing together Edo style with aspects of European Impressionism and realism. The most eminent family of that newer school was the Yoshidas, and one of its most prominent members, Toshi Yoshida, spent time in New Mexico and made at least two top-quality color woodblock prints of local scenes: Santa Fe (1971), of vendors and tourists at the portal of the Palace of the Governors, and the especially evocative Ship Rock (1984).
The Carved Line (the book) is elegantly designed and beautifully printed, as one expects of its publisher, the Museum of New Mexico Press. It includes more than a hundred reproductions, many of which will invite the reader to crack the spine over and over to revisit this deeply personal niche of graphic art. ◀