Above left: Leonard Baskin, Birdman/Icarus, 1968. Etching on off-white wove paper, plate 5 5/8 x 3 7/8 in. Collection of William Bronston.

Above right: Leonard Baskin, Icarus, 1968. Woodcut printed in black and green, image 32 1/8 x 21 3/4 in. Collection of William Bronston.

EXHIBITION TITLE (FULL): A Passionate Muse: The Art of Leonard Baskin
VENUE: Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, California
DATES: February 17 – May 12, 2019

(Sacramento, CA – February 15, 2019) The Crocker Art Museum is pleased to announce the February 17 opening of “A Passionate Muse," a career-spanning exhibition of 40 prints, sculptures, and books by Leonard Baskin, one of the major figures of 20th century American art.

A passionate critic of humanity, Baskin was renowned for his spirited visual fantasy and storytelling. He also cast his eye on the modern world, with sometimes-biting commentary on the ills of society, woven into religious or mythological scenes.

This exhibition of artwork, which is curated from various private collections, focuses on Baskin's independent prints. Many of them are monumental, examining his often cynical, often hopeful view of human nature; Baskin often allowed despair and hope to coexist in his images.

Leonard Baskin, Man of Peace, 1952. Woodcut, 59 1/2 x 30 5/8 in. Collection of William Bronston.

The son of an Orthodox rabbi who had come to the U.S. from Lithuania, Leonard Baskin (1922-2000) grew up in Brooklyn and attended New York University. In 1941, he won a scholarship to Yale University's School of Fine Arts, but preferred the library over the studio, discovering there, among other inspirations, the poetry and art of William Blake.

Like Blake, Baskin taught himself printmaking. He went on to found his own press for literature and art, which he punningly named Gehenna Press after a line in Milton's Paradise Lost: "And black Gehenna call'd, the type of hell."

After service in the U.S. Navy, Baskin continued his art studies in Europe until 1953, when he accepted a teaching position at Smith College. Settling in Northampton, Massachusetts, he reopened Gehenna Press, producing finely crafted volumes of poems as well as wood engravings. But it was his monumental 1952 single-sheet woodcut "Man of Peace" that captured the attention of the printmaking world.

Nearly five feet tall, the print is made on rice paper, its reflective sheen contrasting with the deep black ink. The man stands in a thicket of barbed wire holding a dove, the dove of peace, that struggles to fly. In such works, which recall not only the then-recent memory of the Holocaust but also the Korean War and the horrors of nuclear weapons, Baskin wished to evoke certain emotions.

I think of the series … as a kind of ambulatory mural. They are insistently black, complexly cut, and reasonably successful in causing alarm, misgivings, and exaltation.
-Leonard Baskin

Against the grain of the mainstream art world, which at the time prized Abstract Expressionism, Baskin made the human figure his main vehicle for expression. Myth and literature that explore humanity's foibles, failings, and triumphs provided subjects for later prints, such as 1968's "Icarus."

Though it is tempting to relate the creation of "Icarus" to the upheaval and disappointments of 1968, its meaning is more universal. His close friend and collaborator, the poet Ted Hughes, says, “The scope he embraces, the depth he searches, the specific pain he locates, the light he casts on what he finds, and his treatment of it, present us with what we might well call uncommon forms.”

In the case of "Icarus," the distorted torso and limbs are seen from below, surrounded by rugged wings that will soon stretch in ill-fated flight. The use of the green-inked color block allows the artist to create gouged, white highlights that further accent the misshapen body.

Baskin's experiments with technique are often most evident when he chooses to explore himself. Over the course of his career, he returned many times to expressive self-portraiture, creating a series of snapshots that document his progression through life and as an artist.

A monoprint from the 1980s is such an example, with its outlines etched into a copper plate and printed, before an additional layer of pigment was smoothed onto a second plate and printed on top of the first image. The artist then added highlights and a few other lines with the brush. Baskin crops out almost all background, and even part of his head, focusing in on his aging face, which stares out at the viewer with piercing green eyes. The unnatural reds and yellows intensify the effect of deep thought in a man whose development ran counter to the prevailing culture, and counter to the art world as well.

Leonard Baskin, Self-Portrait, n.d. Color monotype, touched, with yellow, green, red, blue watercolor and white opaque watercolor, plate 5 x 3 15/16 in. Collection of William Bronston.

Baskin sometimes deals with grim subjects directly, as in his "Sated Death" of 1993. A feathery figure, either winged or wrapped in a plumed cloak, looms over the viewer, his small, skull-like head contrasting with an enormous belly. Far from the hooded skeleton of allegory, this Death inhabits a fat body, one that has feasted on humanity.

Such commentary on the human predicament runs throughout Baskin's work, as he focuses on the faults and injustices of life. By his own admission, Baskin aims to evoke alarm and misgivings in the viewer, yet he also aims for exaltation. Underlying his work is the firm conviction that his art will prompt us to correct our behavior and ultimately lead to a better world.

Leonard Baskin, Sated Death, 1992. Etching, 23 1/8 x 17 3/4 in. Collection of William Bronston.

"A Passionate Muse" is organized by the Crocker Art Museum. A full-color booklet accompanies the exhibition and is available at the Crocker Art Museum Store. The exhibition's sponsor is US Bank.

An exhibition checklist and high-resolution images of some of the works in the exhibition are available to members of the media upon request.

Karen Christian
(916) 808-1867


Guest speaker: Hosea Baskin on the Life and Art of Leonard Baskin
Sunday, April 28, 2 p.m.

In connection with the exhibition "A Passionate Muse," exhibition curator William Breazeale will be joined by the artist's son, Hosea Baskin, a noted rare-book collector and dealer to discuss Baskin — who collaborated with writers such as Ted Hughes and James Baldwin — and the intersection of art and literature. For more information and a link to register, click HERE.

Through engaging, innovative, and life-changing interactions with art, the Crocker Art Museum provides meaningful opportunities for people of divergent backgrounds to find common ground. Founded as a public/private partnership in 1885, the Crocker features the world’s foremost display of California art and is renowned for its holdings of master drawings and international ceramics, as well as European, Asian, African, and Oceanic art. The Crocker serves as the primary regional resource for the study and appreciation of fine art and offers a diverse spectrum of exhibitions, events, and programs to deepen visitor’s understanding of art, including films, concerts, studio classes, lectures, and an array of activities for families and children. More information about exhibits and programs can be found at crockerart.org