5 Fast Facts: Alison Saar

Impress your friends with five fast facts about sculptor and printmaker Alison Saar (b. 1956), whose work is on view in Alison Saar In Print through October 2, 2016.

Alison Saar (b. 1956)

Alison Saar with her works in NMWA’s exhibition Alison Saar In Print

Alison Saar with her works in NMWA’s exhibition Alison Saar In Print

1. All In the Family

Saar grew up surrounded by art, thanks to her mother, the renowned collagist and assemblage artist Betye Saar, and her father, Richard, an art conservator and painter. Saar’s opened her eyes to art making and deepened her interest in other cultures.

2. Past Lives

Saar often incorporates found objects into her artwork. She credits childhood visits to Watts Towers with inspiring her practice by showing her that anything could have a second life. She enjoys working with materials that have a history.

3. By Any Other Name

Because Saar’s work often explores dark or disturbing themes, she adds levity by incorporating wordplay and double entendres into the titles of her works. She relates this method to the blues. “They’re playing these heart-wrenching songs, but there’s also some humorousness to them, some sort of escape,” says Saar.

Alison Saar, Tango, 2005; Woodcut on paper, 25 3/4 x 38 3/4 in.' Courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver; © Alison Saar

Alison Saar, Tango, 2005; Woodcut on paper, 25 3/4 x 38 3/4 in.’ Courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver; © Alison Saar

4. Two Worlds

Saar cites her identity as a biracial woman as an influence in her artistic practice. She often tackles the concept of duality in her work—themes like freedom versus oppression and humor mixed with despair.

5. Bring Your Own Background

When asked how people should interpret her work, Saar replied, “Just look at it.” She believes that she only does half of the work on each piece. The viewer completes it by bringing his or her own history and perspective to the interpretation of Saar’s art.

Visit the museum to see Alison Saar In Print before the exhibition closes on October 2, 2016.

—Hannah Page was the summer 2016 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Richenda Cunningham and the Picturesque

Have you ever been on a camping trip or a hike and caught yourself exclaiming, “That sunset is sublime!” or “Aren’t those mountains picturesque?” In our modern-day language, we use the terms sublime and picturesque loosely to describe sights and sounds that strike us as aesthetically pleasing. This broad usage was not the case, however, for nineteenth-century British artist Richenda Cunningham, whose lithographic print portfolio ”Nine Views Taken on the Continent” is now on view at NMWA through March 13.

Cunningham was greatly influenced by Romanticism—a pervasive movement sweeping England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that encouraged a love of nature and travel. At the time, Romantic artists used three distinct terms to describe the natural world: the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque. The beautiful referred to the peaceful, orderly qualities of nature—a placid pastoral scene or a landscape illuminated by the setting sun. When talking about the sublime, Romantics meant the overwhelming, frightening aspects of nature, such as a crack of lightning or a waterfall—something that could overpower you.

The picturesque, however, was much more elusive in definition. The term was coined in 1768 by British clergyman and travel enthusiast Reverend William Gilpin (1724—1804) to describe the beauty of roughness, irregularity, and disrepair in nature and architecture. Picturesque artists saw beauty in unlikely places—a moldy bridge, a ruined gateway, or an ancient arch overgrown with ivy. In addition to presenting broken down edifices as things of beauty, picturesque artists like Cunningham shared a common technique: embellishment. Cunningham and her ilk manipulated their work to include visually striking elements—a jagged mountain range or a broken fence—to heighten drama and picturesque effect.

Cunningham’s “Nine Views Taken on the Continent,” c. 1830, is a print portfolio depicting ruined buildings and dramatized landscapes in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, locations she likely visited in 1815. Epitomizing the picturesque style, Cunningham’s embellished views served as artistic resources for tourists who wished to employ an imaginative aesthetic lens when traveling. Portfolios like Cunningham’s additionally served the needs of English citizens who, while perhaps unable to afford an expensive sojourn to continental Europe, could expose themselves to views of faraway locations via travel prints.

Can you spot the picturesque embellishments in Cunningham’s prints? Take a minute to compare her views of specific European monuments with photographs of the same locations.

Castle of Heidelberg from “Nine Views Taken on the Continent,” c. 1830 Lithograph on paper; Charles Joseph Hullmandel, printer

 

Heidelberg Castle today

Dominating the city of Heidelberg, Germany, from its location on the Königstuhl hillside, Heidelberg Castle had long been a popular subject for Romantic artists like J. M. W. Turner (1775—1851) who painted the structure often throughout his career. Cunningham embellished her rendering of Heidelberg Castle for picturesque effect: the castle is compressed to appear dramatically tall and placed on a jagged rock formation reminiscent of the Athenian acropolis. Rugged mountains loom in the background, with gnarled trees and twisted bushes framing the scene on either side. In actuality, the castle is composed of many lower-lying structures and flanked by ambling mountains—an overall much tamer scene than Cunningham’s majestic view.

Pont du Gard, Provence from “Nine Views Taken on the Continent,” c. 1830 Lithograph on paper; Charles Joseph Hullmandel, printer

Pont du Gard today

Crossing the Gard River in southern France, the first-century AD Roman aqueduct known as Pont du Gard is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist attractions in France. In use until the Middle Ages, the bridge became a popular destination for Romantic tourists and artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As with Castle of Heidelberg, the aqueduct in Cunningham’s print is vertically compressed for visual impact. The vantage point is low, with viewers poised to gaze upward at the aqueduct, lending a sense of awe and wonderment to the structure. A craggy outcropping dominates the left side of the print, while wild, overgrown vines sprawl across the arches of the aqueduct.

Triumphal Arch at St. Rémy in Provence from “Nine Views Taken on the Continent,” c. 1830 Lithograph on paper; Charles Joseph Hullmandel, printer

Triumphal Arch and Cenotaph Today

Near the present-day city of St. Rémy de Provence in southern France lay the ruins of Glanum, a Roman-era settlement and one of the most important archaeological sites in the country. Several monumental structures were built in Glanum during the reign of Augustus (27 BC—14 AD), including two monuments collectively known today as “Les Antiques”: a triumphal arch with reliefs depicting Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, and a tall cenotaph, or funeral monument, dedicated to the Julii clan. These two monuments have captivated the imaginations of tourists and artists for centuries.

Cunningham employed ample artistic license in her rendering of the triumphal arch by adding a full-scale mountain range to the background (stylistically similar to the unusual, jagged mountains in Castle of Heidelberg), adorning the foreground with ruined column capitals, and incorporating minuscule human figures at the center to overstate the arch’s scale. Most notably, Cunningham eliminated the cenotaph from her view altogether in order to place full emphasis on the imposing form of the arch.

Raphael Fitzgerald is curatorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

From the Vault: Blanche Grambs Mines for Inspiration in the New Deal Era

Drawing inspiration from the social and economic conditions of the Great Depression, American illustrator and printmaker Blanche Grambs incorporated the struggles of the New Deal era into her work. Grambs studied at the Art Students League of New York, a progressive institution where teachers often encouraged students to integrate socially driven messages into their assignments. Guided by her conviction that artists’ work could combat societal ills, Grambs created prints of jobless and homeless people, as well as industrial workers and miners. While she only produced prints for a short period of time in the 1930s, she is best known for these intaglios, lithographs, and relief prints.

Blanche Grambs, Coal Breaker, 1937; Aquatint and etching on paper (artist’s proof); 11 7/8 x 14 7/8 in.; Gift of Jacob Kainen

NMWA recently acquired four prints executed by Grambs during her time at the Federal Arts Project (FAP), a short-lived New Deal program run under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Two of the works—Coal Breakers, 1937 and Coal Cars, 1936belong to a series of industrial mining images that Grambs created while visiting the Coal Region of Eastern Pennsylvania. During the summer of 1936, Grambs’ printmaking instructor Harry Sternberg invited her, along with other students, on an excursion to Lansford, Pennsylvania. Appalled by the miners’ working conditions she encountered, Grambs found new socially relevant subject matter to supplant her previous work that had illustrated the dreadful conditions of the Depression in New York City. Grambs’ newly chosen-issue to depict still resonates with audiences today, who witness the perils of mining all too frequently in the news.

Unlike her contemporaries who glorified the industrial age and the machine, Grambs relayed the miner’s plight to the viewer through several portraits of the miners and depictions of mines. For Grambs, lithography and aquatint provided the ideal medium to capture her experience of the mining industry: interaction with the miners, exploration of the mining towns, and descension into the abysmal mining tunnels. Aquatint, in particular, allowed the artist to emulate the soot-laden atmosphere and diffused light caused by the perpetual smoke from coal-pit fires. In her aquatint Coal Breaker, piles of tailings—the waste by-product of coal production—overshadow the silhouetted train cars that ascend to and depart from the processing plant. The rough, grainy texture of the etched surface and the prominent placement of the mining waste of Coal Breaker sully the popular image of a pristine, streamlined industrial plant.

Blanche Grambs, Coal Cars, 1936; Lithograph on paper; 11 5/8 x 18 in.; Gift of Jacob Kainen

Unlike Coal Breaker’s aboveground perspective, Grambs’ 1936 lithograph titled Coal Cars guides the viewer into the subterranean interior of the mine. The print evokes a stark contrast between the seemingly-endless mining tunnel and the train car brimming with coal nuggets. The underground coal car transporting its lucrative commodity recedes sharply into the distance, perhaps suggesting to the viewer the overwhelming amount of labor involved. The aquatint and lithograph both omit the actual miners from the scenes, but nonetheless, human presence is palpable. While Coal Breaker informs viewers of the mounting waste and deplorable working conditions on the surface, Coal Cars reveals a similar sight underground, reminding the viewer of the daunting task required of mine workers.

Born in Beijing in 1916 to American parents, Grambs was raised in China, but arrived in the United States in March 1934 after receiving a full scholarship to the Art Students League. Though she remained politically active throughout her life, Grambs stopped producing prints with a social agenda when she left the WPA in the 1940s to work as a fashion illustrator for Woman’s Day magazine. She later transitioned to book-illustrating in the late 1950s and 1960s, working well into the 1980s. Nevertheless, it was her printmaking years in the thirties in which her art and her commitment to social change were seamlessly intertwined. Blanch Grambs passed away this past March in her New York residence at the age of 94.

–Lindsay Amini is education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

SOLO Spotlight: Jean Shin

Jean Shin, And We Move (Pause), 2008, Courtesy of SOLO Impression

Jean Shin is a master of rendering small objects on a monumental scale. The everyday becomes epic. Her works in The Collaborative Print: Works from SOLO Impression, on view through September 13, aptly convey the grandeur of her quotidian forms.

Born in Seoul in 1971, Shin currently lives and works in New York City. She earned a B.F.A. and a M.A. from Pratt Institute, while her studies have also taken her to the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Notable honors have included a Biennial Art Award from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation in 2001 and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004. Washington, DC has often been a welcoming city for her art. Last summer, Jean Shin: Common Threads at the Smithsonian American Art Museum was her first solo museum exhibition, while the earliest exhibition of her work, Presidential Scholars in the Visual Arts in 1990, was also at SAAM.

Best known for her sculptural installations that explore the theme of community, even large public projects speak to issues of personal and collective identity. A work like Celadon Remnants, 2008, exemplifies these tendencies. First, Shin begins with a collector’s spirit, searching out items commonly conceived as useless. For this project, a mosaic installation at the LIRR Broadway Station in Queens, New York, those otherwise rejected objects were fragments of traditional Korean pottery. These found treasures are then converted into designs that speak to both abstraction and realism. Here, the ceramic remnants were patterned into shapes evoking their original form of Celadon pottery. Yet what the viewer immediately perceives are undulating lines against a white background, shapes without antecedent. Located in a Korean-American community in Queens, the mosaic embraces the neighborhood’s heritage while also remaining accessible to a wider audience.

Jean Shin, Celadon Threads, 2008, Courtesy of SOLO Impression

Shin’s prints are intimately tied to her other works. The print Celadon Threads, 2008, on display in The Collaborative Print, is an obvious example. Created to refer to Celadon Remnants, the digital embroidery triptych is a hybrid of traditional forms with an innovative materiality. The ceramic silhouette again dominates, this time made with needle and thread, suggesting subdued domestic space instead of the hustle-and-bustle of an entire neighborhood. What the viewer witnesses with these two works is the dynamism between public and private and the common motifs that support both identities.

The various elements of And We Move (Pause), 2008, also on view in The Collaborative Print, further illustrate the assemblage mentality that runs through all of Shin’s work. Seeking to illustrate via print-making the experience of listening to music performed live, the series of five prints combines three components of the same event. The blocks of black, made silky with moments of light and shadow, are the photographic stills of a conductor’s back as he leads an orchestra. The minute, finely detailed musical score is excerpted from Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s Ma Vlast, while the precise embroidery mimics the sound waves of the performance. The communal spirit of listening to—and seeing—music fills the gallery, nurturing the public-private space that Shin so expertly explores.

-Rebecca Park is editorial intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

SOLO Spotlight: Dotty Attie

Dotty Attie, Mother’s Kisses, 1982

Dotty Attie’s work—mannered, realist, delicate—is all about violence. Masterpieces copied, cut, contextualized anew. Images of women manipulated to accentuate their vulnerability to the powerful male and his gaze. Text interspersed throughout, accentuating divisions and creating a narrative previously unimagined. Visitors to NMWA this summer have the opportunity to experience this original approach to art history and postmodernism—Attie’s Mother’s Kisses, 1982, is on display through September 13 as part of The Collaborative Print: Works from SOLO Impression.

Born in 1938, Attie’s career began in the 1950s when she studied at the Philadelphia College of Art. She first exhibited in the 1960s and has continued to do so since that time; her most recent show was What Would Mother Say? in 2009 at P.P.O.W Gallery in New York. Within that 40 year time span, she has emerged as voice fighting for recognition for women in a male-dominated art world.

Precise, painterly reproductions of Old Master pieces dominate her work. Through copying, Attie finds room for personal reinterpretation. She often only includes specific details and rearranges a large canvas into a series of significantly smaller squares. Usually she includes text when recreating these works, spurring the common comparison of her art to comic strip narratives. Throughout her 40-plus year career, these elements have proven to be important stylistic constants.

Despite this continuity, her work remains relevant. Attie often searches out new subject material, most recently incorporating images from pop culture into her grand tableaux. A textual refrain like “Resistance and Refusal Mean Consent,” which she has included in much of her most recent work, ground her pieces in an unchanging reality in their insistent repetition, demonstrating the effectiveness of the copy-original duality in her art. What she achieves is a forceful reinterpretation of the history of visual culture. Taking the subjects that men depict, she analyzes them anew, revealing the violence hidden when one talks of beauty. In a work like 1998’s Vermeer’s Wife, the Dutch Master’s portraits become a space where women are victim to the male-controlled actions around them, with little voice of their own. In this example, Vermeer’s famous female musician sits mute and disembodied, unable to respond to recently delivered news.

Mother’s Kisses exemplifies these aesthetic and intellectual themes. Here, the classical female nude becomes an object vulnerable to male desires. Sampling from Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, mythical references and symbols of Renaissance refinement are stripped away, indicating the erotic undertones of the work. The woman becomes subject to her son—the 26 small panels accompanying the larger single lithographic sheet include text explaining male power in an incestuous relationship where the mother becomes the victim.

“Making art is a way of life for just about everyone who does it,” Attie has said. “It may seem contradictory for someone who takes images and often text from other sources to feel her work is completely personal, but in fact, I do.”

For a glimpse into this personal realm, check out The Collaborative Print, open through September 13. And remember to visit “Broad Strokes” throughout the summer for more spotlights on SOLO artist!

Rebecca Park is the Summer Publications Intern at NMWA.

SOLO Spotlight: Joyce Kozloff

Joyce Kozloff, Now Voyager I, 2007; Color lithograph with glitter; 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 in.; On loan from SOLO Impression

If I could be an artist, I would want to be Joyce Kozloff. Her work draws on maps, illuminations, historical manuscripts, and website imagery, always delighting the eye with decorative motifs, and a tempest of color and compositional dynamism. Kozloff’s work never bores, which is likely why she has successfully won public art competitions for densely populated spaces, including San Francisco’s International Airport and the Harvard Square T stop. Kozloff’s public art awakens space and engages a never-ending stream of viewers, who benefit from a vibrantly tiled fantasy in their midst. An artist who embraces history, philosophy, and science, Kozloff’s vision retains the values of her early feminist consciousness-raising. Miriam Schapiro challenged Kozloff to think hard about how her art could contribute to changing attitudes about gender, art, and artists. As tough as it was in the early 1970s to be a young mother, wife of an academic, and a professional painter, Kozloff immersed herself in the substantial Los Angeles community of activist women artists and art historians who clambered for change.

This is living history: a young artist absorbed by grassroots political action that took the form of women’s arts groups and a memorable startup brunch that included June Wayne, Moira Roth, Clare Spark, Miriam Schapiro, Judy Chicago and Beverly O’Neill. Kozloff hosted the first Los Angeles Council of Women Artists meeting in her apartment and to her surprise about 65 women showed up, including June Wayne who suggested that she apply to work at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop. How would she balance that against her responsibilities as a wife and mother of a young child? The sheer force of Kozloff’s opinionated colleagues firmly pushed her to Tamarind in 1972 where she created her first professional portfolio of prints.

The physicality involved in printmaking—lugging stones, cranking presses up and down, using large rollers—made printmaking workshops historically a masculine domain. Kozloff suggested to her old art school roommate, Judith Solodkin, also a painter, that she might want to apply to Tamarind. Solodkin did—and became the first woman to graduate from Tamarind as a Master Printmaker. Kozloff emphasized in no uncertain terms that Solodkin broke the glass ceiling where women and printmaking are concerned. Kozloff also set a new benchmark of sorts for Tamarind by using an astounding 29 different colors in her prints. And after she departed, Tamarind included a clause limiting the number of colors an artist could employ.

Back in New York City, Solodkin intrepidly set up shop in her small apartment. Kozloff remembers Solodkin hanging a large sign with gold lettering on her front door: SOLO. Kozloff was one of the first artists to work with her. They produced the series Pictures and Borders in 1977 followed two years later with Is it Still High Art? In more recent years Kozloff has looked heavenward for inspiration, creating prints at Solo based on historic cosmological maps and contemporary weather satellite photographs of the earth. But it is Solodkin who guides the process translating her friend’s conception into earthly delectation.

-Jordana Pomeroy is Chief Curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

SOLO Spotlight: Ida Applebroog

Ida Applebroog’s simplified figures in comic-like settings wrapped in social criticism make her artwork easily identifiable. The Collaborative Print: Works from SOLO Impression features two of Applebroog’s prints, on view through September 13.

Ida Applebroog, Promise I Won’t Die?, 1987, Lithograph, linocut, and watercolor on paper; 36 x 38 in.; Members’ Acquisition Fund

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1929, Applebroog graduated from the New York State Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences in 1949 and began working at an advertising agency. She trained at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1965 to 1968. It was around this time that her artwork gained public recognition. She became well known for her small books that she called “performances.” Her unique graphic works tackle issues of war, sexism, racism, gender and sexual identity, and violence. Applebroog addresses these subjects through minimally drawn figures, repetition, curt texts, and uncanny colors that often trigger uncomfortable reactions. Applebroog was at the Art Institute of Chicago before “feminism was out of the closet,” and her work and the feminist movement took off simultaneously, and she later joined the Heresies feminist collective. When she moved back to New York in the 1970s she began making books out of her drawings and mailing them to artists, writers, and gallery owners (whether she knew them or not). She also created films and installations, but no matter her medium her theme remained focused. “It’s hard to say what your work is about,” she said in an interview, “but for me, it’s really about how power works.”

Applebroog is the recipient of several awards, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Achievement Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the College Art Association. She has had solo exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, among other institutions. Most recently, the artist recovered her “crotch” drawings from 1969 (160 India ink and pencil drawings made in her home bathroom) for an installation presented by Hauser & Wirth in New York.

Ida Applebroog, Gulf + Western Plaza, 1987; Hand-colored lithoraph on paper; 32 1/2 x 23 3/4 in.; Members’ Acquisition Fund

Applebroog worked with Master Printer Judith Solodkin on Promise I Won’t Die?, which combines lithography, linocut, and a rubbing technique that Applebroog and Solodkin developed accidently. The technique created a “soft, dissolving landscape” that Applebroog found appropriate for the background. Her pointed, yet subtle social commentary is evident in this piece through the bold pictures of death including Auschwitz victims and suicide. Characteristic of Applebroog’s work, both Promise I Won’t Die? and Gulf + Western Plaza emanate vulnerability and disquiet.

-Kate Hardwick is an intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Master Collaborator: Judith Solodkin

Opening June 25, The Collaborative Print: Works from SOLO Impression promises to engage viewers of every stripe. More than 40 lithographs and embroidered works represent the close relationship between printer and artist and span a range of artists including Louise Bourgeois, Maya Lin, Jean Shin, and Nancy Spero.

Founder and Master Printer Judith Solodkin established the New York print shop, SOLO Impression Inc., in 1975. Without intending to, she has become a great supporter of women in the arts. Instead of standard “the old boys network,” she has the “old girls network.” Joyce Kozloff, for example, was her roommate in graduate school at Columbia University and Solodkin has been working with Bougeois and Francoise Gilot among others for more than two decades. “Since I started working with a lot of women they are still my friends and I still continue printing with them,” she said. Her goal, though, has always been to work as a printmaker. “I never thought that I couldn’t do certain things for any reason pertaining to my gender,” she recalled. “If I couldn’t do it, then it’s because I couldn’t wrap my head around it, but I knew that I could do just about everything.”

That same attitude has carried over to her collaborations with women artists. She strictly avoids gender essentialism, locating her female clients in the same theoretical and aesthetic realm as their male counterparts. “The difference is the work,” she explained in response to a question regarding the difference between working with men and women artists. “Everyone is different. I don’t think it’s their gender that makes them different. It’s their art that makes them different.”

Solodkin also shares ties with another artist whose work will on view at NMWA starting this Friday: June Wayne. As founder of the Tamarind Lithography workshop in Los Angeles (later the Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque where Solodkin studied), Wayne blazed a trail for women printmakers. Though the two never worked together at Tamarind, they later collaborated in the 1990s on a series of Wayne’s science-inspired prints Near Miss, Nacelle, and Knockout.

Be sure to visit NMWA to see The Collaborative Print and continue to check in with “Broad Strokes” later this summer for SOLO artist profiles!

Master Printer Judith Solodkin in her printing studio in New York City. SOLO has lithograph and inket printers, letterpress, and most recently an embroidery station.

-Rebecca Park is Publications Intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Quotes and photo from an interview between Vivian Djen and Judith Solodkin in April 2010.