Baskin, Leonard


Baskin, Leonard (1922- 2000) Printmaker, sculptor, book designer. Born in New Brunswick, N.J., the son of a rabbi. In 1937-39 he studied with the sculptor Maurice Glickman and in 1939 had his first one-man show in NewYork. He attended New York (1939-41) and Yale (1941-43) universities and then served in the U.S. Navy during World War 11 before continuing his studies at the New School for Social Research in New York. The year of his graduation (1949) Baskin began making prints. In 1950 he went to Paris and studied at the Acadamie de la Grande Chaumiare, and the following year to Florence to work at the Accademia di Belle Arti. Baskin's traditional training and his conviction that art should serve one's fellow man made him a rather unique figure during the 1950s, when abstraction and the expression of one's personal feelings held sway.


Rather than experimenting with new formal structures, media, or techniques, Baskin developed a mastery of old techniques -woodcarving, woodcuts, etching, and lithography-and determined to use his work for social ends. During the 1950s he began a series of full-length standing figures of "dead men" in stone, bronze, and wood. Related to these are his "Birdmen" (human figures with bird heads that are reminiscent of certain statues of Egyptian gods) and his "Oppressed Men" (often featuring an owl -another favorite theme-standing on the head of a man). All of these figures represent "universal man" struggling with the problems of life and death, aspiration, immortality, and corruption. In his prints Baskin extends the psychological overtones of his sculpture even further, frequently producing powerful brooding, and even tortured, images. Much of the strength of these works derives from his bold cutting technique, which exploits the texture of the wood, and from his mastery of black and white. Perhaps the two greatest influences on Baskin's work are Japanese calligraphy and German expressionism (the artists he admires most are Kaethe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach). Defending the so-called "literary" or "journalistic" qualities of his work, Baskin has noted: "All art is propaganda.... The communication of an artistic idea is an act of propaganda." He has stated that for him the most important subject is "anxiety-ridden man, imprisoned in his ungainly self," and has illustrated this theme in such prints as Hanged Man, Angel of Death, and Oppressed Bird with Human Aspects.


Like his black ink drawings on white paper, Baskin's graphics are technically brilliant. His most recent work is a series of bronze sculptures-many with an elegiac air-on the usual themes of death and compassion, and like all his work they display an odd combination of sophistication with the seemingly primitive." Baskin is often termed a romantic humanist," perhaps a result of his disavowal of the "purely decorative" and "the private world of the artist." He has long been interested in book illustration and founded the Gehenna Press, Northampton, Mass., which prints and publishes limited editions. A typical volume would be Homed Beetles and Other Insects, for which Baskin has provided thirty-four etchings; however, his interest extends beyond illustration into total book design: the integrating of type, paper, illustrations, and binding to form an esthetic object. Baskin has taught at Smith College since 1953 and has won numerous awards including the Printmaking Prize at the Sdo Paulo Biennial (1961) and medals from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (1965) and the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1969).