Leonard Baskin (1922-2000) was one of the twentieth century's greatest sculptors and printmakers. Railing against the trends of the time, he maintained a focus on figurative art. Strongly influenced by classical forms, his work reflected his interests in Greek mythology and Jewish tradition and culture. Baskin is also known for having founded one of the longest-running arts presses in the United States.
Leonard Baskin was born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on August 15, 1922, to Samuel and May (Guss) Baskin. His father was an orthodox rabbi, and his brother became a rabbi, too. The family moved to New York when he was seven, and he attended what he later called a "dark, medieval" yeshiva in Brooklyn. When he was a young man he worked in a synagogue for extra money. This strong Jewish upbringing would eventually form the foundation, or context, for his artistic vision. By age 15, he was interested in becoming a sculptor. He studied sculpting as an apprentice to Maurice Glickman from 1937 to 1939 at the Educational Alliance in New York City.
In 1939, at the age of 17, he held his first one-man exhibition of sculptures at the Glickman Studio Gallery. The Prix de Rome awarded his work an honorable mention. This was the first of 40 exhibitions in which his woodcuts, prints, sculptures, and paintings would appear.
From 1939 to 1941, Baskin attended the New York University School of Architecture and Applied Arts. In 1941, he won a scholarship to Yale, where he studied for two years. At the Yale library he discovered William Blake's illustrated books. He was so impressed by Blake that he decided to learn to print and make his own books.
Baskin founded his own press, called Gehenna Press, in 1942 (the name came from a line in Paradise Lost, "and black Gehenna call'd, the type of hell"), while attending Yale. One of the nation's first fine art presses, the Gehenna Press printed over 100 books and became one of this country's longest running private presses. It ran until his death in 2000.
The first book from the Press was Baskin's book of poems, On a Pyre of Withered Roses. Baskin illustrated books by other authors as well, such as Crow by Ted Hughes, Seven Deadly Sins by Anthony Hecht, and Seven Sybils by Ruth Fainlight. He also published great works of literature such as Blake's Auguries of Innocence and Euripides's Hippolytos, and children's books, like Hosie's Alphabet, which won the 1974 Caldecot Medal. Another children's book, written and illustrated by Baskin, was 1984's Imps, Demons, Hobgoblins, Witches, Fairies and Elves. The characters that populate the book were taken from timeless stories by the Brothers Grimm, Shakespeare, and folk traditions.
Baskin served in U.S. Navy in the Pacific at the end of World War II, followed by a brief stint in the Merchant Marines. He returned to the States and attended The New School for Social Research in New York, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1949. In 1946, he married Esther Tane, with whom he had one son. Esther died in 1967.
In 1949, he made his first limited edition prints. The following year, he spent in Paris at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. In 1951, he attended the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1953. That year, he also had a show at the Grace Borgenicht Gallery in New York City that spread interest in his art. Customers, dealers, and artists started to visit him in his studio in Leeds, Massachusetts. In the 1950s, he was the first artist to create oversized woodblock prints. Indeed, he has been referred to as a pioneer in large-scale printmaking. His work was always figurative, whether mythical or commonplace in subject matter.
Birds appear frequently in his work, often as harbingers or representatives from another plane. For example, "Artist's Nightmare," (1995) shows a bird wearing a red robe standing on a naked man who is lying flat. Baskin was also interested in Greek mythology, philosophy and history and used the sibyl, a prophetic female from Greek mythology, as a central figure in many sculptures and paintings.
He was also influenced by his Jewish upbringing. His religious art such as illustrations of the Haggadah and of the Biblical Five Scrolls was informed by his knowledge of Jewish tradition. This influence carried over into later works, such as the "Angels to the Jews" series, as well.
Baskin served as Professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1953 to 1974, where he taught sculpture and printmaking. Albert H. Friedlander, writing for the Independent in London, reported years later in Baskin's obituary, "(He) taught with caustic wit joined with deep concern and affection for his students, from whom he demanded the utmost diligence. He applied the same standards to himself, even in the most difficult times."
In Britain, Baskin was best known for his collaborations with poets Ted Hughes and Anthony Hecht. He illustrated (with wood engravings) and published Hecht's Seven Deadly Sins in 1958 in a limited edition of 300 copies. Later, in 1995, they again collaborated on a book, The Presumptions of Death. Baskin illustrated Hughes's words at the Gehenna Press for over three decades. Baskin and Hughes became friends and starting in the mid-70s, Baskin and his second wife, Lisa (Unger), lived near Hughes in Tiverton, Devon.
One of the best-known collaborations of Baskin and Hughes was Crow in 1970. The work was a result of Baskin's suggestion that Hughes write an entire book of poems about the bird. The book was followed by three more limited editions on the same theme. They also collaborated in 1981 on a Primer of Birds, which the Press released in a limited edition of 250.
The Portland Press Herald, reporting on a 2001 show at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery at MECA called "Woodcuts for 'The Oresteia' by Leonard Baskin," wrote: "Baskin's images—heavy, consequential, confronting mortality but granting a social transcendence of the spirit—and Hughes' words—at least equally monumental—nourished one another, although Baskin as an emblem of that admiration, credited the weight to Hughes."
Baskin returned to the United States in 1984 to teach at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Baskin also survived a stroke that year. In 1992, The Gehenna Press had a 50-year retrospective, called "Caprices, Grotesques and Homages: Leonard Baskin and the Gehenna Press," which toured museums throughout the country, including the Library of Congress.
The works of William Blake continued to influence Baskin's work in later life as well. "Angels to the Jews," a series of large-scale gouaches, was inspired both by Blake and by the Gulf War. The series, first shown in 1991 at the Midtown Payson Gallery in New York, inaugurated the Fine Arts Galleries of the Elsie K. Rudin Judaica Museum of Temple Beth-el in Great Neck, New York, in May 1992. The series portrays the angels wearing ceremonial robes, each one representing a human behavior through gesture and colors.
Baskin created figurative art during an era of abstract expressionism and pop art. He despised those trends and did not make a secret of it. He was quoted in Publisher's Weekly, as saying that "Pop art is the inedible raised to the unspeakable." Baskin preferred art that was representative; some called it old fashioned. In the Times of London he was quoted as having said, "Human beings have not changed. No matter how fast we go we still function as physical beings. That is of overwhelming importance to my art—the continuum of human life—that is what makes art sublime."
His work was shown in more than 40 exhibition during his lifetime. Currently, Baskin's work is displayed in The Art Institute of Chicago, the Library of Congress, National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Smithsonian Institute, The Vatican Museum, and the British Museum, to name a few. His work varied in size from a small Abraham Lincoln stamp he produced for the U.S. Mint, to large monuments like the Woodrow Wilson Memorial in Washington and the Holocaust Memorial in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Baskin's Holocaust Memorial resides at the First Jewish Cemetery in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Memorial, unveiled in 1994, is a sculpture of a robed, seated man, seven feet high. With one fist over its face, and its other hand stretched toward the sky, the figure is a dramatic reminder of the anguish of the victims of the Holocaust.
Baskin created a series of woodcuts about the Holocaust during the mid-1990s. One, more than five feet in length, portrayed a skeleton rising, surrounded by crows and owls. Printed on the work is a Yiddish proverb written by the artist: "The resurrection of the dead; we don't believe in it. In any case, the owls and the crows will represent us."
Baskin was one of five artists who worked on the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington. Designer and landscape architect Lawrence Halprin planned the memorial for Roosevelt that would have four galleries representing the 32nd President's four terms in office. Baskin's work is on the fourth panel, a 30-foot long bas-relief of Roosevelt's funeral procession. "He was the first president I ever voted for," Baskin told the Jewish Bulletin in May 1997. "He was a paragon, a mighty man with the most wondrous common touch ever perceived." The Roosevelt Memorial is a series of open-air galleries spread out over seven and a half acres near the Potomac River. It was dedicated in May 1997 by President Clinton. In April 1997, Baskin told Susan Stamberg, of NPR's "All Things Considered:" "When I had the task to deal with this funeral cortege, I of course replaced all of those cars with weeping and mourning people. That's the essential difference, but I think it's a difference in which art is providing a reality which perhaps the true reality would deny."
Richard Michelson, an art dealer from Northhampton, Massachussets, has represented Baskin since 1985. He told The Omaha World-Herald in June 2000, "I've felt all along that Leonard is one of the last great renaissance men. He's somebody who worked in many different fields and in a sense had a career in different fields that was equal to people who only concentrated in one."
Among Baskin's lifetime of Honors are six honorary doctorates, a Gold Medal for Graphic Arts from the National Institute and Academy of Arts and Letters in 1969, and a Special Medal of Merit of the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Gold Medal of the National Academy of Design. Baskin was a member of various national and royal academies in Belgium, Italy, and U.S. The National Foundation of Jewish Culture in the U.S. presented him with its "Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in Visual Arts" in 2000.
Baskin died on June 3, 2000, at the age of 77. He never quit working, organizing his last show, a collection of his woodcuts, from his deathbed. The show ran through August 27, 2000, at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco. In a June 6, 2000, obituary, the Washington Post quoted Baskin, "My sculptures are memorials to ordinary human beings, gigantic monuments to the unnoticed dead: the exhausted factory worker, the forgotten tailor, the unsung poet … Sculpture at its greatest and most monumental is about simple, abstract, emotional states, like fear, pride, love and envy. "
All Things Considered (transcript), April 25, 1997.
Dallas Morning News, October 21, 1984.
Independent, June 8, 2000.
Jewish Bulletin, May 2, 1997.
Newsday, May 6, 1992.
Omaha World-Herald, June 13, 2000.
Portland Press Herald, August 22, 1999; August, 12, 2001.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 23, 2000.
Scotsman, August 1, 2000.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 19, 1999.
Times of London, June 7, 2000.
Washington Post, June 6, 2000.
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