This exhibition of work by internationally renowned artist Leonard Baskin features almost 70 objects that were created from the early 1950s to his death in June 2000. These include 17 sculptures, mostly bronze but one in wood, and almost 50 prints and drawings.
A longtime Northampton resident, Baskin taught in the art department at Smith College from 1953 to 1974 and at Hampshire College in Amherst from 1984 to 1994. “Baskin died shortly after the Museum closed for the renovation and expansion of the Brown Fine Arts Center,” says Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Aprile Gallant, the lead organizer of the exhibition. “Because gallery space was so fully committed upon reopening, this has been the first opportunity to install an exhibition of suitable scale in tribute to this artist, who had such a long and storied career in the world of art and as an educator in this community.”
Baskin was best known for emotionally charged bronze sculpture and for monumental woodcuts, but he was a prolific creator of works in almost every visual art medium, with the notable exception of oil painting. This exhibition—conceived by Gallant and organized with Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture Linda Muehlig—questions two concepts that have characterized Baskin’s work since he introduced them in a 1964 Time magazine interview: that he didn’t work in color and that he didn’t portray women. As he said, “Black and White is all I need,” and, “The female form is useful for some ideas, but the colossal male is better suited to the ghoulish ones I try to portray.”
“I think these statements gained traction, in part, because Baskin said them himself,” Gallant says. “They were just two out of many bold, declarative statements that appeared in that early interview. They have been repeated so often, in everything from reviews to his New York Times obituary more than 40 years later, that they color the way people look at Baskin’s work.”
Leonard Baskin. © Noel Chanan
Gallant notes that although there have been many exhibitions of the artist’s woodcuts, sculpture, and books, for which Baskin gained rapid and widespread recognition in the ’50s and ’60s, he went on to create a great deal of art that is different but still clearly related. “Those who know his early work, such as his monumental woodcuts, may not realize that such statements don’t adequately describe the full range of his career. The color and brushwork in his late drawings, including depictions of Mary Magdalene (1995), or of Judith with the head of Holofernes (1999), can without exaggeration be called extreme.”
“We chose this theme for the exhibition,” Gallant says, “partially because Smith is a women’s college, but also because it seemed like a way to bring into focus a very large and diverse body of work that had not received full attention.” The exhibition will also examine the way Baskin’s treatment of certain classical themes and figures evolved during his career and in different forms. “We focus on Medea for a portion of the show, because Medea, more than any other figure, appears most often and receives the most varied treatment,” Gallant says. “In a drawing from 1980, some of her teeth are very slightly pointed, and her eyes are a pattern of concentric circles, little patches of white that separate each ring from one another. It has an effect of boring right into you and makes her look particularly intense and furious.”
Muehlig notes that in Baskin’s 1980 bronze sculpture of Medea the figure is muffled in heavy draperies, but the abdomen is prominently exposed. “The exposure of this part of the body immediately brings to mind Medea’s murderous maternity. In the version of the myth recounted by Euripides in his play, Medea kills her two sons in revenge against her husband, Jason, who had abandoned her for another woman. Baskin’s sculpture of this powerful—and dangerous—woman conveys a complicated message of both menace and tragedy.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color publication featuring an essay by artist/writer Rosamond Purcell. Click here to buy it.