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  Morris Blackburn (1902–1979). “(Abstract) Figure,” c. 1940.  
Morris Blackburn, Abstract Figure

A Scarce Mid-Twentieth-Century Modernist Print by Blackburn

Morris Blackburn (1902–1979). “(Abstract) Figure,” c. 1940. Screenprint. Edition of 30. Image: 7 x 5 1/2". Sheet: 10 1/8 x 7 3/8". Estate signed, l. r.: Morris Blackburn / Estate. Very faint smudging in margins. Overall, excellent condition.


Philadelphia artist Morris Blackburn’s bold abstraction of the human figure superbly represents the American application of Cubist ideas to the print medium. Here, Blackburn reduces his composition to simple, floating forms of flat color that suggest the collage technique of Braque and Picasso. But instead of pasting torn or cut pieces of paper onto a canvas, Blackburn used stencils to hand-apply color in a pattern of abstract graphic shapes—a technique called “pochoir” by the French and a form of the present-day screenprint.

The technique in itself was nothing new. “Hand-colouring of prints by stencil had been practiced since the earliest days of printmaking,” according to print expert Bamber Gascoigne, “and there was a fashion for book illustrations coloured by this method from around the turn of the century to the 1930s. In such cases the artist either had to limit himself to a stencilled design where no colour ever completely surrounded a plain area, or he had to use some such device as that of the Japanese, who have traditionally attached floating parts to the main body of the stencil by hairs too fine to obstruct the paint. It was an extension of this idea, replacing the individual hairs with a complete and pre-existing mesh of very fine strands, which made possible the new technology of screen printing in the early years of [the twentieth] century.”

Blackburn’s innovation occurred in the application of pochoir to fine art prints. Noted for his ingenious use of printmaking materials and techniques, he was one of the first artists of the mid-twentieth century to do so. Further, he applied the technique to the vocabulary of Synthetic Cubism, perhaps taking cues from fellow Philadelphian Stuart Davis, whose use of strong, simplified forms and bold, vibrant colors expressed Davis’s interest in creating a new, uniquely American abstract style based on two-dimensional design and nonrepresentational color. Blackburn was also much influenced by the modernist painter Arthur B. Carles, his mentor in Philadelphia. Early in his career, Carles was a tangential member of the Stieglitz circle, and he had his first one-man show under the auspices of Alfred Stieglitz at his Gallery 291. In the early 1930s, Carles’s work became increasingly abstracted as he simplified his forms and created intentionally ambiguous space. Following Carles’s death in 1952, William Seitz wrote that Carles was “one of the least appreciated of our pioneers and one of the most notable native precursors of Abstract Expressionism.” He was an endlessly experimental artist, and he passed his innovative tendencies on to his pupil Blackburn.

The present print appears to be a variant of a composition that Blackburn executed in a smaller format and a different color palette. Although the print is not signed by the artist, it is guaranteed by Blackburn’s estate as a lifetime print, one that he himself created and executed. Blackburn apparently had the habit of printing an entire edition of each image at one time, but signing a print only when it sold.

Blackburn’s work represents a compendium of transatlantic stylistic developments spanning the first half of the twentieth century. Although he did not achieve in his lifetime the national reputation of an artist like Davis, he nonetheless had an enormous impact on his immediate environment. A masterful painter, printmaker, and graphic artist, he was a legendary teacher at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, inspiring a host of students in the arts of painting and printmaking.

Offered here is a superb impression of this scarce, early American modernist print by one of the medium’s finest mid-twentieth-century innovators.

Refs.: Kathleen A. Foster, “Stuart Davis and American Abstraction” at; Bamber Gascoigne, How to Identify Prints (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995), pp. 45, 64.

Copyright 2003, William R. Talbot