Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Examines the Life and Work of Robert Blackburn and Printmaking in the United States

Tour Launches at Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, Missouri, March 28
February 12, 2020
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Girl in Red, 1950

Robert Blackburn
Girl in Red, 1950
18 ¼ x 12 ½ inches
Color Lithograph
The Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art

 A new exhibition exploring the life and work of artist Robert Blackburn, whose innovation and masterful expertise with the medium helped define the overall aesthetic of the American graphics “boom,” will debut at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, March 28. “Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking,” curated by Deborah Cullen, is organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in cooperation with the Trust for Robert Blackburn and The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts’ Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop Program. The exhibition will remain on view through Aug. 2 before continuing an eight-city national tour through 2022.

Blackburn was a key artist in the development of printmaking in the United States. He became known as an influential teacher and master printer, engaging with avant-garde artistic ideas while promoting a new collaborative approach to a traditional medium. The exhibition traces Blackburn’s artistic evolution alongside the original prints of other iconic 20th-century American artists with whom he collaborated.

“The exhibition brings together a variety of works that highlights the prolific life of an artist and a skilled technical printmaker who openly shared his knowledge with the community, providing an open graphics studio for artists of diverse social and economic backgrounds, ethnicities, styles and levels of expertise,” said Myriam Springuel, director of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Smithsonian Affiliations. 

Blackburn was born to Jamaican immigrants Dec. 10, 1920, and raised in Harlem, New York, during the Harlem Renaissance, an unparalleled flourishing of the arts centered in New York City’s creative black community. The arts were considered crucial to the well-being of society as well as a fertile medium for activism, and these values resonated with Blackburn throughout his life and work. In 1947, he founded a printmaking workshop as a welcoming space where artists of any level could learn and create together, and it remains in operation to this day. Blackburn’s art gradually shifted from figurative work to highly colored abstraction, creating a fascinating and engaging body of work.

“Robert Blackburn help forge a modernist graphic aesthetic, producing work of astonishing relevance for more than 60 years,” Cullen said. “He also directed the oldest and largest artist-run print workshop in the United States, welcoming thousands of artists from around the world.”

“Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking” celebrates both the artist and the democratic, diverse and creative community that he created. It features approximately 60 works, including lithographs, woodcut, intaglio and watercolors by Blackburn and the artists with whom he collaborated, including Grace Hartigan, Robert Rauschenberg, Elizabeth Catlett and Romare Bearden, among others. The exhibition is supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation and funding from the Smithsonian’s Provost Office.

SITES has been sharing the wealth of Smithsonian collections and research programs with millions of people outside Washington, D.C., for more than 65 years. SITES connects Americans to their shared cultural heritage through a wide range of exhibitions about art, science and history, which are shown wherever people live, work and play. For more information, including exhibition descriptions and tour schedules, visit

The Henry Luce Foundation seeks to enrich public discourse by promoting innovative scholarship, cultivating new leaders and fostering international understanding. The foundation’s American Art Program, a leader in arts funding since 1982, supports museums, arts organizations and universities, in their efforts to advance the understanding and experience of American and Native American visual arts through research, exhibitions, collection projects and publications. For more information, visit

The Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City is recognized nationally and internationally as one of America’s finest art museums. The museum, which strives to be the place where the power of art engages the spirit of community, opens its doors free of charge to people of all backgrounds. The museum is an institution that both challenges and comforts, that both inspires and soothes and it is a destination for inspiration, reflection and connecting with others. For more visit

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