As I swing open the heavy, carved wooden door to the West Valley Art Museum in Surprise, the odd juxtaposition of the serene paintings of Phoenix's own 92-year-old Philip Curtis with the in-your-face artwork of 78-year-old Leonard Baskin throws me completely off guard.
I've come to see "Leonard Baskin: The Holocaust and Other Prints and Sculpture." The show is to include a fairly recent series of woodcuts by Baskin dealing with the Holocaust, organized by West Valley Art Museum's chief curator, Don Gray. All but two of the pieces in the show have been lent to the museum by Scottsdale's Bill Bishop Gallery, Baskin's longtime representative in Arizona.
I expect to be greeted by a gallery shrouded in a hushed pall. Instead, the museum's front portals empty into a large anteroom crammed with six-foot woodcut prints, slashed with Hebrew inscriptions in blood red, depicting anguish and death. Additionally, the space displays a veritable forest of freestanding bronze sculptures representing ominous birds and mythological creatures combining birds of prey and humans.
I just hadn't foreseen that the room would also be filled with chattering seniors about to enter into Curtis' concurrent exhibition of surrealistic oil paintings, all suffused with an otherworldly golden glow -- and the tantalizing aroma of cooking from the nearby museum cafe.
The older museum patrons' animated socializing and lively lack of attention to the jarring images surrounding them stand in stark contrast to the solemnity of Leonard Baskin's subject matter. It is a wry, unverbalized statement about the human condition itself -- or maybe the media-induced, postmodern habituation to death and destruction. In either event, it is a statement Baskin, an artist's artist of the old school who has always been unfashionably in love with the human form and spirit, probably would appreciate.
"It took me 50 years to deal with the Holocaust at all," Baskin, who is himself Jewish, told curator Gray in an interview in 1996. This was in spite of the urging of his friend, the Italian-born figurative artist and teacher Rico Lebrun (whom Baskin considers one of the world's greatest artists), to aesthetically tackle the subject as Lebrun had in paintings and drawings dating from the mid-1950s. "Rico Lebrun said it's the subject of the 20th century. Not to deal with it is a total evasion for any artist."
Acutely aware that the powerful photographic legacy of one of history's most shameful sagas makes any artistic attempts to depict or comment upon it pallid at best, Baskin finally tried a different approach. "And I did it in a literary way," he told Gray of his Holocaust woodcuts, done in 1996 and 1997. "I invented slogans in Yiddish, new slogans like 'Who Shall We Complain To; Our God's Asleep.' Or 'At Least Death Loves the Jews.'"
"For the proverbs and apothegms [witty sayings] to allow me into the vast hideousness of the Holocaust," Baskin asserts in an artist's statement accompanying the work, "they need to be bitter beyond bile, sarcastic out of measure, they must be ghastly & terrible & thus help carry the meaning of the large prints. These woodcuts make but a faint stab at the appalling actuality of the Holocaust. . . ."
The corrosive sarcasm of Baskin's titles, set against the sobering iconographic reduction of death to hulking skeletal figures and Yiddish text in Hebraic script, gives his large-scale woodcuts an Old Testament fire-and-brimstone feel. The artist's melding of human and inhuman forms throughout the series is entirely in keeping with a visual conceit with which he's been associated for years.
In At Least Death Loves the Jews, death masquerades as a buxom, skull-headed female torso with wizened hands; the heavy black ink of the figure seems to pop out in relief against an unexpected hot pink background. All touches of humanity wither away as the artist excoriates death itself in Well, Death, Have You Devoured Enough of Our Children[?], a black-and-rust woodcut of a seated, fleshed-out human body capped with a naked skull, its monstrous arms clutching bony knees.
And there's no mistaking what Baskin feels about the perpetrators responsible for the killing of children in The Specially Ordained Slaughterer for Children. This enormous woodcut fills a five-and-a-half-foot length of paper with the image of a hairy, paunchy gorilla sporting a grinning death's head, a limp penis dangling in the dark void between his massive legs.
Using black birds to psychologically represent the dark side of the human psyche, The Resurrection of the Dead: In Any Case the Owls and Crows Will Represent Us depicts a conclave of large predatory crows and ravens, perched on skulls, orchestrated by a skeleton-bird. It is to be noted that such birds live on decaying flesh, and in popular mythology the raven is said to have a special fondness for the corpses of hanged men. Baskin has long used these birds, associated with darkness, night and evil in many cultures, as symbolic harbingers of misfortune, disease, war and death.
As one would suspect, Baskin is no stranger to the literary, the religious or the macabre. The son of a New Jersey rabbi, he became intrigued with Greek mythology and philosophy early on. A traditional printmaker, sculptor, fine art book designer and graphic artist, Baskin attended Yale University's School of Art, founding the Gehenna Press while a student there in 1942. The name for his fine art printing press, which still exists, comes from a line in John Milton's Paradise Lost: "And black Gehenna call'd, the type of Hell."
Through the years, Baskin, who now lives in New York, has collaborated with a number of well-known literary figures on both sides of the Atlantic. English poet laureate Ted Hughes, the recently deceased husband of the mythic American poet Sylvia Plath, admits to creating Crow -- a series of poems illustrated by Baskin in which Hughes devises a personal folk mythology surrounding the symbolic bird -- as a result of Baskin's invitation to do a book "simply about crows." The invitation resulted in a long, fruitful collaboration between the two artists.
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Baskin's work has been a part of major museum collections throughout the world -- even, ironically, the Vatican Museum. In 1994, the Library of Congress' Rare Book and Special Collections Division celebrated 50 years of Baskin's work at Gehenna with an exhibition titled "Caprices, Grotesques and Homages: Leonard Baskin and the Gehenna Press."
Baskin's reputation as a preeminent American sculptor earned him the honor of creating The Funeral Cortege, one of five bronzes unveiled in 1997 that stand as a tribute to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. The artist's Ann Arbor Holocaust Memorial, raised on the site of the first Jewish cemetery in Michigan, was presented to the public in 1994. The memorial is a seven-foot bronze of a heavily draped, seated figure, its face buried in one arm in a posture of grieving, the other arm raised to the heavens in a fisted salute. A maquette of the memorial is a part of the West Valley Art Museum's Baskin exhibition.
Baskin's foreboding work, especially his Holocaust Series, can never be accused of being light or frothy. Coming of aesthetic age at a time when the self-absorption of abstract expressionism took center stage, Baskin unapologetically championed -- and still continues to champion -- the figurative and representational, with a good measure of social consciousness thrown into the mix.
A number of the works included in the West Valley Art Museum's show seem to detract from the power of Baskin's Holocaust pieces, which have, for some inexplicable reason, been consigned to an area of the museum too casual for the tenor of the artist's deadly serious work. Thematically unrelated work deflects attention away from Baskin's major, admittedly oppressive leitmotif. The artist's hellish vision of man's inhumanity to man and death's innate indignity embodied in these powerful woodcuts is unambiguous and unvarnished. These are images that bristle with the pure, unadulterated rage we should all feel at that murderous part of the human heart to which we are unfortunately heir -- that part capable of committing atrocities.