For Leonard Baskin
Posthumous Exhibits, Praise and Emotion
Continue to Exalt the Man and His Legacy
By Edward Shanahan
Seven years after his death, artist Leonard Baskin, certainly celebrated in his time, has grown not only in historical stature but in local recognition in the community where he lived and toiled for so many years.
This has been something of a banner year for Baskin and his work, which is always easily viewed at the Michelson Gallery on Main Street in Northampton.
The summer also found Baskin the focus of an extensive and powerfully evocative exhibition of his works at the Smith College Museum of Art.
Titled “Medea and Her Sisters, Leonard Baskin’s Images of Women,” was on display at the museum from June 15 to Sept. 9. It focused on Baskin’s later works, which shifted from an earlier preoccupation with the robust, dark and sometimes brooding male image to his new interest in portraying women, mainly drawn from classical mythology, in woodcuts and sculptures, and introducing an increasing use of color.
I found the exhibition completely riveting and was surprised that this aspect of Baskin’s work had somehow eluded me previously. Also, I was impressed by the sheer productivity of the artist, especially in the waning years of his illustrious career.
Ultimately, with the artist, it’s all about the work, isn’t it?
And then just recently, the focus on Baskin as sculptor and visual artist shifted sharply during an amazing Sunday afternoon event at the Neilson Library Browsing Room at Smith College, which, appropriately enough, is where Baskin taught and worked for so much of his professional life.
Organized by a Five College umbrella organization called Museums 10 and part of a series of programs on the Art of the Book, this program concentrated on “The Book Arts Legacy of Leonard Baskin,” which meant celebrating the craft and intelligence of Baskin’s Gehenna Press.
As part of the program, Sharon Shaloo, director of the Massachusetts Center for the Book, reported on plans to install a plaque at 51 Clark Avenue to commemorate the 1953 location in Northampton of the much admired Gehenna Press.
The Center for the Book, an affiliate of the Library of Congress, has prepared a map of the Commonwealth which pinpoints precise locations of landmark literary sites. Other Northampton sites include the Calvin Coolidge Library at Forbes Library, Historic Northampton’s Henry James exhibit, and the Bridge Street Cemetery where George Washington Cable is buried and the Jonathan Edwards Memorial located.
Amherst has no fewer than 16 literary sites identified on the map, including Emily Dickinson’s home, Robert Frost’s residence on Sunset Avenue, and other locations relating to Noah Webster, Ray Standard Baker, Howard Garis and Robert Francis.
As part of the program, Barbara Blumenthal, herself a book artist and book arts specialist at Smith College, provided a fascinating and comprehensive overview of the history of major book artists associated with the Valley and also those who were tutored by Baskin.
Many of those who packed the reading room on the soft sunny fall day were among the best and brightest and most accomplished of local book designer, binders, illustrators and just plain bibliophiles.
The program, moderated by Martin Antonetti, curator of the Mortimer Rare Book room at Neilson library, ended in spectacular fashion with a presentation by Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress.
His visual presentation was at times humorous, scholarly and finally extremely emotional as he recalled the ways in which Baskin’s Gehenna Press books had altered his own perspective on books and how they might change attitudes about how to view the world, as well as art and the printed words themselves.
He seemed completely in command of all aspects of the volumes produced in such numbers by the Gehenna Press, as well as his knowledgeable asides about book artists in the valley with whose work he also was more than merely familiar.
As he closed his lecture with a final slide of Baskin, his voice choked, he removed his glasses, tried to apologize for the display of emotion saying this always happens when he shows that particular image, and ended his presentation.
As the applause erupted in the room, there were not many dry eyes there either.
Such is the power of an artist. Such is the present-day legacy of Leonard Baskin.
downstreet.net©2001. All rights reserved.