Block Printmaking in New Mexico
By Josie Lopez (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2016)

Grade-schoolers often get an art lesson that involves a carved potato, stamp pad, and piece of paper. Rarely do they also learn about past centuries of the printmaking art and its formidable foothold within New Mexico. The Carved Line, a lusciously illustrated book that accompanies an eponymous Albuquerque Museum of Art & History exhibit (through April 16), basks in that story in ways sure to enchant artists, scholars, and those of us who once turned potatoes into art.

Specifically focused on prints made from blocks of wood or linoleum (as opposed to etchings on stone or metal), the book reaches back to ninth-century Japanese artists, the earliest known practitioners. Until Johannes Gutenberg’s 1441 invention of movable type, any printed text or illustration had to be painstakingly carved onto a woodblock, Ginger Rogers style. (Backward, that is. High heels optional.) Thanks to those workaday roots, artists disdained printmakers as ink-stained drudges whose work was better suited to a political broadside than a gallery wall. No matter that some of those anonymous drudges’ works are today regarded on a par with the Old Masters.

In the late 19th century, a burst of consumerism joined forces with the Arts and Crafts movement to push graphic arts into the spotlight. Artists began experimenting with the medium, which in 1915 led to a gold medal at the San Francisco Exposition for a 34-year-old Gustave Baumann. Three years later, Baumann was settled in a Santa Fe home, sharing his master printmaking skills with other artists drawn to the state’s growing reputation as a regional art capital.

His neighbors and fellow artists-about-town represent a Who’s Who of New Mexico artists—B.J.O. Nordfeldt, Oscar Berninghaus, Sven Birger Sandzén, Will Shuster. Often more recognized for their paintings, those artists’ block prints contributed to a larger effort at defining a true American style by interpreting the “exotic” West. The iconography of Hispanic or Native people wrapped in mounds of blankets, the mimicry of mountains and clouds, and the boxy outlines of adobe homes fell easily into the printmakers’ visual vocabulary. The language that grew from their works still finds practitioners.

At its most basic, block printing produces bold swaths of one color that can tell a darkly brooding story. Wielded by an expert, the carving knife can also embed shadings, fine details, and complex storylines. Master printers may suffuse their pages with living color. To obtain his painterly colorations, Baumann copied one sketch onto four blocks, an art form enough, then bore down on the printer’s skill set with the focus of a surgeon. His description of the process, as quoted by Lopez, boosts one’s appreciation of his idealized landscapes: “And then there is the press and rolling of the color on the blocks, to say nothing of getting consecutive sheets of paper in the same place on the blocks for an edition. Beginning with black, one color follows another, and with the last printed, if there are no white holes caused by an inadvertent slip of the tool on one of the blocks, there it is.”

There it is. As more artists worked with the medium, “it” became the place where ancient technology met modern ideas of self, place, and the eternal conflict between fitting in and finding your own radical center (see almost any print by T.C. Cannon for that last one). Baumann is The Man among printmakers, but others held on to the torch he lit. During the Depression, the New Deal nurtured a variety of New Mexico artists, including a printmaking project by Ruth Connelly to re-create 12 Navajo rug designs. The goal was an easily transportable way to study the rugs, but their lasting legacy stands tall as a playfully Warhol-tinged folk-pop blend.

The Carved Line gallops through other delights, pausing at works by William Penhallow Henderson, William Lumpkins, Willard Clark, and Juan Pino, diving further into the edgier oeuvres of Cannon, Harold Joe Waldrum, and Richard Diebenkorn. The final chapter focuses on works so new their ink may not have yet dried. Lopez has those artists—Melanie Yazzie, Gustavo Muñiz, Richard Tuttle, Scott Parker, and Leon Loughridge—write about why and how they print. Loughridge, whose Baumann-esque landscapes are firmly grounded in the high-and-dry realities of his ranch-kid past, says block printing drives him to the core of what New Mexico means to him: “A woodblock is more than just a landscape. It is a rendering of my emotions and memories sparked by the area. A woodblock of a chapel is the comfort and security I remember, while an image of the gorge reduced to simple shapes is a memory of learning to let go and see the world as color blocks. The gray-blue of sage is a comfort color, and the bright ocher of an arroyo is a place to explore. There is an emotional reaction to the colors and shapes I see in northern New Mexico. It is a recurring story I see in the landscapes, a mystery I don’t really want to solve but want to express in my work.”

Kudos to the Museum of New Mexico Press for preserving the Albuquerque Museum’s fine exhibit in book form. Admirers would do well to visit the Press at the Palace of the Governors, in Santa Fe, where the printmaking art thrives, and curators have enshrined Baumann’s studio, its precious inks, and its turquoise-colored press.