At the Student Late Night last fall, many students were drawn to Louis Delsarte’s Unity (1995), one of approximately 80 newly acquired prints and proofs from the Brandywine Workshop and Archives of Philadelphia.
“I was struck by how students gravitated toward the work,” said Elizabeth Rudy, the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Associate Curator of Prints. Along with the other Brandywine prints on display, Unity hit on themes—family, race, gender, politics, and more—that resonated with Harvard undergraduates “in a really palpable way,” Rudy said. “The students were excited to see works that they never expected to find here.”
Sam Gilliam, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Hank Willis Thomas, John Biggers, and Edgar Heap of Birds are just a few of the other artists whose prints were acquired. The artists created the works at the Brandywine Workshop, which has been supporting printmaking by artists from diverse backgrounds since 1972.
“The addition of these prints to our collections is transformative,” said Rudy. She helped secure the acquisition along with Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
“Most of these artists were not previously represented in the collections,” said Schneider Enriquez, making this “an incredible opportunity” to expand the museums’ modern and contemporary holdings.
Founded by master printer Allan Edmunds, the Brandywine Workshop aims not only to spur innovation in the craft of printmaking, but also to provide educational opportunities and outreach to youth and artists from historically underrepresented communities. Over nearly five decades, the workshop has offered short-term residencies for artists, many of whom have gone on to become highly influential. Visiting artists work with Edmunds to create a print (or prints), and their work becomes part of the workshop’s collection and archives. Since the 1990s, the workshop has given or sold portions of its holdings to prestigious institutions around the country, including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution.
The acquisition of the portfolio—tailored to support the museums’ teaching mission, rather than representing a standard sampling of Brandywine prints—was a team effort. Assisting Rudy and Schneider Enriquez was Harvard student Eloise Lynton ’17. The team also consulted Harvard History of Art & Architecture professors Jennifer Roberts and Sarah Lewis, as well as Ruth Fine, a former modern art curator at the National Gallery of Art.
During the acquisition process, Edmunds agreed to be interviewed about the workshop’s history and technical aspects of printmaking. The notes and transcript from his interview with Christina Taylor, assistant paper conservator in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, will serve as valuable reference material for future conservators and curators who work with the prints.
Harvard faculty were especially eager to see the prints enter the museums. In fact, within days of the works’ arrival on campus last spring, faculty used several prints in their seminars and student research.
For example, Sam Gilliam’s Pretty Boxes (1993), Untitled (Philadelphia) (1987), and Wissahickon (1975) were shown during the Visual and Environmental Studies seminar Critical Printing, co-taught by Jennifer Roberts, the Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities in the Department of History of Art and Architecture, and Matt Saunders, the Harris K. Weston Associate Professor of the Humanities in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies.
The discussion focused on remediation, Saunders said. “These prints were really useful examples of a print studio finding innovative ways to translate an artist’s practice across media. One of Gilliam’s prints is printed, cut up, and woven together. Several students took a great interest in these prints and chose to focus on them in the discussions.”
The prints have also made a powerful statement in the galleries. Allan Edmunds’s 200 Yrs (2008), Janet Taylor Pickett’s Hagar’s Dress (2007), and Hank Willis Thomas’s Negroes to be Sold (2009) are currently on display in a gallery dedicated primarily to art of the 18th-century Atlantic World.
On a wall adjacent to Charles Willson Peale’s 1784 portrait of George Washington, these bright and bold works address slavery and social justice, linking history with the present day. 200 Yrs, for instance, juxtaposes images of President Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr., with the 18th-century plan of the British slave ship Brookes, an image infamous in its own time for depicting the brutality of slavery.
The placement of these contemporary works in such a context is not meant merely to surprise or shock, said Oliver Wunsch, the Maher Curatorial Fellow of American Art, who worked on the installation. Indeed, these works belong because “they speak directly to the past,” Wunsch said. “By layering together sources that span different historical moments, the Brandywine prints blur boundaries” of categorization.
As more Brandywine prints are incorporated into the galleries and coursework, these contemporary objects will no doubt continue to spark dialogue—and perhaps even prompt new and different stories to be told at the museums. Ultimately, said Schneider Enriquez, the prints will play an important role in making our collections “more reflective of the world we live in and the audiences we wish to serve.”