Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Chicago's Own Printmaker, Eldzier Cortor

The joy of this blog is when I find some new, or elder, printmaker’s work that I haven’t seen before. We have some mighty fine colleagues out there, and Eldzier Cortor is one of the good ones. I hope you enjoy his work as much as I do. Recently, a major gift of Cortor’s work was given to the Art Institute of Chicago, and anyone can make an appointment go see Cortor’s prints in their fabulous Print & Drawing Room.
Notable for his prints and paintings, African-American artist and printmaker Eldzier Cortor was born in 1916, in Tidewater, VA, to John and Ophelia Cortor. His family was a part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to the industrial north at the beginning of the 1900s. His family moved to the south side of Chicago when Cortor was about a year old. He later attended Englewood High School with other notable African-American artists, such as Margaret Burroughs and Charles Wilbert White.

He attended the Art Institute of Chicago, gaining a degree in 1936. While there, he came under the influence of instructor Kathleen Blackshear, who led students to explore the regional arts of Africa and other non-Western cultures at University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, and the Field Museum. Studying the African sculptures at the Field Museum transformed his work. "That was the most important influence in all my work, for to this day you will find in my handling of the human figure that cylindrical and lyrical quality I was taught...to appreciate in African art."

He also studied at the Institute of Design. Cortor, like his peers in the Harlem Renaissance, sought to reclaim his ancestral heritage as a means of informing and empowering his art. He searched for positive Black imagery, which he found in Chicago’s South Side working-class, in the former slave cultures of the U.S. South and Caribbean, and, finally, in the iconic Black female figure.
In 1940 he worked with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), where he drew scenes of Depression-era Bronzeville, a near south side Chicago neighborhood. Cortor received two Rosenwald Foundation grants, in 1944 and 1945, to live with the Gullah people in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. In 1949, Cortor received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Jamaica, Cuba, and Haiti, and he taught at the Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince from 1949–1951.

During his career, Cortor produced several prints in the mid-1950s with Japanese printmaker Jun’ichiro Sekino, who was a leading member of the Sosaku Hanga, or Creative Prints, movement. Between 1955 and 1998, he made experimental prints at New York’s famous Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop.
Cortor was one of the first African-American artists to make African-American women his primary theme, saying, "the Black woman represents the Black race, continuance of life." These women have been a central focus of Eldzier Cortor’s work for much of his career; their elongated sculptural features appearing timeless and modern. It was when Cortor lived with the Gullah people that he became fascinated with their deep cultural African ties to their ancestry, and this prompted him to depict Woman as an archetypal image.

Cortor’s work is also influenced by surrealism, "who often uses the female figure in a surreal interior and exterior environment." While much of his work displays a strength and hopefulness, other series, such as his Haitian-influenced slaughterhouse series speak of suffering, oppression and racism. The lasting impression of Cortor’s work shows his pride of his ancestry, and love of the female form. These compositions show off, unabashedly, Cortor’s free expressive color, form and loose compositions; and the female nude as tall, lean powerful and sensual figures. His gift to the Art Institute of Chicago cannot be diminished in importance because he is one of the major figures of Chicago’s African American art scene. We can only hope to see more of his work as he continues to make art, and especially prints.

1938 - "An Exhibition in Defense of Peace and Democracy", the Chicago Artists' Group
1940 - "The Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro", in Chicago.
1967 - City College of New York, "The Evolution of Afro-American Artists: 1800 - 1950"
1976 - Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "Two Centuries of Black American Art", (which toured the U.S. in 1977.)
1988 - "Three Masters", Kenkeleba Gallery, NY, (with Hughie Lee-Smith and Archibald Motley)
2002 - "Eldzier Cortor: Master Printmaker", Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, MA
2010 - Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
2010 - Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, IN
2013 - San Antonio Museum of Art, TX

Howard University
The Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Art Institute of Chicago

Art Institute of Chicago, Advisory Committee’s Legends and Legacy Award

Matthew Backer and Jennifer Heusel, “Black Spirit”: Works on Paper by Eldzier Cortor (Indiana University Art Museum, 2006).

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