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Leonard Baskin

By Anthony Hecht

I used to visit Leonard of an evening in the mid-to-late 1950s, when I would always find him at work in the kitchen area that served him as a place to do graphics. He would have approved of that slightly dated, slightly literary, locution, “of an evening.” He was by instinct and habit a nocturnal creature, working by preference into the darkest and most solitary hours of the night; and he was as well a learnedly literary man, of a kind uncommon to the point of rarity among artists and sculptors. To be sure, Picasso, Matisse, Braque, and Vieullard made illustrations for books; but they showed no interest whatever in type fonts, nor were they in love with the written word, as Leonard was. His appetite in this regard was extravagant and Elizabethan. He had a relish for orotundity, and employed it liberally in his writing. Yet this richness and baroque side of him was perfectly balanced by ruthless straightforwardness and detestation of sentimentality.

On those evenings of my early visits I would find him at work with the radio tuned to some station devoted to classical music, and, though intensely and concentratedly engaged in his work, also able to conduct easy and usually witty conversation with whatever guests were present. This filled me with outraged envy. My work demands of me a virtually hermetic seclusion. I can ignore the so-called “white noise” of traffic or sea-surf, but music of any kind, especially the kind Leonard and I most admired, would utterly prevent me from doing any work, and conversation would be out of the question. This capacity of his to attend alertly to several demands on his consciousness was one of the factors that made him, for all his nocturnal habits, an unusually gregarious man. He liked company, had many friends, and he had a curious way of requiring of them that they pass certain symbolic tests as proof of the quality of their connoisseurship, their literary or lexical sophistication, their taste in objets de virtu. I recall being put to just such a test. Leonard pointed out a metal disk, beautifully incised and roughly the diameter of an orange, suspended on a nail that passed through a slender split at its center. He asked me if I knew what it was. As it happened, I did know, having brought home as a trophy from occupation in Japan at the end of WWII a ceremonial sword with a hilt just like the one in the Baskin kitchen, and which I still own today; the dangerous blade long since disposed of.

Leonard’s literariness was precisely the right kind for an artist. There are many wrong kinds, of which the most obvious is the kind in which the artist seeks to be anecdotal, and takes upon himself the writer’s task. But Leonard’s work placed itself at a fine stylized remove from the literal. And he would also introduce sly, ironic “asides” into the crowded elements of his work, tiny details to be picked up only by the most minute inspection of the most devoted viewer, a game of concealment and revelation he shared with a favorite etcher, Rodolphe Bresdin. His literariness as an artist placed him in that tiny aristocracy of which William Blake was a member: both of them printers and designers of text. His Gehenna Press, America’s only equivalent to William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, published every kind of writing, from the classics in translation by Ted Hughes to poems of mine, not to speak of Herman Melville, Hart Crane, Joseph Conrad, a renaissance herbalist, and countless others. Nor did Leonard confine his literary interests to his own press. For years he designed the covers of Anchor paperbacks, sometimes with his woodcuts (as in his full-length portrait of George Bernard Shaw in plus-fours and shooting jacket that adorns the volume called Shaw on Music), or woodcuts and typographical designs, (as in Form and Value in Modern Poetry by R. P. Blackmur, and in The Human Image in Dramatic Literature by Francis Fergusson). My paperback collection is filled with marvelous specimens of his work, some of them chastely and elegantly typographical, and without any images.

It was Leonard who initiated the collaborations we undertook. The first important one of these originated in his desire to do something like a seventeenth-century emblem book. What resulted was a volume called The Seven Deadly Sins, not precisely an emblem book, but a venture in that direction. Such joint undertakings continued up to the very end, and he was preparing work that remains unfinished, intended to accompany a set of ten poems based on biblical figures from the Old Testament that I wrote with his art in mind. It would have been an exciting undertaking. The subjects were ones that had attracted some of the greatest artists of the past: Rembrandt, Lucas Van Leyden, Rubens, Ghiberti, and Michelangelo.

It is regarded as nearly insulting in our day to claim of an artist that he is a good man, so much have we come to believe that this must mean he is a bad artist. Yeats clearly thought as much when he wrote in The Choice,

The intellect of man is forced to choose

Perfection of the life, or of the work, 

And if it take the second must refuse

A heavenly mansion raging in the dark…

Wallace Stevens seems to have felt much the same way, having gone so far as to suggest, in a letter to Norman Homes Pearson, that Conrad Aiken may possibly have been too nice ever to have become a really good poet. “There is something about him,” Stevens wrote, “that keeps him from rising, both personally and as a poet. No doubt it is his gentleness. He seems to be entirely without selfishness and aggressiveness.” And Degas once observed, “painting is a thing which requires as much cunning, rascality, and viciousness as the perpetration of a crime.”

Well, it can be admitted that Leonard Baskin was a man with enough self-confidence to seem brash, and, to some, even vain. He wrote that after his first frail efforts as a sculptor, “I learned to carve, and it is not conceit to note that I learned to carve exceedingly well.” And once, when a young woman ventured to express admiration for one of his woodcuts by saying, “It’s beautiful,” his rejoinder was, “Beautiful? Hah! It’s gorgeous.” He was, I think, not vain, but joyfully sure of himself. And he was undeniably opinionated; indeed, many of the artists he cherished were precisely opinionated—which is to say, committed, engagé, imbued with social concerns, militant, hortatory. These included Goya, Ben Shahn, Blake, Rodin, Callot, Kollwitz, Grosz, and Rouault. He viewed himself as a moralist, declaring: “Our human frame, our gutted mansion, our enveloping sack of beef and ash is yet a glory… Man has always created the human figure in his own image, and in our time that image is despoiled and debauched… Man has been incapable of love, wanting in charity, and despairing of hope. He has not molded himself a life of abundance and peace and he has charred the earth and befouled the heavens more wantonly than ever before. He has made of Arden a landscape of death. In this garden I dwell, and in limning the horror, the degradation and filth, I hold the cracked mirror up to man.”

I will so far besmirch his memory as to affirm that he was an uncommonly good man, with an almost antiquated, oriental generosity, not only toward close friends, but to comparative strangers. And it needs to be added that if he admired polemical artists, he also profoundly revered T’ang tomb figurines, Donatello, Manzù, Dürer, Titian, and Rembrandt, as well as countless other artists who had no axes whatever to grind, but were masters of their medium.

The last year of his life was often painful, and he knew, as did all those near him, that it was indeed terminal. So frank was this shared knowledge within his family that at one point his younger son, Hosea, asked him who he would like to have speak at the memorial service that would certainly take place after his death. He replied, “Why should I care? I won’t be there.” But in the intervals when he was still able to work, he did so with a controlled and marshaled frenzy, turning out, in the words of Douglas Lewis, curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the National Gallery in Washington, a group of “colossal self-portraits… glittering with self-knowledge, and unrestrained chromatic richness,” and which represented “a magisterial outpouring” only achievable at such an advanced age by a master. It is hard to doubt that Rembrandt’s great undertaking of elderly self-portraits could have been far from his mind, a mind richly versed in the works of his greatest predecessors. He donated part of his major collection of Renaissance medallions and plaquettes to the National Gallery, vastly increasing the Gallery’s holdings in this field; and his papers have been bequeathed to the Yale Beinecke Library.

It would be difficult to overstate his singular greatness and widespread influence. Artists, sculptors, and book designers came to study with him, and departed deeply and characteristically stamped with something of his style. Makers of fine books strove to emulate the brilliance of his typographic art, and the generous luxury of his finished volumes. He designed and executed a woodcut portrait of Thoreau that was used as a postage stamp, and raised a furor among some powerful but ignorant congressmen who, taking cursory notice of the fact that the person represented wore a beard, and being unacquainted with the name, sped to the instant conclusion that he was a hippie of some suspicious sort, and sternly warned the postal service against any further graphics from an artist who would give governmental sanction to such wayward, druggy tendencies.

One of our later undertakings was a book called The Presumptions of Death. It was Leonard who proposed the topic and the title. His long acquaintance with the theme dated, at the very least, from the time I first knew him, when his first wife, Esther, was stricken with incurable illness. At the time, he was making small, exquisitely cast bronze figures of hanged men. And when, very much later, he proposed “death” for our theme, I was perfectly ready to comply. It is, after all, impossible to be a member of our generation, that witnessed the Holocaust, the use of nuclear bombs against civilian populations, the devastation of AIDS, and not feel the weight, and smell, the stench, of mortality. A scrupulous and scholarly attention to death, such as John Donne’s in his famous meditations, may not necessarily fit anyone for actual dying. But I’ve learned that Leonard’s passing was uncommonly merciful and serene, and of the kind Donne attributed to those who, “As virtuous men, pass mildly away / And whisper to their souls to go…”

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 3, 2001.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters