Elizabeth Catlett died last week. She was an African-American artist and member of the Taller Grafica Popular, the famed Mexico City printmaking collective. Her Mexico City friends included Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The U.S. obituaries generally referred to Ms. Catlett as a sculptor. In fact, the NY Times headline is Elizabeth Catlett, Sculptor With Eye on Social Issues, Is Dead at 96.
I was familiar with Catlett’s graphic work, but I’d never seen her sculpture. Oddly enough, I came across this one, above, when I went to MOMA to see the Diego Rivera show. The terra-cotta Mother and Child is small but has a monumental feel.
I’ve written about my 2009 pilgrimage to the Taller Grafica Popular. I was struck then by how many international artists had produced work there, Elizabeth Catlett included. Art Historian Melanie Herzog wrote the book about Catlett, and a fine essay by Herzog on Catlett’s TGP work that can be found here. This is a brief excerpt in which Catlett talks about her TGP experience:
“The criticism in the Taller was always positive, like somebody would say, “I think that you have a very good design, and it’s very clear, but why did you hide the hands?” And so they would say, “I can’t draw hands.” “Well, I’ll help you, or I’ll draw the hands.” Or they would say, “This symbolism has been used over and over, it’s time we had something new,” and so then they would have a general discussion of what you could use. . . . And it didn’t matter how many people worked on something, as long as it came out the best we could make it.”
Sharecropper is one of Catlett’s master works. The safety-pin holding the coat together is a nice detail; I only noticed it now. Every deliberate mark Catlett made on this print adds up to a portrait of dignity.
Update: View a larger sampling of Catlett’s artistic output in all its diversity at Ourstorian.