I’ve been spending my Fridays at the Print & Picture Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia building their digital database from the card catalog of the print collection. It’s a win-win: the library gets to build a catalog for their digital collection, and I get to look at lots of great prints.
One of the printmakers I’ve found in the collection is Sam Maitin (1928 – 2004). Maitin was a Philadelphia artist, born and bred. He took classes at Sam Fleisher’s Graphic Sketch Club; got degrees from both the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now University of the Arts) & University of Pennsylvania; taught at the Annenberg School of Communication, and at Fleisher. His had solo exhibitions of his work at Fleisher and Woodmere. He was a gifted colorist, printmaker, book designer, graphic designer, and sculptor. He was also a civically engaged artist, devoting his time and energy to institutions and causes he believed in. One of his causes was saving the Louis Kahn archives, which are now at the University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives (a project dear to my heart). He was also a great friend to my colleague, the late Carolyn Pitts, whom I greatly admire.
Two prints in the collection caught my eye: the Helen Caldicott Sane Peace Award 1981, and R is for Rhubarb. Both combine graphic image and text, so they sit somewhere between fine art and graphic design. The Sane Peace Award piece also verges on propaganda as it so strongly promotes a call to social justice and civic action. Donald Meyer, Woodmere Art Museum’s Director of Exhibitions makes the point in his 2011 catalog essay that it’s hard to separate poster design from the reputations and events depicted when we are still in the same historical context, so close to them in time. For instance, we look at Toulouse-Lautrec posters as pure compositions, as fine art, not asking too many questions about the products and services being advertised, nor paying much attention to the celebrities used in the ads since they are not part of our time. The Sane Peace Award to Helen Caldecott may have strong associations for us (pro & con) about Dr. Caldicott, a noted anti-nuclear advocate; we have to work harder to evaluate the poster as a piece of graphic art.
The R is for Rhubarb print is easier to evaluate. It illustrates part of a poem by Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, which Poetry.org tells us has been called a masterpiece of verbal Cubism, a modernist triumph, a spectacular failure, a collection of confusing gibberish, and an intentional hoax. Maitin deals with the section on rhubarb:
Rhubarb is susan not susan not seat in bunch toys not wild and laughable not in little places not in neglect and vegetable not in fold coal age not please.
He is clearly having fun. He implies that the series is an alphabet, even though the poem is not; an although the subject is rhubarb, he shows us a rhinoceros in silhouette. He uses color, organic shapes, and calligraphic text to create strong compositions that will stand the test of time.