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Art Museum of WVU receives award for Blanche Lazzell traveling exhibition

Blanche Lazzell (1878–1956)  West Virginia University Farmhouse, block cut and printed 1950; Blanche Lazzell (1878–1956)  Untitled, 1917

Left: Blanche Lazzell (1878–1956) – Untitled, 1917; Right: Blanche Lazzell (1878–1956) – West Virginia University Farmhouse, block cut and printed 1950

The Art Museum of West Virginia University has announced generous support from Art Bridges to develop and tour a major exhibition of the work of Blanche Lazzell, one of the most progressive American artists of the first half of the twentieth century. 

A West Virginia native, Lazzell created some of the earliest abstract paintings in the United States and is one of only 23 artists currently represented in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism. While Lazzell’s role in avant-garde American art is recognized within specialists’ circles, she has not received a major solo exhibition in nearly two decades and is due for a reassessment. 

The award from Art Bridges allows the Art Museum of West Virginia University to create such an exhibition from their extensive holdings, now increased by the museum’s acquisition of four new works by the artist, including the white line color woodblock print West Virginia University Farmhouse (1950).

Established in 2017, the Art Bridges foundation is dedicated to expanding access to American art across the U.S. Art Bridges works with museums of all sizes to provide financial and strategic support to get art out of storage and into communities. The foundation supports arts projects that educate, insprire, and deepen engagement with local audiences. 

“All of us at the Art Museum of West Virginia University are extraordinarily grateful to Art Bridges for this award,” said Todd Tubutis, the director of the museum. “Blanche Lazzell feels like West Virginia’s best kept secret, but with this support we’ll be able to bring her work to a broader audience. Lazzell played a vital role in American modernism and deserves her due as the radical artist that she was. But perhaps even more importantly, as a woman from West Virginia, she challenges our received narrative about avant-garde artists and who was truly making avant-garde art here in the first half of the twentieth century.” 

Blanche Lazzell (1878–1956) was born and raised near the community of Maidsville, West Virginia, supposedly named for the number of “old maids” in the town. After graduating from West Virginia University with a degree in fine arts in 1905, Lazzell sought further instruction, first enrolling at the Art Students League in New York City and then in the academies and ateliers of Paris, where she studied and associated with Fernand Léger, Andrés Lhote, and Albert Gleizes. Lazzell embraced their influences and created some of the first abstract prints and paintings upon her return to the United States. She is now most associated with the artist colony of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where she eventually settled. There she co-founded the Provincetown Printers and became a leading figure in white-line color woodblock printmaking. 

Lazzell is perhaps best known for these woodblock prints but she was also a prolific painter who experimented with various themes and subjects across media throughout her career. Her work has been included in many notable national and international exhibitions over the course of her lifetime, and posthumous exhibitions have been organized by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Archives of American Art, and at West Virginia University. Major institutions with holdings of Lazzell’s art include the Brooklyn Museum, Crystal Bridges of American Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Art Museum of West Virginia University. 

The Art Bridges funding supports the development of Blanche Lazzell: Becoming an American Modernist, the most comprehensive exhibition devoted to the artist to date. This exhibition centers on a suite of large-scale abstract paintings she made in the 1920s that were among the most ambitious paintings for any American at the time. These paintings—amalgams of the European avant-garde worked through an American idiom—are even more remarkable for being created by a female artist from West Virginia driven by a single-minded devotion to modernist principles. Related sections of the exhibition showcase Lazzell’s winding paths through abstraction, realism, process, and media; these sections build an artistic context around these abstractions of the 1920s and demonstrate the centrality of these paintings to her professional career and personal trajectory. 

The exhibition is designed to introduce Lazzell’s truly groundbreaking work to a broad audience, to assert that Lazzell’s advanced thinking interrogates our existing modernist canon, and to offer visitors an onramp into artistic abstraction. Including more than 50 paintings, prints, and works on paper drawn primarily from the Art Museum of West Virginia University’s permanent collection, Blanche Lazzell: Becoming an American Modernist explores the artist’s lifelong pursuit of translating modernism into an American art form and celebrates her largely unsung achievements in creating and championing abstract art in the United States. 

The support from the Art Bridges Foundation coincides with the gifts to the museum of four more works by Lazzell to join its already extensive collection. From the Sander family, the museum has receieved an untitled still life painting (1917); the linoleum block print Beach Combings (block cut 1931, printed 1942); and the watercolor Provincetown Wharf (1935), created as a family Easter card. The white-line color woodcut West Virginia University Farmhouse (1950) is a gift of the grandchildren of Edna Douglass Hamilton and Richard Hamilton.

West Virginia University Farmhouse is a prime example of the artist’s signature white line color woodblock print technique. This image of the Vance Farmhouse (built in 1854, acquired by the university in 1899, and now the home of the WVU Press) is delicately colored, with gentle gradations that contrast with the blocky and abstracted forms of the trees that nearly overpower the scene. The animated trees, the solid frame of the building, the linear fence in the foreground, and the wash of sky beyond all contribute to a powerfully dynamic yet moderately sized print in which mood and medium inflect each other.

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