A First Encounter with the Work of Eldzier Cortor

by Rachel Ozerkevich

“Dance Composition 35” early 1990s. Etching with aquatint on paper. Courtesy of the Kelley Collection

“Dance Composition 35” early 1990s. Etching with aquatint on paper. Courtesy of the Kelley Collection

I encountered a retrospective of Eldzier Cortor’s prints at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) last week. Moving to Texas from Vancouver has given me an opportunity to explore cities and arts centres that have so far been inaccessible to me. I had never heard of Cortor but was thrilled to see a contemporary artist working in print media—a practice I feel personally connected to and familiar with through some (limited) first hand exposure.

Cortor, born in 1916 and still alive at age 98, has amassed an amazing and extensive body of work. Amongst the pieces on display at SAMA is his intaglio series Dance Compositions. The etchings in this series depict lithe female dancers amidst geometric and intricate patterning. The compositions are reminiscent of art deco design and are often printed with unconventionally shaped plates. One of these delicately hand coloured prints, “Dance Composition No. 35,” is shown in two variations. One shows three dancers in front of a black circle and the other one presents the identical composition in front of a bright orange circle. In displaying such subtle variations in editions, the exhibition provides a glimpse at the delicate nuances of print-making.

“L’Abbatoire No. VI”, 1980
Color intaglio on paper. Courtesy of Indiana University

“L’Abbatoire No. VI”, 1980
Color intaglio on paper. Courtesy of Indiana University

All of Cortor’s work on display, including the haunting and disturbing L’Abattoir series (French for “Slaughterhouse”), conveys a masterly adeptness at the painstaking and laborious print practice. Cortor uses the techniques of etching, aquatint and lithography in more conventionally established ways—achieving delicate shading through cross-hatching in his etchings, and subtle variations in tone through aquatint—while also pushing the medium to its utmost limits. Much of his L’Abattoir series shows the results of allowing acid to aggressively eat through a plate, creating holes and abstract shapes. On these, Cortor renders grotesque, quasi-humanoid forms coloured with deeply saturated inks to invoke, among other instances of human suffering, the horrors of Haitian political oppression.

Cortor’s figurative work in the Dance Compositions and other series features African American women, their heads wrapped in cloth, dancing or moving fluidly. In exploring various communities of African heritage throughout his practice—namely the Gullah people off the coast of the American Carolinas, Chicago’s South Side and in the Caribbean—Cortor has tasked the black female form with expressing and holding cultural tropes that he seems to both challenge and closely examine. In his work, the depicted female form is strong and powerful yet often remains anonymous and is essentially symbolic.

"Dance Composition No. 34,” 1971-72.  Courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art

“Dance Composition No. 34,” 1971-72. Courtesy of the Gibbes Museum of Art

Cortor’s work is incredibly tactile. Though working in a two-dimensional medium, his use of plates manipulated into abstract and geometric shapes, aggressively etched lines, chine-collé, and hand colouring are testament to the versatility and contemporaneity of print. Many introductory art history classes would have us believe that print exists solely in the realm of Medieval Eastern Europe and Albrecht Durer; Cortor’s work proves that this is far from the truth.

Eldzier Cortor: Master Printmaker closes at the San Antonio Museum of Art on March 2nd, 2014.

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