I must sadly note the passing of Elizabeth Catlett on April 2 in her home Cuernavaca, Mexico, as widely reported yesterday. She will be remembered as one of the great American artists of the 20th Century. Elizabeth Catlett was both a brilliant sculptor and printmaker, a trailblazer and master in wood, terra cotta, stone, bronze, lithography and linoleum cut, while working as an artist for over 70 years.
Born in Washington, DC, Catlett graduated from Howard University in 1937, where she studied with James Lesesne Wells and Lois Mailou Jones. She was one of the first recipients of an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1940 under Grant Wood. She was an active member of both the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances in the 1940s. Her breakthrough came with the award of a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1946 that enabled her to study in Mexico and complete her important “I am a Negro Woman” series. She soon moved permanently to Mexico, joined the influential printmakers collective, the Taller de Gráfica Popular, and married artist Francisco Mora in 1947. From the 1950s, she was a heroic and creative voice for social and political equality, particularly for the disenfranchised, the poor and the oppressed. Above all, her work celebrated women — her modern representation of their power and strength is one of her greatest contributions.
Swann Galleries is very honored to have handled many of her artworks — including such iconic works as her sculpture Homage to My Young Black Sisters, 1968, and color linoleum cut Sharecropper, circa 1952. In May 2009 at the Museum of Modern Art, I was lucky to be on hand when she enthralled an audience with fascinating stories from almost every decade — recounting her impressive artistic journey from Washington, DC to Iowa, New Orleans, Chicago, New York and Mexico and through the Civil Rights era. Her stories live on in her prints and sculpture, and in the many generations of artists whom she has inspired. Elizabeth Catlett, a cultural treasure of both the United States and Mexico, and an international ambassador for artistic, social and political freedom, will be greatly missed and widely celebrated.
Nigel Freeman Director, African-American Fine Art Swann Auction Galleries