David Becker and Prints at Bowdoin

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My youngest daughter is currently taking a printmaking class at Bowdoin College, in the course of which she attended Printmaking ABC: In Memorium David P. Becker, an exhibition of prints selected from among the 1,500 prints David Becker bequeathed to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in 2010 when he died at the age of 63. Printmaking ABC (through March 10) features an historical survey of prints ranging from Durer, Rembrandt, Piranesi, Daumier, and Whistler to contemporaries such as David Hockney, Jasper Johns and Elizabeth Murray.

Snake Cup, lithograph, 1984, by Elizabeth Murray

St. Jerome in His Study, 1514 engraving by Albrecht Durer. Bequest of David P. Becker

David Becker devoted 40 years of his life to the study and collection of prints, beginning in college at Bowdoin (Class of 1970). David’s passion for prints spanned the entire gamut from rare Renaissance impressions to contemporary ephemera. The last time I saw David was the summer before he died. I ran into him at the college library’s special collections room where he was donating a selection of printed posters by the Beehive Design Collective, a global graphics workshop headquartered in Machias, Maine. David was enthusiastic about the Beehive posters in part because they were pure manifestations of the democratic nature of prints – a medium for disseminating ideas and images, in the case of the Beehive Design Collective, ideas and images of a progressive, grassroots art activist nature.

Beehive Design Collective poster

“Prints are in many ways the most democratic visual medium – at least before television and computers – and they are found not only in museums, but also within historical societies, libraries, corporate archives, antique shops, bookstores, and of course private homes – not to forget newspapers, magazines, compact disc covers, and street posters,” wrote David in the introduction to The Imprint of Place: Maine Printmaking, 1800-2005, the landmark book that documented 2006 Maine Print Project, a statewide collaboration of 25 art institutions.

The Reader, 1892 lithograph by Odilon Redon. Bequest of David P. Becker

In a strange way, prints are fundamental to my own conception of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, so I can completely understand how David became so enthralled with the medium there. When I think of Bowdoin in the 1960s, when I first started to look at art, I think of the deathly images of Leonard Baskin.

In 1962, director Marvin Sadik, who put the Bowdoin museum on the national map with his ambitious exhibitions, curated a major Baskin show at Bowdoin. Decades later, when I interviewed Baskin for Maine Times, I spent time at Bowdoin pouring over its collection of Baskin prints, beautiful, dark, often grotesque images of human mortality. When my daughter told me she was going to take a printmaking class, I dug out the 1969 etching of a hunchback that Baskin gave me when I visited him at his farm outside Northampton,Massachusetts and gave it to her.

Humpback, 1969 etching by Leonard Baskin

I also connect art at Bowdoin with Thomas Cornell, who began teaching at the college in 1962 and who died in December at the age of 75. Early on, Tom was an artist in the Baskin mold. He even published a collection of 21 etchings and drawings of figures from the French Revolution with Baskin’s Gehenna Press. In more recent times, Tom’s romance with the past took the form of gorgeous, idyllic paintings of modern people living in harmony with Nature. He was deeply devoted to the moral power of art.

Snapping Turtle, 1968 etching by Thomas Cornell

David Becker paired a Baskin etching of a Deer Isle landscape with a Cornell etching of a snapping turtle in The Imprint of Place. He had a wonderful eye, superb taste, an unsurpassed love and knowledge of the medium, and now he has shared that love with Bowdoin museum audiences in perpetuity with his gift of prints. I am pleased that my youngest daughter has been among the first to receive David’s invaluable gift.

(Bowdoin College Museum of Art,245 Maine St., Brunswick,ME, 207-725-3275.)

  • Christa, It’s a tight little nexus of souls — Baskin, Marvin, David, Tom — and it bears a Bowdoin imprimatur. Thanks. Ed

  • Ed, Thank you for this honest essay. It feels good that important art will continue through generations, signified by your daughter. My husband, Tom Cornell, and Baskin were close; he commuted to Baskin’s Northampton residence for almost two years. David Becker spent significant time in Tom’s studio, learning all he could while he was a student. And, indeed, the Sadik exhibitions stand the test of time for ambition and significance. Tom and Marvin shared wonderful memories of those times.


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