Friday, June 12, 2015

Saluting Frank Cassara

Cassara, untitled photogenic drawing, ca. 1970
Growing up, Frank Cassara observed with both eye and heart; his vision was uncloudy.  He became an assiduous student of the forms of life, its myths, hopes, dreams, and its deceptions too, and when he later was a sought-after professor at the University of Michigan, the following generations became indebted to him.  The picture above, a sketch on photographic paper using fixer and developer, came late in his artistic life as he began to concentrate his focus on an investigation into materials, a quest that would last throughout most of his mature career.  Frank today is 102 years old and is alive and well, but very much retired.  His memory is not what it once was; dates and names tend to slip away; he speaks softly and stares off and smiles a lot to himself; and yet his presence is palpable.

Rivera Court, Detroit Institute of Arts
We do know that as a young art student in Detroit in 1932, he camped out at the Detroit Institute of Arts trying to catch Diego Rivera creating his mural (1932-33), later regarded as one of the greatest in North America.  A tarp had been hung to block the view but Frank would pull it aside and peek.  Frida Kahlo, Diego's young wife, was there, pregnant; she would shoo him away and draw the tarp back.  He kept returning; it was a game he was good at.

By the mid 1930s Cassara began painting murals himself, first for Roosevelt's WPA program and then for the Treasury Department, in schools, post offices, and public works projects, mainly in southern Michigan.  The prevailing style was muscular and mythic, somewhere between bolshevik and Thomas Hart Benton, and he was fluent with it.  We should recall that in those days Detroit incarnated heavy industry in a way that was total and almost unimaginable to us today; it needed its visual poet.  Here is some of Cassara's work from that period:

Cassara, Days Without End, oil on canvas, ca. 1937

Cassara, Conversation During Lunch, lithograph, ca. 1939
Cassara, Early Settlers (mural study), East Detroit Post Office, 1939-1941
Cassara, Lansing Water Board, mural, 1938
After WW II Cassara embarked on an itinerary of relentless experimentation in support of his new responsibilities at the University of Michigan in printmaking and of etching in particular.  This would take him into the early 1980s.  He filled notebook after notebook with formulas for etching grounds, some little more than hypothetical as if they were projects for a future history, glimpsed but beyond present reach; under an exhaustive list of conditions he tabulated the behavior of the ones he was able to concoct and demonstrate.  Solvents were studied, pigments, inks, binders, glues, washes, and papers, all in similar fashion, all in numbing detail.  Then it happened, a breakthrough.  In a 1963 issue of Artist's Proof, the printmaker's journal of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he published results he judged both novel and helpful.  The article, with no fanfare, was called 'A Unique One-Bite White Etching Ground' and it can be read here.  In precise and evocative language that is a model of exposition, Cassara not only established the need for a new kind of etching ground - a bold step in itself - but produced a formula for it and gave examples of its use.

Now there are those of us who believe that no innovation in etching will prove to be of greater consequence, when the accounts are finally written, since the invention of aquatint in the 18th century - and that's obviously saying a lot.  Still, to date the ripples have been small (as if matching the modesty of Cassara's voice), but in time - a decade, a century - that should change.  There is a built-in conservatism in etching; etchers prefer to look backward to Rembrandt rather than forward to - well, anything.  Cassara offers them a way.  Etchers, go read his article.  Here are some of the examples he published:
Cassara, Musician, white-ground etching, 1960

Cassara, Big City, detail, white ground etching, 1960
This gives us a sense of the range of his curiosity.  So the photogenic drawings - in an echo of Fox Talbot, these are my words not his - that he toyed with and even exhibited locally should come as no surprise: it was just another material whose substance and plasticity wanted to be developed.  He never thought of himself as part of a photographic tradition.  And yet what he left us, in a brief period of cameraless play half a century ago, fits right in with our present project and we recognize it today as bright, lively, and beautiful.
Cassara, untitled photogenic drawing, ca. 1970
Cassara, untitled photogenic drawing, ca. 1970

I visited Frank and his daughter during a sunny, snowy week this past winter.  Frank was impeccably gracious.
Frank Cassara, January 2015