Printmaker's treasures go to new Bloomberg School

Major artists of century included in Saff's gift

April 24, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Master printmaker, scholar and educator Donald Saff made a career of collaborating with some of the most famous artists of his time. His prints of their works became famous for their quality and the originality of their execution.

Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, James Turrell and William Rosenquist are a few of the art-world superstars whom Saff helped to create fine arts prints and multiples - many of which he eventually acquired for his own collection.

Now Saff, 66, is giving some of the treasures he helped create to the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. His gift of more than 30 seminal artworks of the 1970s and '80s, on display in the school's $130 million Monument Street wing that opened yesterday, is a tribute to a Hopkins professor whose work he admired and to their shared belief in the healing power of art.

"Donald wanted to support the research and activities of the School of Public Health, and he thought the best way for him to do so was in a form he knew something about," said Lawrence Cheskin, Saff's physician and an associate professor in the school's Center for Human Nutrition.

Saff met Cheskin in the late 1990s, when Saff moved to Royal Oak on the Eastern Shore after a 25-year career as an artist-educator at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "What happened is I started to get to know Larry and the kind of work he was doing and was just very impressed," said Saff. "I was fortunate enough to have acquired these artworks, and I also wanted to honor my own parents and my wife's, who had recently passed away."

Among the dozens of works Saff donated to Hopkins are two complete sets of Jim Dine's print portfolio Eight Sheets from an Undefined Novel, a work that marked an important change from the artist's signature drawings of tools and other industrial objects.

"It was interesting because it was at the time he decided he was going to work from life and teach himself to draw from life," Saff said. "So this print series was the first in which he went from drawing tools to images of the human figure."

The Dine portfolio depicts the artist's friends and family in abstract forms that make individual identities hard to pin down, Saff said. When he and Dine were printing the portfolio's title page, Dine was at first displeased with the pristine black letters on snowy white paper.

"So he picked up the plate I had etched and hurled it across the floor," Saff recalled. "When we reprinted the plate covered with all those scratches, that was exactly what he wanted."

Saff gave Hopkins both the first and second "states," or versions, of Dine's complete series, an acquisition that would be the envy of any major museum.

"The Museum of Modern Art would kill to have both complete sets," Saff joked.

Saff suggested to Rauschenberg, famous for his embrace of chance and the commonplace in his work, that they collaborate on a set of prints on fabric rather than paper, something the artist had never attempted. The result was Airport Suite. ("He ended up signing the edition in the airport waiting room in Tampa," Saff recalled.)

The work is a colorful portfolio of red, orange, black and white forms on cloth that was run through the press once using old newspaper matrices as a template, then folded and stitched into a variety of whimsical, unexpected shapes.

Saff also donated the proofs for another Rauschenberg print series, Props, in which - counterintuitively - every sheet is unique. "A lot of the things Rauschenberg did were atypical of printmaking, but very typical of Rauschenberg," noted Saff, who also gave the school a set of photographic color prints the artist took in China.

Saff said he was encouraged to donate artworks to Hopkins after seeing how many important artists were already in the institution's collections.

"I thought it was so unusual that when you went there you weren't looking at [Thomas] Kinkade's pastel landscapes or fake 19th-century impressionist paintings," Saff said. "It's the real deal of contemporary art, which sometimes isn't just pleasant background - it can be dissonant, and that's useful too. It's much better than just being mesmerized by elevator music."

Cheskin, meanwhile, said he was humbled by his patient's decision to donate the artworks as a way of supporting his school's research programs. The works on display are part of a gift of 75 prints and photographs Saff has given the school.

"I was floored, because it was an incredibly generous and in some ways risky offer," Cheskin said. "He was in effect entrusting me with a fairly large resource with no strings attached. So it really made me take a broader look at what I wanted to accomplish that would do justice to the collection."

Cheskin said the artworks will remain up at the school for a while to allow patients and staff to enjoy them. Then they'll probably be sold, and the school will use the proceeds to support the research projects Cheskin is working on.

"The way these donations usually work, it's expected that the art will be used at the school for some period of time before it can be disposed of," Cheskin said. "It was given with the specification that the proceeds go to support my work. Most art donations aren't displayed indefinitely, so the aim is to dispose of them eventually so the funds can be freed up and used."

For his part, Saff says he hopes his gift will not only enhance the environment of the new building but also improve the physical and mental health of those who work there.

"It's about art ennobling the spirit, and the body benefiting from that," Saff said.

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