Essay by Elisa M. Rothstein

From the Exhibit Catalog “James E. Allen”, Mary Ryan Gallery, 1984

Virtually obscured since the late 1940's, the graphic work of James E. Allen represents a body of work unified in strength and artistic purpose to a degree rarely matched in 20th century American printmaking. Born in Louisiana, Missouri, in 1894, James E. Allen was raised in Montana. He left home in 1911 to study painting and drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago. Soon after, he headed for New York where he took classes at the Art Students' League, the Grand Central School of Art, and the Hans Hoffman School. Ever searching for perfection in his own art, Allen was a tireless student; he studied illustration with Harvey Dunn, etching with Joseph Pennell and William Auerbach-Levy, and even spent evenings working with sculptor Naum M. Los to improve his sense of 3-dimensional form. Not content to learn merely the rudiments of whatever piqued his artistic interest, Allen became a master of whatever he pursued. Dissatisfied with his first efforts in etching, he spent close to 7 years experimenting with copper and acid before allowing his prints to be exhibited.

This remarkable conscientious and self-challenging attitude was manifest for most of Allen's career, particularly in his commission for the Sinclair Oil Company: When approached to update the company's dinosaur trademark, Allen responded with predictable precision, "I will undertake the work only if it is done scientifically, with the help of the American Museum of Natural History." He spent the ensuing months in close study with Dr. Barnum Brown at the museum, and produced images of meticulous anatomical accuracy.

With the advent of World War I, Allen had already established himself as an illustrator, working as a staff artist for Doubleday-Page Publishing Company. From his studio on 23rd street in New York, Allen produced illustrations for publications such as Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post. When the war broke out in earnest Allen left his job and volunteered his services as a fighter pilot.

In 1925 he moved to Paris where he met Howard Cook. The two artists shared a studio and began to experiment with a variety of printmaking techniques. Allen systematically absorbed the teachings of his "graphic heroes", Kasimir Malevich and Paul Cezanne, never however, losing sight of his own artistic direction. He was much taken with the work of the Cubists, and also of George Rouault, but continued to search for economy of line and careful orchestration of tone in his own prints. Unlike many artists of the time, Allen always worked directly from the model, executing exhaustive life-size charcoal studies for all his prints. For his print "The Builders", Allen even called in a construction site foreman to check the accuracy of his depiction before allowing the plate to be printed.

During the Depression years Allen, now back in New York, worked consistently in the field of commercial art. His etchings and lithographs began to receive widespread academic and critical acclaim around 1932 when his etching "The Builders" garnered both a Shaw Prize from New York's Salmagundi Club, and a Henry B. Shope Award from the Society of American Etchers. Barely a year later "Brazilian Builders" took a Charles M. Lea Award at the Philadelphia Print Club Exhibition (at that same exhibition Howard Cook, George Burr and Ernest Roth all received an "Honorable Mention" for their submissions). Allen also began to exhibit his work in galleries during the 1930's; Kennedy and Company, and the Grand Central Art Gallery both exhibited and sold Allen's work, and he both exhibited and acted as a juror for exhibitions at the Society of American Etchers.

In 1937 Allen was commissioned to execute a series of 12 lithographs for the United States Foundry Company. Achieving a pinnacle of technique and expression, this series brilliantly captured the dynamic strength of "man over material". The daily heroism of America's industrial workers was depicted with simple force and unselfconscious dignity. The series also forged a strong link between commercial and fine art. Public response to the work was so overwhelming that United States Pipe and Foundry Company issued a special calendar for that year, reproducing all 12 of the prints. The prints were exhibited and sold at Kennedy and Company.

The following year Allen was honored with a one-man exhibition at the United States National Museum, Division of Graphic Arts, of the Smithsonian Institution. The exhibition received unanimous critical acclaim, affirming Allen's position as one of the luminaries of American printmaking. Reviews in national newspapers sang Allen's praises, citing his extraordinary ability to, "so strikingly set before us the romance and dignity of labor in our own day and time". Others singled out his impressive facility with modeling light and dark, while still others lauded him for, "avoiding the present-day epidemic of social protest...These are graphic depictions of men at work, healthy, satisfied to build for tomorrow, proud in their strength and manual skill". In 1938 Allen received the Isidor Prize from the Salmagundi Club for his lithograph "Prayer for Rain". He continued to exhibit and receive awards through the 1940's, and his prints were increasingly reproduced to illustrate political and economic issues in a variety of publications. While not essentially political work, Allen's prints were particularly suited to the labor consciousness of Roosevelt's New Deal era.

Allen stopped making prints in 1943 to take up an intensive study of painting under Hans Hoffman. While engrossed in a study of abstraction he succumbed to a degenerative brain disease and spent the last 15 years of his life in a nursing home in Westchester County. In the early stages of his illness he destroyed the bulk of his drawings, watercolors, and print studies. His final show was an exhibition of paintings at the Rehn Gallery. James E. Allen died in 1964. Friend and then current president of the Society of American Etchers, John Taylor Arms, assessed Allen most succinctly in his letter to members:

In foundries, factories and in the construction of our modern marvels of steel, Mr. Allen has found beauty of composition, of contrast, of rhythm, of linear pattern, and of light and shade, and he has mastered the difficulties of these intricate subjects with a success which argues the' approach of a true etcher.

It is difficult to understand, in the light of his dedication and achievement, why the work of James E. Allen slipped into obscurity for close to three decades. It is remarkable, however, that after such an absence his prints have lost none of their vitality, or their ability to stir the viewer. It is a rare talent, indeed that can withstand such a test and create images of enduring strength and dignity.

Elisa M. Rothstein - reprinted with permission