H.C. Cassill, Printmaker, 1928–2008
1971 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR VISUAL ARTS
Joseph McCullough’s decision in 1957 to hire H. C. (“Carroll”) Cassill to replace retiring Paul Wilcox as head of printmaking at the Cleveland Institute of Art was the beginning of a new era for what had long been regarded as a minor art form. For, while painters had long since claimed the freedom to experiment with cubism and expressionism, Cassill would explain, printmakers were still turning out “nice little pictures of cathedrals.” To McCullough, who had been named director of the Institute two years earlier, the 28-year-old Cassill represented the future.
As art students at the University of Iowa, both Cassill (a native of Percival, Iowa) and his young wife, Jean Kubota Cassill, had responded enthusiastically to the message of their teacher, Mauricio Lasansky, who believed the only limits to printmaking should be “the limits of art.” This extended to the techniques printmakers could employ. Cassill was only 19 and in his second year at Iowa in 1948 when he produced a satirical print titled The Sophisticate that was accepted for the exhibition New Directions in Intaglio at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis—and purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) for its collection. But Cassill wisely decided to complete the requirements for his bachelor’s degree, then his M.F.A., while continuing to experiment, now as Lasansky’s assistant, with combining various ways of working the plate. In 1953 Cassill was awarded a $2,000 Tiffany Fellowship in Printmaking and a teaching position.
His work was soon taking prizes in important juried exhibitions, in several cases being purchased by the sponsoring institutions, which included the art museums of Brooklyn, Dayton, Denver, Oakland, San Francisco and Cleveland (which owns a dozen of his prints), and by the Library of Congress. Cassill’s intaglio prints, wood-cuts and lino-cuts also were seen in Barcelona, London, Belgrade, Salzburg, Hamburg, Munich, Vienna and Athens as part of three important traveling exhibitions, American Printmakers, an International Exhibition of Graphic Arts and the MOMA-sponsored Modern Art in the U.S.A., as well as at the Paris Biennial. Back home his work was being shown in such prestigious venues as Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s watercolor, print and drawing show. By 1966, Cassill’s work had been featured in some 45 group or one-man shows; by the time of his death at the age of 79, the number had reached a staggering 190 group and 19 one-man shows.
Aficionados of printmaking were in awe of Cassill’s mastery of the medium. As it requires the artist to create the reverse image of what will be transferred with colored inks to paper, printmaking is arguably more difficult than painting. There was also his fearless rejection of conventional practices—by, for example, combining multiple processes or working on a scale once considered impossible, or at least inappropriate, to the medium. But it was, finally, the strangely compelling (some described it as “mystical”) character of his “print-drawings,” as he liked to call them, that made Cassill a favorite with serious collectors. “Each mark, each line is a careful, reflective, accumulative choice, responding to the marks already made,” writes William Busta in the thoughtful catalog essay he wrote for the posthumous 2008 retrospective of Cassill’s work mounted at the William Busta Gallery in Cleveland. “Yet, as his works move toward completion, they become less about marks than about making, about sets of choices . . . and then about the work finding its own life.”
“When we refer to a work as a print,” Cassill once wrote, the emphasis is on “the employment of various print procedures.” In his own work, he observed, “sometimes drawing is called upon to share an equal or greater role in the final resolution of the work.” For Cassill this was an organic process that unfolded gradually in search of its own fulfillment. “Once the general patterns for the work are set in motion, I tend to consciously and deliberately set myself apart from the way the work is developing—allowing it to find some sort of resolution,” he wrote, “and not favoring one disposition over another.” Cassill’s print-drawings invite, indeed demand repeated contemplation, says Busta: “The lingering view reveals the work in its fullness,” he writes, “the meditative view can transform the viewer.”
Indeed, it was Cassill’s work, said former Western Reserve University psychology professor Jim Carlson, that inspired the formation in the early 1960s of the University Print Club to encourage and support this revitalized art form by commissioning limited editions of an original print that the club’s 35 members would purchase. It had been almost a forgone conclusion, said Carlson, that Cassill would be given the first commission. (Cassill subsequently served as a judge and facilitator of an annual competition that awarded similar commissions to CIA students doing exciting work.)
Students and friends remember Carroll Cassill as a quiet, even a shy man. But Jim and Jeanne Carlson also remember his “droll” humor, and his passion about injustice and the abuse of power. In his 1953 drawing of the Rosenbergs, observed Fine Arts magazine’s Nina Gibans, the “pitiful couple stands stark and lonely.” Cassill was very actively involved in the anti-war movement of the late '60s and early ’70s, and joined with architect Jerry Weiss and several other artists when bad aesthetic decisions threatened an important public space, and took to the streets under the banner, “Stop Planned Ugliness.”
Throughout all this, as head of CIA’s printmaking department from 1957 (which he created) until his retirement in 1991 as Professor Emeritus, he also patiently passed on to several generations of young artists everything he knew about making prints—and about seeing. Cleveland artist/critic and former student Douglas Max Utter remembered Cassill as a gifted artist and great teacher who continually sought “new ways to sense the texture of time, and patience, and the weight of things pressing into the contours of the self.” His print-drawings report on the world, said Utter, “the way a leaf reports on the wind.”
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