Carol Summers (Am: b.1925-2016) is considered by many art historians to be among only a handful of master printmakers who produced new work in the 21st century so far. Summers worked as an artist throughout the entire second half of the 20th century and beyond, outliving most of his mid-century modernist peers. Initially trained as a painter, he was drawn to color woodcuts or woodblocks as they are more widely known around 1950 and it became his specialty thereafter. Over the years Summers has developed a process and style that is both innovative and readily recognizable. His art is known for it’s large scale, saturated fields of bold color, semi-abstract treatment of landscapes from around the world and a luminescent quality achieved through a woodcut printmaking process he invented.
Internationally recognized, the woodblock prints of Carol Summers are in the permanent collection of virtually every major museum in the world including MOMA, the Met, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris, in prestigious Kunstmuseums throughout Europe as well as in many others around the world. Indeed, when he was 38 years old in 1964, Summers work was featured in a One Man Show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York for a second time after which it was packed off to become a record-breaking, two-year traveling exhibition throughout the country. Countless shows and exhibitions year after years followed. At the turn of the millennium two important and major retrospective exhibitions of Carol Summers work were held, one in New York and the other in California at which time the Carol Summers Woodcuts: 50 Year Retrospective Catalog was published. In opening remarks at the stand-room-only exhibition openings, Summers would tell the audience that speakeasies, flappers and the Charleston were the rage when he saw primary colors for the first time in the small town of Kingston in upstate New York in December of 1925 when he was born.
A woodblock print by Carol Summers is unmistakable. Over a career that has spanned over half a century, Carol Summers has hand-pulled nearly 245 original color woodblock prints in editions that typically run from 25 to 100 in number. These run the gamut of large and small woodcuts, long and short ones with various sizes and shapes in between. There have also been lithographs, silkscreens and exhibition posters from the prestigious Associated American Artists group. Each work is listed in detail and pictured in the comprehensive Carol Summers Catalog Raisonne.
Summers was raised in nearby Woodstock with his older sister, Mary. His parents were both artists who had met in art school in St. Louis. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, when Carol was growing up, his father supported the family as a medical illustrator until he could return to painting. His mother was a watercolorist and also quite knowledgeable about the different kinds of papers used for various kinds of painting and printmaking. Many years later, Summers would paint or print on thinly textured papers originally collected by his mother.
In 1954, Summers received a grant from the Italian government to study for a year in Italy. He stayed three years, a decision which would have significant impact on choices of subject matter and color in the coming decade. A Fulbright Grant as well as Fellowships from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation followed soon thereafter, as did faculty positions at colleges and universities primarily in New York and Pennsylvania. Around this time Carol Summers played a pivotal role in bringing the monumental woodcut into the world. This term was coined in the early 1960s when he and fellow woodblock artist Leonard Baskin created woodblock prints that were a whole lot bigger than those done in previous decades. Those were much smaller in size mostly because of the limitation of the small hand presses in use.
Summers’ woodblock prints are also known for bold, flowing designs and vivid glowing colors. In 1990, in a new and long-awaited reference book, Color In American Printmaking, Carol Summers is named among the “best of the best”. Other clues to identifying this master printmaker's unique style is that he mixes representational art with the shapes and forms of semi-abstract art, rarely departing from images of the land, sea and sky. He portrays the natural in world in a quintessential simplicity. He does this partly by mixing geometric shapes (squares, triangles, circles) with organic shapes (irregular in outline).
Classically trained in fine art at Bard College and the prestigious Art Students League of New York, Carol Summers has always been attracted to the woodcut as a medium. Before he became a printmaker, he was a master carpenter and cabinetmaker. His woodcuts reveal a sensitivity to wood, the subtleties of its grain, its various absorptive qualities and the way it responds to simple tools. All are original woodcuts which means each was done individually by hand (making each one different than the one before it) using none of the photomechanical processes so common today.
Summers favors landscapes. His familiarity with landscapes throughout the world is firsthand. As a navigator-bombardier in the Marines in World War II, he toured the South Pacific and Asia. Following college, travel in Europe and subsequent teaching positions, in 1972, after 47 years on the East Coast, Carol Summers moved permanently to Northern California. During the years that followed this relocation, Summers’ choice of subject matter has become more diverse although it has never lost the positive, life-affirming quality that had existed from the beginning. Images now include moons, comets, both sunny and starry skies, hearts and flowers, all of which, in one way or another, are tied to the landscape.
In university fine arts programs and textbooks throughout the world, Summers’ method is known and taught as the Carol Summers Technique. Summers produces his woodcuts usually from blocks of quarter-inch pine wood, using oil-based printing inks and porous handmade paper as used to make Japanese woodblock prints. In the majority of his woodcuts, Summers makes the blocks slightly larger than the paper so the image and color will bleed off the edge. Before printing, he centers a dry sheet of mulberry or Japanese paper over the top of the cut wood block or blocks, securing it with giant clips. Then he rolls the ink directly on the front of the sheet of paper and pressing down onto the dry wood block or reassembled group of blocks.
Summers is technically very proficient; the inks are thoroughly saturated onto the surface of the paper but they do not run into each other. The incredible precision of the color inking in Summers' woodcuts, (including various images shown in this guide) has been referred to in multiple studio handbooks. Summers refers to his own printing technique as “rubbing”. In traditional woodcut printing, including the Japanese method, the ink is applied directly onto the block. However, by following his own method, Summers has avoided the mirror-reversed image of a conventional print and it has given him the control over the precise amount of ink that he wants on the paper.
After the ink is applied to the front of the paper, Summers sprays it with mineral spirits, which act as a thinning agent. The absorptive fibers of the paper draw the thinned ink away from the surface softening the shapes and diffusing and muting the colors. This produces a unique glow that is a hallmark of the Summers printmaking technique. By the 1960s, Summers had developed a personal way of coloring and printing and was not afraid of hard work, doing the cutting, inking and pulling himself.
Unlike the works of other color field artists or modernists of the time, this technique made Summers’ extreme simplification and flat color areas anything but hard-edged or coldly impersonal. It is unique and has stood the test of time.
In 1979, Summers received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Bard College and was selected by the United States Information Agency to spend a year conducting painting and printmaking workshops at universities throughout India. Since that original sabbatical, he has returned every to India every year, spending four to eight weeks traveling throughout that country. In the 1990s, interspersed with these journeys to India have been additional treks to the back roads and high country areas of Mexico, Central America, Nepal, China, Africa and Japan. Each place has inspired a series of works.
During the last 35 years, Summers has used California as a base to travel extensively, hiking and camping, often for weeks at a time, throughout the western United States and Canada. Throughout most of this time it was not unusual for Summers to backpack alone or with a fellow artist into mountains or back country for six weeks or more. The artwork created during the last 20 years includes some of his most critically acknowledged work.
As you might imagine, over the years many of these original woodblocks have been destroyed by floods, fire or improper care, and as time goes by fewer exist. It is not unreasonable to think that every edition has many less woodblocks in it today than when it was created. Today, most original color woodcuts by Carol Summers range in price between $300 and $10,000. Price has generally depended primarily on image, age and rarity, not necessarily the size of the artwork although the monumental size woodblocks by Carol Summers have held or increased in value the most over the last decades.
Summarizing Carol Summers career, one art historian may have said it best: "Scale, simplicity of design, feelings of well-being, saturated colors, and images that are tied to the land, sea and sky will always be hallmarks of this extraordinary printmaker's work."