Robin Holder

Lisa E. Farrington, Ph.D.

One day while working in the Blackburn studio, Holder realized that she had indeed fashioned her own curriculum as well, or better, than any academy. Elizabeth Catlett and "Bob" Blackburn were scrutinizing Holder's latest print when, as Holder remembers with pride, "they both lifted their reading glasses to look more closely at the print and asked simultaneously, 'How did you get that effect?!' I knew then that I had contributed something valuable to printmaking."35 Blackburn and Catlett, both seasoned masters, had been unable to deconstruct Holder's process because it was one which the artist had invented and perfected herself. Their curiosity and mutual admiration for their younger colleague indicated the inimitable level of expertise which Holder had attained. In terms of sheer innovation and technical rigor, Holder had surpassed her teachers, thanks in no small part to the unorthodox pedagogical and professional choices she had made.

Robin Holder's work can be placed in the larger context of African American Postmodern diversity and empiricism, which began in the 1970s. As a catchword, "Postmodernism" resists classification almost as much as the art to which it refers. Despite widespread use of the term in literary arenas, its application to the visual arts has been inconsistent and equivocal. As a concept, Postmodernism "lacks a single inclusive definition" and cannot be associated with a definitive style. At the most basic level, the term is a chronological signifier, defining art produced after the 1960s when Modernism's emphasis on formal elements was replaced by revisionist (i.e. socialist, feminist, etc.) art history, and when the preeminence of painting and sculpture succumbed to more experimental media, such as Holder's investigative and unconventional prints.36

From a less rudimentary standpoint, Postmodernism is a response to, and an implementation of, semiotic theories that examine multiple implications of a verbal or visual "text" (such as a work of art). In other words, Postmodernism espouses the idea that the meaning of a work of art is "constructed" and is subject to infinite interpretations—"a chameleon" that, like much of Holder's oeuvre, debunks longstanding assumptions about the existence of one "true" ethnic, racial, cultural, or gender identity, to which all others should defer.37 As art theorist Christopher Reed opined, Postmodernism "challenges formalist [Modernist] beliefs in a transcendent or universal art that just happens to have been created overwhelmingly by and for a specific demographic group: white, Western, apparently heterosexual men of the upper middle class."38

Postmodernism, as a doctrine, cleared the way for new aesthetic paradigms; it challenged the inflexible programs of Modernism; and it elevated difference over conformity. Owing to this reinforcement of cultural pluralism, women artists of African descent became forces to be reckoned with on the contemporary scene—and Holder offers a paradigmatic exemplar of one such force.39 Within this pluralistic context, Holder has successfully found access to an art world that was once closed to innovation and experimentation, except when produced within the hermetic white, male Modernist framework. Like her sister Postmodernists, Holder has demanded and won the right to express herself in whatever manner she chooses, to question the premises of art-making and, indeed, to interrogate the very nature of art expression. One of a singular generation of women artists of color who helped to chart this new frontier, Holder now thrives in an age of waning racial and gender-based discrimination, yet she continues to grapple with the considerable vestiges of these biases that refuse to give way.40 Accordingly, Holder's gossamer images of women and nature as indexes of universal harmony and healing, while diverse in form and content from the works of her sister-contemporaries, share a common thread of concern for the wellbeing of women and people of color, and for the pressing issues that affect them.

Those who know Robin Holder will likely agree that there is nothing run-of-the-mill about her. As a person, she comprises a beguilingly motley mix of cultural, ethnic, and religious attributes; not to mention an empathetic spirit and a killer sense of humor. As an artist, Holder is equally captivating and mercurial. At times, she can create small-scale assemblages that are as subtle and intimate as a whisper. At others, she can produce monumental installations that resonate with color, expansive forms, and forthright narrative. Holder's prints—a medium so often associated with unvaried duplication—are consistently unique, one-of-a-kind objets d'art involving vastly labor intensive processes. Iconographically, her images are filled with twists and turns, and shaped by a limitless range of leitmotifs, from ecology to politics, and from the past to the present. About these many disparate elements which make up both the artist and her art, says this pioneering maverick, "I claim them all."41


LISA E. FARRINGTON, PH.D. IS THE FOUNDING CHAIR, DEPARTMENT OF ART AND MUSIC AT JOHN JAY COLLEGE, CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK. © LISA E. FARRINGTON, PH.D.