Ralph Woehrman, Painter and Printmaker


When it was announced in March 1978 that the Cleveland Arts Prize in the Visual Arts was to be given, for only the second time in the 17-year history of the awards, to a printmaker, there was little doubt who the recipient would be. Ever since Ralph Woehrman’s work had been featured five years earlier in a one-man show at Washington, D.C.’s prestigious Corcoran Gallery (and at the New York Cultural Center at Lincoln Center that same winter), his star had shone brightly in the national firmament.

Woehrman’s work was already in 16 permanent collections around the U.S., including the Library of Congress and the Cleveland Museum of Art; he had participated in 50 invitational and group exhibitions; been awarded a $5,000 Tiffany Grant from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation; and commissioned by the University Print Club of Cleveland, a signal honor, to produce a limited edition print for its membership.

A native of Cleveland, born in 1943, Woehrman attended Kent State University and the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA), from which he graduated in 1966 laden with prizes (the Ralph Woehrman Scholarship in Drawing is now awarded annually to a student who has demonstrated traditional proficiency and excellence in drawing). These honors were crowned, on graduation, with the Institute’s coveted Agnes Gund Memorial Traveling Scholarship, which took Woehrman to Europe to study printmaking techniques. After a brief teaching stint at the Memphis Academy of Art, the prolific 27-year-old became the CIA’s youngest instructor. He would take a leave of absence in 1971–72 to complete a master of fine arts degree at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Ralph Woehrman’s drawings and prints differed from those of his celebrated colleague (and Arts Prize predecessor) H.C. Cassill, in which recognizable objects could often barely be discerned, by their almost photographic realism. (Woehrman served until his retirement in 2005 as chairman of the departments of Drawing and, for a time, of Medical Illustration.) In fact, his meticulous depiction of people, animals and inanimate objects is typically done with such intensity as to produce a sort of hyper-realism that carries the viewer beyond the literal . . . while Woehrman’s favorite device of juxtaposing a human face or presence with unexpected or incongruous companion images such as a caterpillar, turtle, bird or lizard creates an effect that is surrealistic, even, as former Plain Dealer art critic Helen Borsick Cullinan once put it, “creepy.”

This seems, however, to be quite deliberate on the artist’s part, a way of unsettling the viewer’s expectations and jolting him or her immediately into a whole new frame of reference—Wait a minute, this is not the world we know; where are we?  What’s going on here?—forcing us to see the familiar with fresh eyes. As Borsick said in reviewing Woehrman’s 1973 one-man show of new work done on satin-like polystyrene paper, “Energies crackle in the stillness.”

Like Cassill, Woehrman was no purist, and loved to experiment with different materials and effects, using everything from pitch black ink or sepia to soft pencils, crayons and luminous acrylics—now turning out bleak, starkly outlined faces, now huge butterflies in dazzling technicolor. (A 40-year retrospective of the artist’s work that graced several galleries in the summer of 1977 included an impressive range of media, from intaglio prints and mixed-media portraits to pencil drawings.)

After CIA purchased an outsized press, he became known for his bold larger-than-life images. Especially his portraits of historic figures (Lincoln, JFK, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr.). When the 1993 graduating class of West Point wanted to leave a departing gift to posterity, it was Ralph Woehrman they called on for a monumental portrait of General Norman Schwarzkopf, who had led American troops two years earlier in the successful first Gulf War.

Woehrman’s American Heroes Series had grown out of a series of Civil War portraits he had done based on the photography of Matthew Brady. Other series featured empty suits of armor, elderly Victorians and, inspired by the photographs in the National Geographic, the smallest inhabitants of earth and sea, scaly, furry, sleek or feathered, including bugs. It has been noted that what all of these have in common with the human presences with which they are often juxtaposed in Woehrman’s prints and drawings is that they are all creatures of the Earth—or at least distinctly human artifacts. Odd bits of plumbing, gaskets, tanks and “strange mechanical devices” also turn up in this artist’s weird groupings, producing an involuntary frisson in the viewer.

Some have seen in these disturbing, sometimes macabre juxtapositions a profound sadness about what human “civilization” has done to the planet. To those viewers these are “pictures that speak,” in Helen Borsick’s vivid description, “of decadent, frightened and disillusioned human beings”—Woehrman’s Lincoln was based on a photograph  taken shortly before his death that brims with sadness and compassion—“and animals and stuffed birds on the way to extinction, sinister machines and those hideous lizards, somehow thriving.” Whether intended as prophetic icons or dark humor, Ralph Woehrman’s haunting images have a way of staying with you. He himself has said that what he strives for is “clarity.”

—Dennis Dooley

All photos courtesy of the artist.


Cleveland Arts Prize
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