Charles Turzak, 'Michigan Avenue Bridge', 1929, woodcut, edition 50. Signed, titled, and numbered '27/50' in pencil. Signed in the block, upper left. A fine, black impression, on cream Japan paper, with full margins (1 5/8 to 2 1/4 inches), in excellent condition. Matted to museum standards, unframed. Scarce.
Collection: National Gallery of Art.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Charles Turzak was born in Streator, Illinois, the third child and only son of Czechoslovakian immigrant parents. His father was a coal miner who worked long days, and the many chores of daily life occupied Turzak’s boyhood years. When he completed his duties, he retired to do what he most enjoyed—the careful carving of miniature animals from peach seeds, which he would sell for pennies.
Turzak learned woodworking from a neighbor, an English cabinet maker, and soon apprenticed for making violins. He drew cartoons for his school's yearbook and sale bills for local merchants. In 1920, he won a cartoon contest sponsored by the Purina Company in St. Louis, Missouri, which helped him earn entrance to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He excelled in drawing and woodcarving and gained membership in Delta Phi Delta, an honorary art fraternity. He supported himself through freelance advertising, selling insurance, and teaching a class in woodcut and wood engraving at the Academy of Fine Arts.
By the late 1920s, he had gained recognition from exhibiting and selling prints of Northwestern University and Chicago landmarks such as the Chicago Water Tower, Tribune Tower, and Buckingham Fountain, as well as watercolors of steel mills, boats, harbors, skylines, woodlands, parks, and still life subjects. In 1929 he traveled to Europe to study the works of the masters firsthand, visiting England, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and France. He returned to the United States just as the Great Depression was taking hold of the country.
During this severe economic downturn, Turzak created woodcut biographies of notable Americans—his first edition on Abraham Lincoln sold so well at the Century of Progress International Exhibition (Chicago World’s Fair, 1933-34) that it supported him throughout the Depression. He followed it with 'Benjamin Franklin: A Biography in Woodcuts', accompanied by text written by his wife, Florence Turzak. His acclaimed series of ten prints, 'History of Illinois in Woodcuts', also created during this period, helped establish him in an advertising career.
Turzak exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1940, and worked for the Works Progress Administration, creating graphics and completing a mural for the Chicago Post Office. In 1942, he took the position of art director of Today's Health Magazine, while continuing to create his personal art. He moved to Orlando, Florida, in 1958, where he continued painting and experimenting with modernist genres and abstraction.
The Figge Art Museum mounted an exhibition of Turzak’s WPA-era graphics, ‘Beyond the Surface: WPA Works of Charles Turzak’, November 11, 2011- March 10, 2012.
Turzak’s graphic works can be found in numerous museum collections, including Ackland Art Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Cleveland Museum of Art, Columbus Museum of Art, Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, Figge Art Museum, Library of Congress, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Spencer Museum of Art, Western Illinois University Art Gallery, Whitney Museum of American Art.