Ms. Catlett, who was born in Washington, was a sculptor and printmaker who followed her own determined vision to become what poet Maya Angelou once called a “queen of the arts.”
Early in her career, Ms. Catlett decided that her art should serve a social purpose and be accessible to as many people as possible. With that in mind, she created figurative portrayals of African American life that have become prized by museums and collectors, including Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby.
Although she had lived in Mexico since 1946, Ms. Catlett was one of the few remaining links to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Her friends included such storied African American thinkers and artists as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall and Jacob Lawrence.
“I have always wanted my art to service black people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential,” Ms. Catlett told author Samella Lewis in her 1978 book “Art: African American.”
For years, Ms. Catlett was denied entry to the United States because of suspected Communist sympathies, and her art was seldom seen in the land of her birth. Yet, in the past 25 years, her prints and sculptures have been exhibited worldwide and have entered the collections of major museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
“She’s really one of the foremost African American artists of the 20th century,” Melanie Anne Herzog, an art history professor at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis., and author of “Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico,” said in an interview. “She was a tremendous inspiration to other artists in the African American tradition and in Mexico.”
Ms. Catlett created large-scale sculptures of musicians Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson, as well as evocative prints of many black leaders, including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X. But many of her most powerful works depict ordinary people.
In her 1952 linoleum print “Sharecropper,” a woman with white hair and a lean face framed by a wide straw hat gazes off to the side, with her blouse fastened by a safety pin. The static image acquires an internal sense of motion from the thousands of tiny cuts in a linoleum block made by Ms. Catlett.
Her sculptures, however, often reach toward a broader, metaphorical vision, without abandoning the human form.
“I want the ordinary person to be able to relate to what I am doing,” she told New Orleans magazine in 1984. “Working figuratively is the dues I must, want and am privileged to pay so that ordinary people can relate to my work and not get lost trying to figure out what it means.”