African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond presents works dating from the early 1920s through the 2000s by black artists who participated in the multivalent dialogues about art, identity, and the rights of the individual that engaged American society throughout the twentieth century.
VanDerZee began photographing as a teenager after having won an eight-dollar camera as a premium for selling pink and yellow silk sachets. Beginning in 1916 he worked out of a commercial Harlem studio he opened on 135th street. During the 1920s and 1930s, he produced hundreds of photographs recording Harlem's growing middle class. Its residents entrusted the visual documentation of their weddings, funerals, celebrities, and social life to his carefully composed images. VanDerZee knew the neighborhood and its inhabitants, and shared their dreams and aspirations for self-determination and racial pride.
VanDerZee is best known for the studio portraits he made in Harlem after World War I. His sensitivity and the pride he felt from living and working within the community are clear in elegant and graceful images that challenged prevailing stereotypes. The sitter in "Evening Attire" is dressed in a beaded evening gown, an elegant, full hat, and a fox tail wrap; she holds a spray of flowers. Her stance, coupled with the backdrop, the brocade table cover, and a decorative figurine, evokes formal Victorian home interiors seen in Edwardian portraiture and nineteenth-century cartes de visite, the small photographs people used as calling cards in the late nineteenth century.
The softly brushed lines and gently calibrated color of Still Life with Peonies reflects Porter’s thinking about the confluence of the personal and the contextual in the practice of art. The exuberant vase of flowers negotiates with (and against) the vertical rungs and curved handrail. The simple screen and striped wallpaper serve as counterpoints to the energy of the peonies’ petals. Presented as the primary focus of the composition, Porter has depicted the flowers carried by his wife, Dorothy, when she was honored at Howard University in 1947, while the painting-within-a-painting represents a canvas Porter completed during a research trip to Cuba and Haiti.
Johnson learned to work copper sheet metal in the 1920s as an assistant in the studio of sculptor Beniamino Bufano, one of his instructors at the California School of the Fine Arts in San Francisco. The stylized oval of the face, generous lips, and wide nose reflect Johnson’s aim to show the “pure American Negro.” He said he wanted to depict the “natural beauty and dignity in that characteristic lip, that characteristic hair, bearing and manner.” With Mask, Johnson situated the image of the black face within a dialogue about race taking place among the poets and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance: Alain Locke, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.
Jones went to Africa for the first time in 1970, at age sixty-five, but the forms, rhythmic cadences, and vibrant color she associated with the ceremonies of Africa had infused her art since her student years. These influences are apparent in Self-Portrait, in which Jones links her identity with traditional African sculpture.
The compressed space in Self-Portrait speaks to Johnson’s profound awareness of modernist compositional devices. The easel at the left side of the canvas identifies him as an artist, and the masks in the background make an assertive statement about his African American heritage. In 1934, the year he painted his self-portrait, Johnson joined the ranks of the Public Works of Art Project, the first of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal art programs, which paid artists a monthly stipend. Although the job lasted only six months, Johnson was finally able to paint full time. Ironically, the year proved to be Johnson’s most prolific but also the last of his short life.
Porter painted Soldado Senegales, a portrait of expatriate Senegalese dancer Feral Benga, in 1935 while in France on sabbatical leave from Howard University. Rather than picture the West African in one of his flamboyant dance moves, Porter posed him in the khaki uniform and fez of a French colonial soldier. It is a distinctly modernist painting and a subtle comment on European colonial occupation in Africa during the early years of the twentieth century. The striated red background and thin black lines that outline Benga’s shoulders emphasize the shallowness of the pictorial space. The touches of green that highlight the sitter’s forehead recall the canvases of Henri Matisse.
Jones was especially sensitive to the rights and roles of women. For many years she felt forced to ship rather than deliver her work in person so museums would not reject them because they had been done by a black female artist. In Initiation, Liberia, she interpreted the Sande society initiation ritual. The swath of white paint across the young woman’s eyes indicates her role as an initiate. The mask partly obscures her distinctive personality but combined with the receding profiles at the left of her head, suggests continuity over generations that is implied by the ritual ceremony.
At the center of Moon Masque is a papier-mâché replica of a heart-shaped white Kwele mask from Zaire surrounded by masklike profiles and designs drawn from Ethiopian textiles. Though stylized, the faces resemble actual individuals whose profiles are juxtaposed with tears falling from the eyes of the mask. It is tempting to speculate that the mask, representing heritage and tradition, weeps for the situation of contemporary African peoples.
To Elizabeth Catlett, the face is a key to both racial identity and the inner essence of humanity. This is particularly true of Singing Head, part African, part pre-Columbian in derivation. The enigmatic, undulating form exudes a somber vitality suggestive not simply of the power of song but of life itself.
Catlett was a native of Washington, D.C., who spent most of her career in Mexico. She was educated at Howard University and the University of Iowa, where she studied with the regionalist painter Grant Wood. Throughout her life, she dedicated herself to subjects she knew well – the lives of women, the heritage of black Americans and pre-Columbian cultures, and the trials of the poor. After almost a decade devoted to printmaking, Catlett turned to sculpture in 1955 with a series that focused on motherhood and the black woman. Her work grew increasingly abstract and more militantly devoted to the troubled groups toward whom she gravitated. In the 1960s, she broadened the theme of womankind to symbolize all human dignity and strength.
A lush jungle of flowering tobacco plants provides the backdrop for a family of field hands who walk in frieze like procession along a rough dirt path. The hoes and head coverings convey the nature of their toil in the heat of a late summer sun, yet their upright postures and steady gait suggest liveliness. Faces are hidden in shadow and bodies are defined by unmodulated shapes of the brightly colored clothing. Field Workers speaks eloquently to the condition of a particular family’s life—and by extension to the lives of all who toil on the land.
The angular grace of Blackberry Woman speaks of stoicism and constancy. The subject—an African American woman in a simple dress who is balancing a basket on her head—is one Barthé may well have seen on market day as a boy growing up in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. But she is more than an echo of an image once observed. She has the frontal, linear form found in West African sculpture, which Barthé first saw in Chicago, in an exhibition during The Negro in Art Week in November 1927, when he was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Johnson painted Brothers in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside Charlottesville, Virginia. The boys’ overalls and bare feet, and the angled picket fence that blocks recessive space, locate them in a small-town setting. During his career, Johnson moved easily between explorations of modernist composition and what was then known as “racial art”—art that paid homage to contemporary African American life and its ancestral roots. The children’s faces show no emotion; the only hint of their relationship comes through the placement of the younger boy, who leans against the protective shoulder of his stronger, older brother.
We see the subject of Resting up close, as though sitting across from him on the ground engaged in casual conversation. The title, coupled with the man’s bare feet and everyday clothes, suggests that he is taking a momentary rest from work on the farm. Although his eyes are hidden by a red hat, his face is attentive as he regards the unseen viewer. The palette of ochers, blues, reds, and greens and the loosely brushed shapes of his body and the the landscape behind him are liberally laid down with a palette knife. They echo the expressionist canvases of Vincent van Gogh that Clark studied in the late 1930s and early 1940s at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. Although Clark was born in Georgia, where his father worked as a tenant farmer, his family was part of the great migration of African Americans who moved from rural Southern towns to the urban North in the 1920s.
More than a trace of irony lies below the surface in Horace Pippin’s picture of plantation life. An elderly slave, too old for fieldwork, lives out his last years tending a child whose mother watches from a doorway. The tether that connects him to the child reminds us that “Old Black Joe” was earlier tied to a life picking cotton in the fields behind him.
The Capehart Division of Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation asked Pippin to paint Old Black Joe for the company collection and later used it in an advertising campaign about the power of music. The title comes from Stephen Foster’s sentimental ballad of 1860, “Old Black Joe,” and the painting evokes the sense of loss that haunts the ballad’s lyrics:
Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay,
Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away,
Gone from the earth to a better land I know,
I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe.”
Clementine Hunter, who was the daughter of slaves, was born onto the plantation thought to have inspired Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. She moved to Melrose as a girl and worked as a cotton-picker for most of her life. Although she never learned to read or write, Hunter was a natural storyteller who recorded her memories in visual form. Melrose Plantation, which is a National Historic Landmark and a site on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail, was built by and for free blacks. It became a mecca for artists and writers and inspired Hunter to record her own experiences. Melrose Quilt depicts the historic plantation’s iconic architecture: Melrose House, Africa House, Yucca House, and another building which may have been where Hunter lodged. Pictorial quilts, like other African American improvisational textiles, are highly personal and depart radically from prescribed quality styles more prevalent in European-rooted cultures. Hunter has been celebrated foremost as a painter who chronicled Louisiana plantation life in the early twentieth century. She made a handful of quilts from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, few of which survive.
Early Morning Work presents a clear narrative: the day’s chores must be done. But the scene is more than a reminiscence of farm life. It affirms the idea that Southern blacks maintained connections with the cultural heritage of Africa. Though seemingly primitive, the flattened forms and deliberately naïve perspective Johnson used were informed by years of artistic discipline. The man’s profile is a beautifully rendered drawing of an African mask. Hands and mule hoofs are disproportionately large, while the horizontal stripes offer a visual cadence punctuated by the circular forms of a wheel and chickens pecking at the ground.
Sowing presents a simple narrative of farm life suggestive of Johnson’s upbringing in South Carolina, but the brilliant palette disguises elements of tension. The plow the man grips is stained with red streaks. The woman’s hand is tightly clenched as she holds the seed above the soil before releasing it. A ghost moon in the sky hints at things both visible and unseen.
In 1975, Hunt was invited by the Container Corporation of America to create a sculpture for the Great Ideas project, a program that commissioned artists to interpret the writings of the world’s eminent thinkers. Hunt chose a passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel Blithedale Romance (1852) as his title and theme. Intending to evoke the feelings generated by the lines beginning “The greatest obstacle to being heroic is the doubt whether one may not be going to prove one’s self a fool,” Hunt explained that the sculpture’s wheel and open, boxlike structure suggest motion in restraint. The arms that project into space imply man’s striving for heroic deeds.
Crite thought of himself as an artist-reporter whose assignment was to capture the daily lives of ordinary people. His skill as an acute observer of American life is apparent in School’s Out, which shows dozens of children leaving the annex of Everett elementary school in Boston’s South End at a time when boys and girls were taught separately. Although Crite acknowledged that School’s Out may reflect a romanticized view it also presents a universal statement about community, stability, and the bonds of family life.
Joseph Delaney was a student of Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League in New York during the early 1930s. Delaney took to heart Benton’s campaign to create a distinctly American art as much through subject as style. Here, in a scene of Pennsylvania Station in New York, the drama of young lovers saying goodbye and the people of all ages hurrying through the cavernous train station is felt through this compelling use of line and color.
Can Fire in the Park is as much a swirling vignette of thickly applied paint as it is an image of a place. Delaney developed a vocabulary of signs—streetlights, fire hydrants, manhole covers, and zigzagging fire escapes—that became emblematic riffs on city life. In Can Fire the bright yellow orbs of streetlamps and the glow of the moon against a cloud-filled night sky embrace the men with waves of color and light. Delaney struggled financially for most of his life, so this empathetic scene may also represent a night he once spent on a park bench and the amity he shared with other homeless men.
In New Orleans Lawrence experienced firsthand the daily reality of Jim Crow segregation, where legislation required that he ride in the back of city buses and live in a racially segregated neighborhood. His anger is apparent in Bar and Grill, which shows the interior of a café with a wall that divides the space into two distinct realms—one occupied by whites, the other by blacks. Lawrence says little about the individuals beyond their skin color and the way they are treated (customers on the left are cooled by a ceiling fan), but the skewed vantage point from behind the bar emphasizes the artificiality of the two separate worlds.
With its half-demolished wall, odd configuration of poles, hula-hoop--like ring, and distant vista of calm water and low mountains, Confrontation presents an incongruous and unsettling image.
But something is familiar about the scene; a quality of déjà vu provokes memories of difficult personal encounters. We assume a connection between the two young women yet it is impossible to know the reason for their estrangement. Throughout his life, Lee-Smith explored the themes of the human condition and the wedges—social, individual, and racial—that thwart human interaction. But in Confrontation, Lee-Smith introduced a sense of possibility. The crumbling wall that separates the women from the landscape is not an insurmountable barrier; the serene world beyond is accessible by skirting boundaries.
Shotgun, Third Ward #1 is an image of strength and resilience in the face of loss. Children play in a water-soaked street oblivious to the tragedy of the burned-out church behind them. Adults look away, avoiding one another’s eyes and the spectacle of the still-smoldering structure. A rash of church bombings in the early 1960s may have been the initial prompt for this painting. But rather than create an image of outrage, Biggers affirmed the sustaining values of faith, heritage, and community through symbolism: the wheel in the air at the upper right edge summons the biblical story of Ezekiel while the grey-haired woman in red is an emblem of constancy and wisdom.
Lewis often asserted that art could not solve society’s problems, but Evening Rendezvous is a deeply political painting. The abstract dabs of white emerging from a gray twilight are hooded Klansmen, gathered around a bonfire suggested by the hot reds at the center of the image. Angular white shapes in the foreground describe men closest to the headlights of their cars, while those at the top are obscured by blue smoke. The combination of red, white, and blue mocks the patriotism that the Klan claimed as its defense.
Dial created Top of the Line (Steel) in response to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, after a jury acquitted four white policemen in the beating of an unarmed black motorist, Rodney King. The verdict ignited looting and rioting that lasted several days. Top of the Line re-creates the frenzy of the streets. Rope-outlined figures swirl in a dense field of color and line, grasping at pieces of automobiles and air-conditioners. Bold touches of red suggest violence; black-and-white figures symbolize racial tensions; red, white, and blue strokes, faint notes of patriotism, interweave the canvas in clusters.
James Hampton worked for more than fourteen years on his masterwork: The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, an epic, multi-component altar installation that is both astonishingly splendid and unspeakably humble. He worked in solitude, in a rented garage, transforming its drab interior into a heavenly vision, as he prepared for the return of Christ to earth. Hampton made The Throne in response to several religious visions he had. The project was highly personal, spiritual, and reflects a co-mingling of Christian and African American spiritual practices.
Hampton's full creation consists of some 180 components, which collectively suggest a chancel complete with altar, a throne, offertory tables, pulpits, mercy seats, and other objects of his own invention. The seven-foot tall throne at the rear center is the work's focal point. Pairs of objects on either side give it a powerful sense of symmetry. Objects to the right of the throne refer to the New Testament and Jesus; to the left, the Old Testament and Moses, a division that corresponds to the disposition of the saved in the Bible. Most of the objects are dedicated to a saint, prophet, or other biblical character that may have appeared in the recurrent visions that inspired Hampton's efforts.
Hampton made The Throne and its associated components from collected and discarded materials and found objects: old furniture, cardboard cutouts, discarded light bulbs, jelly glasses, Kraft paper, mirror fragments, and a variety of other "found objects," that he scavenged from second-hand shops, the streets, or the federal office buildings in which he worked. To complete each element, Hampton used shimmering metallic foils and brilliant purple paper (now faded to tan) to evoke spiritual awe and splendor. Hampton's symbolism extended even to his choice of materials, particularly metals foils that both literally and metaphorically convey awe and brilliance and light bulbs, which represent God as the light of the world.
An icon of American visionary art, Hampton's Throne embodies one man's personal faith as well as his hope for salvation. Although Hampton did not live to initiate a public ministry, the capping phrase "FEAR NOT" summarizes his project's universally eloquent message.
Painted in the early years of World War II, Southern Gate offers a surreal, dreamlike picture of a solemn young woman standing in a space defined by a once-elegant wrought-iron fence, a river, and the steeple of a distant church. They are evocative elements—the river is a traditional metaphor for passage, the fence an emblem of both confinement and of safe haven from the outside world. Wearing a necklace adorned with a cross and with a bird perched on her shoulder, she invites associations with the Virgin Mary; but Cortor’s figure is as physical as she is innocent, an Edenic Eve who stands outside the sacred garden.
In Selma Burke’s Untitled (Woman and Child) the figures appear to materialize out of the wood, and the woman’s arm and child’s back merge to represent the closeness of their bond. Burke followed an African practice of selecting carving materials for their symbolic value, and chose to sculpt this scene in red oak, which embodies the strength of the figures’ relationship.
In some of Thompson’s canvases, the artist revisited mythical and allegorical subjects; in others, Christ images, Madonnas, and Christian saints served as vehicles for exploring the battle between good and evil. Enchanted Rider depicts a figure astride a winged steed whose hoofs trample a devil-like monster. The subject may be Pegasus, the flying horse from Greek mythology who defeated the fearsome Chimera, but the faint cross at the center suggests a religious theme. According to legend, St. George held a cross to protect himself when he attacked a dragon that was terrorizing a village. When he slew the dragon and rescued a princess, the town’s citizens adopted Christianity in gratitude.
For Zombie Jamboree, Morrison drew on a personal lexicon of myths and images. Both sacred and secular, it derives simultaneously from the memory of the death of a childhood friend and the artist’s encounter with Christianity and vodun, the religion traditional to his native Jamaica. The large central figures are fantastical animals—a spotted hyena-like creature with bared teeth that sparks an impression of evil and greed confronts a protective horse while a hissing snake, the Christian symbol of sin, hovers above. Dotted around this improbable cast of characters are Christian crosses, dancing skeletons, and two black figures, one wearing a mask the other with arms raised, suggesting African rituals.
Since the late 1970s Lonnie Holley has made paintings and sculptures from a wide array of discarded materials. His works are eclectic and encompassing and often carry the real-world narrative of the items he used to make them. Holley was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1950 and as a child knew only poverty and intense struggle. Yet struggle inspired a vision in which Holley saw the spiritual rewards of creating the very most with the very least. He came to see all castoff items as a containers of symbolism, meaning, and memory and one of his most reoccurring themes is paying tribute to those who went before him.
About Yielding to the Ancestors While Controlling the Hands of Time, Holley says: “The top head is the ancestor. It resembles a robot, representing the center of control of our thought. It rests on another head that continues life. . . . That head resembles an upside-down space capsule, for continuing exploration. The eyes are like YIELD signs turned upside-down. . . . We have to yield to the air we breathe. The mouth . . . represents the speaking of the truth. Below is a targetlike form. We are the targets in time. The hands of time are controlled by us. They are lifted in appreciation and praise.”
As a fifth generation basket weaver, Lynette Youson was taught as a child how to sew scraps of grass together by her great-grandmother, and she, in turn, taught her daughters the family craft. She grew up in a Gullah community of South Carolina where West African basket making traditions were used not simply to make beautiful objects but to serve utilitarian purposes. Fanner baskets, for example, were historically used to toss freshly picked rice into the air so that the wind would blow away the husks.
Sweetgrass, or sea grass, which is native to the southeastern seaboard from North Carolina to Florida, is preferred by Gullah basket weavers due to its ease of use and flexibility. But development and environmental factors have made the once abundant grass now scarce near Youson’s community, forcing area basket makers to travel to neighboring states to gather the materials for their creations. However, new sustainability projects are bringing back habitat to South Carolina.
Frank Cummings’ exquisitely carved and bejeweled objects have earned him the title “the Fabergé of wood art.” The use of precious metals and stones by this longtime professor of art, design, and craft at California State University (Long Beach and Fullerton) made his work an early standout in the shift toward a less functional and more sculptural school of wood art. In On the Edge Naturally, Cummings has carved a self-portrait into the sapwood in a bold statement of identity.
Scott learned well the lessons of his blues and jazz sources. The brightly colored surfaces of Thornbush Blues Totem not only define the relationship among the cut and bent metal parts; the sequencing of color also echoes the way musicians modulate tempo and pace. Blue and orange establish structure; the varying distances between stripes and bands are intervals that quicken or slow the pulsing cadence. For him, interval, rhythm, and space are interdependent elements in a swirling dance of color and form.
In 1974, Searles was invited to paint a mural for the William J. Green Jr. Federal Building in his hometown of Philadelphia. Celebration, a study for that mural, fuses the energy of an American street festival with memories of Searles’s 1972 trip to Nigeria. The canvas is filled with syncopated color, the echoing forms of circular drumheads, and the waving arms of dancers. Searles suggests the duality of the human psyche by dividing the figures vertically into light and dark sections. At the bottom center, he included a child with a masklike face and spiky hair in homage to his young daughter, who died in 1971.
Study for Richmond Cycle began life as a model for a huge plaza sculpture outside the Social Security Administration building in Richmond, California. Richmond Cycle is composed of two distinct parts that are separated spatially but united visually by virtue of shared material and surface finish. The large biomorphic mass that seems to emerge from the ground and then arc back calls to mind a living form, an enormous tree that has fallen to the earth or a primordial animal taking its last breath. Together the elements evoke the cycle of life in which age and the weight of experience are paired with the lightness and promise of youth.
Light Fan has the feel of an image seen from space—a sunrise observed from an orbiting capsule through a window struck by a ray of light—or the blue and green depths of an ocean giving way to sun-warmed shallows. The effect is diaphanous; color has bled in irregular pools as the tidal pull of capillary action moved wet pigment around a field of color on a finely woven fabric. Edges freely shift in a way that is both accidental and controlled.
During the 1960s Alma Thomas emerged as an exuberant colorist, abstracting shapes and patterns inspired by the natural world. Her new palette and technique—considerably lighter and looser than in her earlier representational works and dark abstractions—reflected her long study of color theory and the watercolor medium. Celestial Fantasy is a gentle view of the heavens. Broken strokes of soft color, a hallmark of her mature style, are arrayed in vertical bands. Their irregular intervals create a visual rhythm akin to music. Thomas frequently talked about "watching the leaves and flowers tossing in the wind as though they were singing and dancing." As a black woman artist, Thomas encountered many barriers; she did not, however, turn to racial or feminist issues in her art, believing rather that the creative spirit is independent of race or gender. Instead she explored the power of color and form in luminous, contemplative paintings.
The chromatic impact of Light Blue Nursery is dramatic. Small blocks of irregularly configured primary colors dance across a bright white surface in horizontal rows that echo the ordered energy of a formal garden. Secondary and tertiary hues—pinks, purples, and greens—serve as borders and accents, reflecting Thomas’s conviction that she could play with perception and optical interaction in images drawn from her visual experience of the natural world. Although seemingly constructed of spontaneous strokes of the brush, the forms, like the colors, are thoughtfully calibrated.
The black orbs in Kenneth Young’s untitled abstraction are deceptive. They seem alternately microscopic, like organisms floating in a fluid field, or cosmic, like bits of matter captured in a split second. Opaque at the center, the spheres are fluid at their edges. The space, too, is ambiguous. Deep reds seem distant; electric blues propel dark forms forward from unfathomable depths. Energy and matter were apt subjects for Young, a young physicist who turned to painting: “I’ve always been interested in . . . outer space, inner space, and the development of what occurs—force, magnetism, and that kind of thing.”
Eversley speaks of energy, space, time, and matter—concepts familiar to physicists and mathematicians and to an electrical engineer who gave up a career in the space program to make sculpture. The disc form of this untitled work is the result of the centrifugal process. Its highly polished surface concentrates ambient light in a bright central orb that shines like a distant star in the emptiness of space and draws the viewer into a cosmic place. But the parabolic shape also acts like a lens that captures light and the reflections of objects around it into a miniature black universe that dramatically alters relationships in the surrounding space.