Elizabeth Catlett's art speaks of universal human feelings

February 22, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

For more than half a century the work of sculptor Elizabeth Catlett has proclaimed the dignity of humankind. An African-American, she has championed the history of her people, but in its universality her work transcends even the noblest of causes.

Through the mid-century ascendancy of abstract art her work remained decidedly figurative without becoming dated, partly because her forms, though recognizable, are to some degree abstracted, in the way they look and in what they express.

When we look at them, we are seeing more an idea than a depiction.

In Catlett's work, one can see something of Henry Moore, something of her teacher Grant Wood, something of African art; but in its repeated use of the theme of mother and child to express basic human emotions and needs, it is also reminiscent of Kathe Kollwitz; and in its evocation of such black heroes as Harriet Tubman in strong and simple form, it has something in common with the work of Catlett's contemporary Jacob Lawrence (she was born in 1919, he in 1917).

Catlett is best known for her sculpture, but she has been an assiduous printmaker throughout her career in a number of media, from lithograph to linocut to serigraph and collograph. More than 50 of her works, almost all of them prints but with four sculptures, are now on view at Morgan State University in the show "Elizabeth Catlett: The Power of Human Feeling in Art."

And that power does come through these prints, if perhaps not as strongly as through her sculptures. Whether she is depicting historical characters such as Tubman, Sojourner Truth or Phyllis Wheatley, or whether her subjects are more generalized -- as in "Sharecropper,""Mother and Son" or "Two Generations," her faces, simplified to essentials, radiate strength, compassion and fortitude.

Not content to deal only with the heroes of the past, Catlett also turns her attention to contemporary figures and events. The show includes a sculpted head of Martin Luther King Jr. and one of her prints here is "Malcolm X Speaks for Us." At times her irony can be telling. One of her prints is called "I Have Special Reservations." It shows a number of black women sitting in the back of a bus behind a sign that says "Colored Only."

Catlett uses her media tellingly. The jagged lines of the linocut endow works such as "Sharecropper," "The Survivor" and "Harriet" with character and drama, while the softer look of lithograph brings its caressing presence to works depicting the tenderer emotions in "Madonna," "Two Generations" and "Mother and Son."

Catlett has said, "Among other things, I learned that my sculpture and my prints had to be based on the needs of people. These needs determine what I do."

One of the uncanny things about Catlett's work is that when you look at it you realize it fulfills a need you may not even have known you had.

ART REVIEW

What: "Elizabeth Catlett: The Power of Human Feeling in Art."

Where: The James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Murphy Fine Arts Center, Morgan State University, 1700 E. Cold Spring Lane.

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Through Feb. 28.

Call: (410) 319-3030.

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