From Bearden, a complete picture of African-American artists

January 23, 1994|By Veronica Chambers | Veronica Chambers,Los Angeles Times

Title: "A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present"

Author: Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson

Publisher: Pantheon

Length, price: 608 pages, $65 "A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present" is a landmark work both in the fields of art history and of African-American studies. As the authors, artist Romare Bearden and writer Harry Henderson, note, previous art history texts have at the most covered only one or two African-American artists. To judge from some texts, the authors marvel, "the first African-American has yet to pick up the brush."

This voluminous effort proves this is hardly the case. The earliest known work by an African-American dates to 1792, and black artists have been producing steadily ever since. More than 50 artists are explored in this book, which makes it, for the beginning student of African-American art, an excellent primer. For those more familiar with the works, opening this heavily illustrated book is like reminiscing with old friends.

Included here are well-known but always exciting works such as Archibald Motley's vibrantly colored "The Blues" (1929). Painted while Motley was in Paris on a Guggenheim fellowship, it captures the sophistication and the hoopla of the Harlem Renaissance and black night life. Lesser-known gems such as Elizabeth Catlett's sculpture "Target Practice" (1970), a haunting figure of black man's face framed by a bull's eye, are both startling and engaging.

The book benefits greatly from the fact that one of the co-authors, Bearden, was an African-American artist of phenomenal stature -- with works in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Whitney Museum. Bearden died in 1988, having completed the basic draft of this book, which Mr. Henderson, a friend, finished.

It becomes clear to the reader early on that Bearden is more than just an academic, dizzy on theory; nor does he assume the pose of the critic, cool and distanced. His is forthrightly the voice of an artist, greatly concerned with the lives and the struggles of other artists, particularly when those lives were complicated by issues of race.

The book was conceived in 1965, when the Museum of Modern Art asked Bearden to talk to students about the history and development of black artists in America. Frustrated with the lack of information available outside of his immediate peer group, he set out, along with Mr. Henderson, to collect material.

The history they compiled over the next 15 years would not only corroborate the oral history of arts among African-Americans, but also unearth new discoveries. There is an archaeological-adventure feeling about the book that makes it hard to put down.

Consider, for example, the story of Henry Ossawa Tanner, a young black art student who gained admission in 1880 to the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. As Tanner's reputation within the school grew, so did the racist resentment of his classmates. When called a racial epithet, Tanner asserted that he was a "painter too" -- but even this was considered cocky and out of bounds.

One evening, fellow students dragged Tanner out into the street, tied him to his easel in a mock crucifixion and left him there, struggling to untie himself. Tanner went on to receive critical acclaim in Europe as well as major exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Other artists had an easier time of it. Nova Scotia-born Edward M. Bannister studied portraiture at Boston's Lowell Institute and was warmly embraced by such artists as Dr. William Rimmer, William Morris Hunt and others. Later, after moving to Providence, R.I., he became well-known for his landscapes and bay scenes.

The Providence Art Club was founded in Bannister's studio, and the discussions that began there led to the establishment of the Rhode Island School of Design.

While many texts of American art history, African-American or otherwise, tend to ne- glect female artists of all races, this history does not. There is plenty here about such pioneering African-American artists as Augusta Savage, Alma Thomas and Elizabeth Catlett.

The question of self-exile pops up again and again throughout this work. Like Tanner, many African-American artists found they had first to travel to Europe and other points abroad before gaining acceptance and recognition in their native land.

Some artists, such as W. H. Johnson, eventually returned home. Others, like Ms. Catlett, who has lived in Mexico since the 1950s, have never returned to the United States and have become important figures in their adopted lands.

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