Delaware show offers welcome overview of black artists' work

April 24, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Throughout most of American history, blacks practicing in the visual arts were frozen out of proper recognition for their work. In recent years, there has been some change; artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden have become nationally recognized.

But black achievement in the visual arts is still too little acknowledged, and exhibits that explore the subject are welcome.

In 1987, a show called "Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art 1800-1950" brought a survey of the work of major artists to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Another such survey, the "Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art," is on view at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington. While it has major flaws, this show is worth seeing for the overview it offers.

An exhibit of a private collection will not be as comprehensive in terms of artists, or as consistent in terms of quality, as a show such as "Hidden Heritage," which was assembled from many public and private sources. The Evans collection, assembled by a Detroit surgeon, can be cited for a number of lapses.

Some who are generally recognized as major artists are not here -- from Joshua Johnson and Edmonia Lewis in the 19th century through Horace Pippin, Palmer Hayden, Lois M. Jones and William H. Johnson in the 20th.

Others are represented by atypical or less-than-their-best works. The single canvas by the great Henry O. Tanner is a landscape, "Florida" (1890), admirable but not an example of the religious and genre scenes for which the artist is known. The 19th-century landscape artist Robert S. Duncanson is represented by three landscapes, but they are all tentative. One doesn't get a full idea of what either of these artists could do from their appearances here, and in that sense the exhibit is unfair to them.

There are also works that just shouldn't be here. Evans' affection for his family should not have led him to include the pastel portraits of his mother and daughters by Carl Owens; they are good likenesses, no doubt, but not of museum quality.

But, overall, the positives outweigh the negatives. The exhibit gives viewers an opportunity to see about 75 works by 35 artists. Chief among the 19th-century artists is Edward M. Bannister, whose half-dozen landscapes include the atmospheric "Pastoral Landscape" (1881) and "The Old Homestead" (1895). Bannister can suggest the romantic and even nostalgic possibilities of his subject matter without crossing the line into the sentimental.

The show's 20th-century segment reveals the collector's principal interest -- the depiction of specifically African-American subject matter through a variety of approaches, including portraiture, genre scenes, symbolic and religious works.

Among the best-known figures of the century represented here, sculptor Elizabeth Catlett is an artist known both for her psychological insight and her awareness of political and social issues. Both aspects of her work are on view. The figure in "Homage to Black Women Poets" (1984) raises her fist and looks skyward in a gesture not so much of defiance as of freedom and self-expression. "Pensive" (1946), one of Catlett's best-known works, expresses both the weariness of a hard life and the fortitude, emotional as well as physical, to go on.

In much the same vein is Charles White's powerful charcoal drawing "We Have Been Believers" (about 1940). Its two faces possess a certain amount of skepticism based on experience, but hope has not been obliterated. If they have been believers, they are still prepared to believe. This is a work that rewards the time spent with it, for it's more complex than it at first appears.

Aaron Douglas, an artist of the Harlem Renaissance, which flourished between the two world wars, was known for his murals executed in a stylized fashion related to art deco, but more deeply symbolic. Of his three works, the small ink drawing, ZTC "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1941), is one of the most effective works in the show. Done all in black silhouette, its monumental single figure becomes one with the landscape and with history.

It's entirely appropriate that the best-represented artists in the show are the two giants -- Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. Bearden's watercolor, "The Blues Has Got Me" (1944), reflects both the rhythms of jazz and the influence of 20th-century art movements such as cubism. But more typical are his domestic collages, including "Sunrise" (1978) and "A Summer Star" (1982). Just as Bearden's collages combine bits and pieces of material from many sources, so they reflect the sources upon which this artist drew -- from his own past to history and myth.

We may not be sure what all of the elements in Bearden's pictures are. Is the train in "Reclining Nude" (1979) a symbol of American conquest of the continent or of white tyranny, sexual and otherwise? The fact that Bearden's pictures offer so much possibility of interpretation represents one of their many riches.

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