Attention returns to Horace Pippin in traveling show

October 23, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Horace Pippin was a self-taught African-American artist who gained widespread fame in his brief career earlier this century, then sank into relative obscurity after his premature death. Now he is being noticed again, thanks to a show that opens Wednesday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Pippin didn't finish his first important painting until 1930, at age 42, and didn't have his first exhibition until 1937. He died in 1946. In that relatively short period of time, however, he shot to national prominence, with major shows in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. His works were owned by collectors and prominent people, including Albert Barnes, W. Averell Harriman, Edward G. Robinson, Clifford Odets, Claude Rains, Charles Laughton and John Garfield.

After his death, his renown waned.

"When he was no longer a physical presence, he just became eclipsed by other artists," says curator Judith E. Stein. "There were always people who kept his memory alive in the Philadelphia area [where he lived]. There were always generations of art students who were keen admirers. And there were people involved in the folk-art world who never forgot Horace Pippin. But on a more national level his reputation faded from mind."

Now Stein and her colleagues are bringing him back to public attention with the exhibit "I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin." The exhibit opened earlier this year at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Stein was an adjunct curator. In addition to Baltimore, the exhibit will appear in Chicago, Cincinnati and New York.

The title comes from a remark Pippin once made -- "Pictures just come to my mind, and I tell my heart to go ahead." -- which indicates his direct and deep response to the world around him, as well as the artist's originality.

Called a "primitive" in his lifetime (when that word was used to describe unschooled artists), he has since been labeled a "folk" or "naive" artist. But, says Stein, "his works are powerful (P statements that transcend narrow categories."

Pippin's subject matter ranged form World War I to still lifes, from scenes of African-American home life to religious paintings to history cycles on John Brown and Abraham Lincoln.

He freely used the African-American experience at a time when other artists were less willing to -- whether he was picturing domestic scenes, such as "Sunday Morning Breakfast" (1943), his memories of segregated Army service in World War I, as in "Barracks" (1945), or putting a black woman from his own family into his representation of "John Brown Going to His Hanging" (1942).

"Throughout his career as a painter," writes art historian David lTC Driskell in the show's catalog, "Pippin remained at ease with the black experience at a time when many of his fellow artists were struggling to throw off the yoke of bondage evident in their art, while at the same time attempting to make that art acceptable in style and form to an unyielding Euro-modernist art theory."

But Pippin's art also transcends race, as Driskell affirms: "When one stops to analyze Pippin's paintings, what is outstanding -- beyond the question of race -- is the larger statement of an absolute talent that has been genuinely motivated by the sight of a sensuous world."

The great collector Albert Barnes, a Pippin champion, called Pippin's art "distinctly American," noting "its ruggedness, vivid drama, stark simplicity, picturesqueness and accentuated rhythms."

"Pippin expands our understanding of what it means to be American" says Stein, adding that his humanity speaks to people in universal terms.

"I had a very organic relationship with this show," she says. "Every time I went up to the galleries I saw new things. In the roof of the shed in the background of 'John Brown Going to His Hanging' he painted a few shingles off. In 'Asleep' (1943), there are two little children in bed and thrown over them for more warmth is a man's overcoat. Such things connected me with the artist. We had a comment book in the show, and time after time people reacted as if he were painting just for them."

There's another level to Pippin's paintings, the curator adds -- as powerful visual statements, "with masterful compositions, color and the formal elements of art presented in the strongest possible way."

All this from a man who not only had no training, but was born to poverty in 19th-century America and quit school after the eighth grade to help support his family.

Pippin was born Feb. 22, 1888, in West Chester, Pa., and grew up in Goshen, N.Y. He showed an interest in art early, winning a box of crayons in a contest when he was 10. At 14, he quit school and held a variety of jobs before enlisting in the Army in World War I. He was wounded in the shoulder, received the French Croix de Guerre, and was discharged in 1919 permanently disabled.

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