Pippin's simple painting style covered many subjects

October 28, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Horace Pippin's art speaks to us simply and directly, in images easy to understand and identify with. But he is not a simple artist. As shown by "I Tell My Heart," his retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art, this self-taught African-American artist was both bold and subtle, direct and complex.

An artist who didn't start painting until he was about 40 (in the late 1920s) and died at 58, Pippin had a short but remarkably varied career. He began with simple scenes on burnt wood panels, but quickly graduated to canvas and by the early 1930s could paint with considerable atmospheric and emotional intensity. One of his paintings recalling World War I, "Shell Holes and Observation Balloon: Champagne Sector" (1931) is done in grays, stark whites and blacks; the only real color the dark green of grass. There are no people in this picture of ruined buildings and torn up landscape, and there don't need to be; it's mute testament to war's destruction.

His "The Buffalo Hunt" (1933), a winter snow scene, is virtually all black and white. It captures the damp cold so completely it makes you shiver. As Pippin developed, his color sense grew, but he continued to know when not to use color, too -- as in the bottom half of one of his very last paintings, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (1946).

His history paintings on John Brown and Abraham Lincoln are relatively subdued in palette, as befits the serious subjects. But his still lifes, interiors and especially his scenes of family life, such as "Domino Players" (1943), burst with colors that give these pictures life and warmth.

Few painters have attempted so many different kinds of subject matter -- history painting (including war, historical figures and biblical scenes), genre, landscape, still life and portraits. And he was able to carry them all off. If his portraits of such figures as Marian Anderson (1941) and his wife (1936) are his least successful works (probably because they left least to his imagination), he could still achieve startling effects. His "Paul B. Dague, Deputy Sheriff of Chester County" (1937) has a face as white as his cap against a striking yellow background.

Pippin understood abstraction, too. That's what his "Birmingham Meeting House" series (1940-1942) is all about: these paintings portray the meeting house amid trees, but they're really about geometric and organic form and, on another level, about man's and nature's different kinds of order.

And he understood the essential loneliness of the human being, too. He suggests it most strongly in his last finished picture, "Man on a Bench," (1946). The solitary figure in this picture stares pensively down, perhaps ruminating over the journey into the unknown on which Pippin was soon to set out.

Horace Pippin's is not a simple art. It speaks in many ways and can be deeply moving. Unfortunately, it has not been given a very good installation at the Baltimore Museum. His pictures are too small for the hugest of the temporary exhibition galleries; they look like they're hung at the bottom of a well. At the same time, they're crammed into two of the four temporary exhibition galleries -- several are even left out -- so that the other two galleries (where the Pippins would probably look more at home) can be used for a quilt and coverlet show. Pippin's art overcomes these disadvantages, but it shouldn't have to.

ART REVIEW

What: Art of Horace Pippin

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art

When: 10 a. m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Dec. 31

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 to 18

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