'Alone in a Crowd'

January 04, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

"Alone in a Crowd" at the Baltimore Museum of Art is, above all, about people. This fine and very moving exhibit of prints of the 1930s and 1940s by African-American artists isn't primarily about art movements or technical feats or beauty, though you can find all those things easily enough. It's about communicating the human experience. The fact that it's the black experience makes it particular without diminishing its universality.

You can't look at Aaron Douglas' "Window Shopper" (about 1930), with its image of a woman on a dark street gazing at a glamorous dress in a shop window, without feeling what it is to long for the unattainable, to be on the outside looking in.

You can't look at Elizabeth Cat- lett's "Mother and Child" (1946) without feeling the love of parent for child. Or look at Charles White's "Hope for the Future" (about 1947), with its picture of a parent holding a child who appears to be dead, without having some sense of what it is to lose a child.

Look at the solitary figure in William E. Smith's "The Lamp Post" (1938) and loneliness speaks to you. Look at the woman being attacked by a hooded Ku Klux Klan figure in Ernest Crichlow's ironically titled "Lovers" (1938) and fear and helplessness speak to you.

There's the other side, too -- the triumph, joy and quiet pride of accomplishment. The lone black figure in John Wilson's "Street Car Scene" (1945) sits among white people. He may be "alone in a crowd," but his steady gaze reflects pride and purpose (no doubt because of his involvement in the war effort, as his Navy Yard button attests). The jitterbugging couple in Claude Clark's "Jivin' Scribe" (1941) portray the movement and elation of dance about as well as it can be done.

"Alone in a Crowd" comes from the collection of Reba and Dave Williams of New York. They have amassed what is widely thought to be the finest collection of American prints in private hands, more than 4,000 images by about 1,000 artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The African-American section, stopping in Baltimore on an 18-city tour, represents only a tiny fraction of the Williamses' collection. But its 104 prints could not be matched by most museums, for this is rare material.

As the Williamses note in an essay from the accompanying catalog, "African-American artists working in any art medium represented a disproportionally small part of the total population of artists in the 1930s and 1940s, and those making prints were especially small in number."

The reason is not hard to find: Except for those working for the Works Progress Administration's art program, few African-American artists had access to printmaking equipment.

Furthermore, these artists have been largely overlooked by art historians. "For none of the 42 artists in 'Alone in a Crowd' is there a catalogue raisonne, or even a rough attempt at a complete listing of prints," the Williamses write.

This exhibit, then, is an opportunity not likely to be repeated. Its rewards are manifold. If these artists tend to be stylistically closest to the regionalist realism popular in the period, one can find such other 20th century movements as expressionism, cubism and abstraction echoed here. The subject matter is particularly varied, from history and music to work and living conditions, from rural and urban scenes to war and religion.

There is the opportunity, too, to see prints by artists who have become well-known for their work in painting and sculpture, including Catlett, Douglas, William Henry Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones and Hale Woodruff.

But after all the rest, it is the humanity of these works that keeps calling us back.

ART REVIEW

What: "Alone in a Crowd: Prints of the 1930s-1940s by African-American Artists from the Collection of Reba and Dave Williams"

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Feb. 26

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

Call: (410) 396-7100

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