African-American art's 'Old Masters' meet in exhibit

Thomas Segal Gallery exhibits works by Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and other giants of the age.


November 18, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

It's not often that local galleries present exhibitions of the "Old Masters" of African-American art, so the show of works by Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Faith Ringgold and others that opened earlier this month at the Thomas Segal Gallery should be considered one of the season's not-to-be-missed events.

I use the term "Old Masters" advisedly, of course: The visual arts of African-Americans really only came into their own in the 1920s and '30s as part of the remarkable literary and artistic flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Though centered in New York, the movement's influence was felt across the country as African-American writers, poets, musicians and artists created images that reflected the momentous changes in ideas and attitudes that resulted from the large-scale migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North.

During the high tide of the Harlem Renaissance, blacks set out to create a new identity and a new place for themselves in American society -- no longer tied to a narrow agrarian society and the oppressive strictures of Southern Jim Crow but rather as free citizens of the modern urban metropolis, full of hopeful potential.

The artists of the Harlem Renaissance celebrated modernity in all its forms -- in the ironic, bittersweet riffs of jazz, in the blues-inspired poems and plays of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, in the art-deco-style paintings of Aaron Douglas, the exuberant expressionist canvases of Archibald J. Motley Jr. and the severe abstractions of Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden.

Viewed in this light, African-American art, like African-American music, has been one of the truest expressions of the 20th-century American experience. And yet for most of its history it remained largely invisible, overshadowed by the far more celebrated accomplishments of white artists.

Only now, in retrospect and from the vantage point of a new generation of black artists steeped in the visual language of postmodernism, can we begin to recognize the achievement of these pioneering black modernists.

The focal point of the Segal Gallery show is a large, 1931 canvas titled Cotton Pickers by Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), painted shortly after the artist's return from Paris, where he had studied the works of Cezanne, Picasso and other modern European masters.

Complexity and depth

Cotton Pickers reflects Woodruff's interest in both social protest and in the regionalist movement championed by white artists like Thomas Hart Benson. Woodruff's paintings and prints of the rural South during this period vividly expressed the poverty and hardship of life during the Great Depression. In Cotton Pickers, the figures bend to their back-breaking tasks with a kind of resigned acceptance, yet the image also conveys the inner dignity and strength of character that enables these humble folk to retain their humanity despite the brutal conditions of their employment.

Woodruff studied art at the John Herron Art Institute in Indiana and at the Art Institute of Chicago before winning a prize from New York's Harmon Foundation in 1926 that allowed him to study abroad. In Paris, he met the essayist Alain Locke, whose anthology The New Negro was a philosophical touchstone for many artists of the Harlem Renaissance, and who urged Woodruff to create art based specifically on African-American history and culture.

Woodruff is probably best known for the series of large murals he painted for the libraries at Talladega College in Alabama and at Atlanta University, where he taught from 1931 to 1945, and for the woodblock and linoleum-cut prints he created during the 1930s.

After Woodruff came to New York in 1946, his style became more abstract.

In his last works, inspired by African masks as well as by abstract expressionism, he continued to develop a formal and symbolic language capable of expressing the complexity and depth of African-American life.

Sophisticated improvisations

One of the most fascinating artists in the Segal show is Romare Bearden (1912-1988), who is represented by a half-dozen works. Bearden studied at New York University, the Art Students League, Columbia University and the Sorbonne, but it was not until the mid-1960s that he began creating the collage paintings and prints on which his reputation rests.

In the 1960s, Bearden was a member of the Spiral Group of artists that met weekly in Harlem. Hale Woodruff had named the group after the spiral of Archimedes in tribute to their growth and hope. At one meeting, the members decided to experiment with cut-up photographs as a group project. Bearden went home and cut up all his wife's magazines to create his contribution; the following week most of the other artists had lost interest in the project, but Bearden had found a medium through which he could give full rein to his creative expression.

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