Show reveals unseen jewels of black art

August 01, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

You won't find the names of Moe Brooker, Camille Billops, Nora Mae Carmichael or Margo Humphrey listed anywhere in Janson's History of Art, the standard introductory text for college undergraduates in the field.

Does this mean that these artists, all African-Americans whose works are on display in a marvelous exhibition at Morgan State University, somehow don't count, that they deserve the invisibility conferred upon them by academic art history?

Last year's big retrospective of Romare Bearden at Washington's National Gallery of Art, a first for a black artist, brought new visibility to a whole tradition of African-American art-making that previously had been mostly overlooked by mainstream scholars, critics and museum curators.

More recently, shows like Kerry James Marshall's One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics and Celebration and Vision: The Hewitt Collection of African-American Art, both currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, have picked up on the interest generated by Bearden's show. (Ditto the fine shows on Grafton Tyler Brown and Brian Pinkney at the Walters Art Museum earlier this year.)

Yet it should come as no surprise that these exhibitions, superb though they have been, barely scratch the surface of a long tradition of fine-art-making by African-Americans.

The Morgan show, titled Successions: Prints by African-American Artists From the Jean and Robert Steele Collection, deepens our understanding of that tradition by focusing specifically on the print medium. It features works by superstars like Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett as well as those by less widely known figures who have nevertheless contributed significantly to the tradition.

Consider, for example, James L. Wells (1902-93), one of the pioneering figures of the Harlem Renaissance in New York during the 1920s and '30s and a master printmaker whose influence spread through the many students he taught in later years at Howard University in Washington.

Wells' African Nude (1980) is a superb example of his spectacular color linoluem-cut technique. The reclining female figure in the foreground recalls Matisse's sensual odalisques, or harem women, while the outlines of green, red and black foliage in the background are an obvious reference to the French master's fascination with pattern and decoration.

Matisse was also the inspiration for Tom Miller, the Baltimore artist best known for his inventive found-object sculptures in the colorful style known as Afro-Deco. Miller's Baltimore Summer is a dazzling re-creation of the lively street life of his native city that combines the cubist influence of Art Deco with the virtuosic collage technique of Bearden.

Robert Blackburn was another pioneering graphic artist and lithographer who, in the 1950s, collaborated with such art-world luminaries as Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Rauschenberg.

When Blackburn, who was himself deeply influenced by Wells, opened his own studio, the Printmaking Workshop in Harlem, he became an inspiration to black artists across the country from the late 1960s on (the artist died in 2003, at the age of 83).

Blackburn's prints, characterized by bold color harmonies and a muscular, non-representational style, reflected a variety of influences, from analytic cubism and surrealism to Pop Art and vernacular painting.

His splendid, undated woodcut, Modern Times, whose subtly interlocking forms evoke the precise geometries of both modern architecture and African textiles, is one of the gems of the Morgan show.

David C. Driskell, who was for many years head of the art department at the University of Maryland, College Park and a consultant to renowned collectors Bill and Camille Cosby, has worked in a variety of media.

His masterful lithograph Spirits Watching (1986), inspired by African masks and executed entirely in closely spaced tones of gray and black, was produced at Allan Edmunds' Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia, a major center of contemporary African-American printmaking.

Driskell has also made many beautiful silkscreen prints at Lou Stovall's Workshop Inc. in Washington, another important atelier for African-American printmakers.

Like Blackburn, both Edmunds and Stovall are master printers well known for their collaborations with other artists. In addition, each of them is also represented in this show by prints of their own creation.

There's also stunning work by Faith Ringgold, Lois Mailou Jones, Anita Philyaw, Benny Andrews and Margo Humphrey, whose The Last Bar-B-Que, an irreverent retelling of the Last Supper depicting Christ and his disciples gathered around an overflowing banquet table, is an autobiographical tour de force that seems already well on its way to becoming a contemporary classic.

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