African-American art on the rise

Arts Museums Literature

February 03, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Since the spectacular Romare Bearden retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington a little more than a year ago, interest in African-American art and artists has increased exponentially, it seems.

Artworks that only a few years ago were virtually unknown among curators, critics and collectors are now eagerly sought out and displayed.

Both the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Walters Art Museum have begun to make significant acquisitions of contemporary and 19th-century works by African-American artists a priority.

And there have been at least a dozen recent exhibitions of African-American art here, including solo shows by contemporary artists Kerry James Marshall, Renee Cox, Joyce Scott and Beverly McIver, as well as displays of Henry Ossawa Tanner, Grafton Tyler Brown, Edmonia Lewis, Robert S. Duncanson and Edward Mitchell Bannister.

The exhibition on view at Towson University's Union Art Gallery is titled Illumination: Master Works From the Harryette and Otis M. Robertson Collection of African-American Art, and it represents a further evolution of our area's emergence as an important venue for works by African-American artists.

Amassed over a 25-year period, the Robertson collection includes works by acknowledged "Old Masters" of African-American art -- Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Bearden -- as well as contemporary works by Sam Gilliam, Richard Hunt and others.

Like the collections assembled over a similar period by Robert and Jean Steele and Vivian and John Hewitt (both of which were exhibited in Baltimore last year), the Robertson collection represents an effort by people of modest means to conserve the artistic legacy of a people for future generations. (NBA star Grant Hill, whose collection also was shown here last year, was similarly motivated but had access to greater resources.)

The Towson show presents some 40 paintings and works on paper celebrating the legacy of African-American artists. This is the first time the Robertsons have allowed their artworks -- judiciously selected for the exhibition by guest curator A.M. Weaver of the Noyes Museum in Oceanville, N.J. -- to be displayed publicly, and it includes works that are rarely seen. That alone makes this inaugural exhibition a significant event and well worth seeing.

The show runs through Feb. 26 at the University Union Art Gallery on the campus of Towson University. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free. Call 410-704-2641.

For more art events, see page 32.

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