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Beyond the Black Experience

TSU's survey of 20th-century works shatters the stereotype of African-American art

Choosing art as a career comes with certain risks. The financial and psychological ones have been well documented, romanticized and even demonized by Hollywood -- creating art, these would-be celluloid heroes say, comes only at the expense of your mental health and your bank account. These pop-culture myths, of course, contain a kernel of truth; while most artists are disappointingly normal, they still don't hold most comfortable, secure or orderly jobs in the workplace. Art doesn't court those qualities. But being an artist is also socially risky; society tends to think of such people as fringe dwellers, folks who could never hold a steady job or contribute to the greater good. The pursuit of art is further complicated when issues of race and gender enter the picture.

For African-Americans in the first half of the 20th century, who were actively denied educational and economic opportunities, choosing to become an artist was an even gutsier move. Often the first in their families to attend college, the men and women took a gamble by devoting their education and lives to art instead of a professional field that would be more financially rewarding -- as well as socially accepted.

"African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, VIII" is on view at the Texas Southern University Museum; it is organized by the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, a commercial venue in New York. The exhibition traveled from the gallery to TSU, and while retail, academia and art do not make the most natural alliance, this one works out relatively well. The gallery has pulled together an eclectic compilation of works by a wide range of artists, not the iconic images from art history classes, but often lesser-known and even "atypical" pieces. You get to see works that you would never see otherwise, things that will end up in private collections instead of museums.

Phantasmagoria: Looks as fresh today as it did back in 1973 when Alma Thomas painted it.
Texas Southern University Museum/Michael Rosenfeld
Phantasmagoria: Looks as fresh today as it did back in 1973 when Alma Thomas painted it.

Details

Through Sunday, July 1. (713)313-7145
Texas Southern University Museum, Fairchild Building, south wing, 3100 Cleburne

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When collecting pieces made by African-American artists, many museums tend to select work that is obviously "black," that deals with the "black experience." This narrow focus creates a couple of problems: It perpetuates a false impression that African-American artists deal in a limited range of subjects and styles. It also neglects abstract artists like Alma Thomas.

Thomas, who in 1972 was the first African-American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney, has two paintings from the 1970s that feel fresh and contemporary even 30 years after their creation. Thomas, incidentally, was in her eighties when she made them. Having devoted most of her life to teaching art, Thomas retired in 1960 and began painting full-time. Phantasmagoria (1973) is tiled with angular black brush strokes on a white ground, which creates a sort of obsessive pattern. Early Cherry Blossoms boasts rectangular marks of pink on white ground with intersections occasionally overpainted with white. The result is a dense network of color blocks with an op-art flicker. A 1954 work, made while the artist was taking classes at American University, is a Cézannesque still life, but in the ornamentation of a vase, you see the love of pattern that will explode and dominate Thomas's later canvases.

With white slashes against a black background, Norman Lewis's America the Beautiful seems fairly straightforward until it clicks that the white forms are lit silhouettes, and those silhouettes are hooded Klan figures. Dated 1960, the work is a bold political comment couched in the language of abstraction.

Bob Thompson died in 1966 at age 29, but after seeing his work, that bloodless bit of biography seems even more tragic; you really wish he were still around and painting. The Dentist (1963) has a lurid fauvist palette and wonderfully strange imagery painted in flat colors. Nude female forms in yellow and red embrace monsterlike giant birds. Thompson paints hot colors over darker ground for an artificially luminous effect. The work is engagingly odd and powerfully individual.

There are works by some of the best-known African-American artists. Jacob Lawrence's Harlem Hospital Surgery (1953) depicts surgeons gathered around the draped body of a patient in an operating room. The doctors' gowns meld with the covered figure in lyrical, angular folds. A circle of stylized viscera is exposed and ringed with abstracted clamps. The background is a lush emerald-green that makes a transition into a sterile hospital green. The graphic black lines of the image are dynamic and concise. The peaked and abundant folds call to mind Bernini's The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and the triangular composition of gathered figures gives the doctors working to save the patient the static glory of a Byzantine icon.

Romare Bearden's Illusionist at 4 p.m. (1967) reminds you just how great he is. A lot of artists make collages, but few of them make good collages, which require purposeful selection and a great deal of editing. Two female figures and a child are pieced together onto a background of flat blocks of color, the figures themselves deftly and sparingly constructed from colored paper and magazine images. The two female faces have been co-opted from fragmented photos of African sculptures, as well as actual faces, while the child's visage is a more abstracted assemblage. Bearden's works are often related to cubism, but there are aspects of pop art and surrealism, too.

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