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Beyond the Black Experience

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

Betye Saar, the most contemporary of the group, has several pieces in the show. Lest We Forget, The Strength of Tears of Those Who Toiled (1998) is a wall construction of vintage washboards bearing the text of the title with hazy images of laboring women covering the ribbed metal surfaces. At the top is a studio portrait of two smiling women, the obvious beneficiaries of their forebears' labor. Some of the artist's other assemblages become too heavy-handed from both a racial and feminist point of view; one such is Midnight Madonnas (1996), with its vintage photo of an African-American mother and child combined with an image of a black Madonna-and-child icon. The images are placed in a shadowbox and surrounded with overly sentimental flowers and fabric.

Since the composition of the show is limited to what pieces the Rosenfeld Gallery can obtain for resale, there are some obvious clunkers on display. Two recent paintings by octogenarian Eldzier Cortor show work that has deteriorated to the level of cheesy illustrations. Other misfires are a kind of side effect of these secondary-market exhibits, where old random pieces by well-known names frequently turn up, pieces the artist never meant to see the light of day. Sometimes the artist is right, and sometimes wrong.

Rosenfeld Gallery produced an accompanying catalog with bios, some nice statements by three of the artists, and glossy color reproductions. It's a commercial publication without scholarly essays; the overriding goal is one of exposure more than exploration. Several compelling works in the catalog didn't even make it to TSU because they were, well, sold (including a much earlier and more successful work by Cortor). A Bearden that one scholar calls "The most wonderful Bearden I have ever seen" was not sent because it was being reviewed for purchase by a museum. Two of Bill Traylor's blocky abstracted figures were snapped up at the first show. One of the drawbacks of working with a commercial gallery is that the art is also inventory.

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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What the exhibition does best is expose and illustrate the diversity of 20th-century works, the broad range of styles, ideas and materials. The only thing that every work has in common is the maker's race. The problem with many such curated exhibitions is striking a balance between acknowledging the influence of the African-American experience on the artist while refraining from creating a monolithic "genre" out of it, assuming that everyone black has the same ideas and interests. A completely unexpected benefit of this show is that the commercial gallery lacks an overarching historical and curatorial agenda that can lead to crafting and exaggerating linkages and influences for the sake of academic consistency. The work is left to speak for itself.

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