Beyond the Black Experience

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.

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.

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.

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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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer