Unbearably Beautiful: "Houston Collects"

In 1865, a North Carolina father built a desk for his little girl, who was learning to read. Such a desk may not seem noteworthy, as it is rough-hewn and made from mismatched scraps of old furniture, with some pieces painted and others written upon. But this desk becomes almost unbearably beautiful when you realize it was created by an enslaved man during a period when it was verboten for people like him and his daughter to learn to read or write. Such acts were punishable by lashing, mutilation (cutting off of the fingertip or tongue), imprisonment and death.

The fear that provoked this kind of legislation was summarized by a Mr. Berry to the House of Delegates in Virginia in 1832: "We have, as far as possible, closed every avenue by which light might enter [slaves'] minds. If we could extinguish this capacity to see the light, our work would be completed, for they would then be like beasts in the fields, and we would be safe."

Let there be light. The lovingly made Child's Desk (1865, Ann and James Harithas collection) can be seen in "Houston Collects: African American Art," at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The exhibition, which shares space in the upper level of the Carolyn Wiess Law Building with "The Black List Project," is a massive show that includes more than 250 works of art, through which the museum showcases institutional and private efforts to collect, document and preserve African-American art from the 20th and 21st centuries. Divided into eight artistic and historical groupings, the show includes work by 19th-century artists and craftspeople; artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights, and historically black colleges and Texas universities; and contemporary, folk and outsider artists. The show, although strong, demands editing, as there are a dozen or so mediocre pieces interspersed among the good and the great.

Within the first grouping of the exhibition, Houston Collects — Entering the 20th Century: Freedom to Express Oneself, you encounter a significant quote fromW.E. B. Dubois's seminal work The Souls of Black Folk: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by...a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One even feels his twoness, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

That sense of "twoness" was indeed felt by groundbreaking artists such as Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872) and Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Duncanson's A View of Asheville, North Carolina (1850, MFAH collection) depicts two men of different races looking down on the nascent beginnings of Asheville, a small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The white man stands with his hands behind his back, as though surveying his great domain, while the black man gestures out to the town he helped build. Tanner's lovely Landscape (Hazel Biggers collection) is a small but rich painting of a dimly lit, tree-lined road. (There are three works by Tanner on view, and happily, not one is the dignified yet ubiquitous The Banjo Player, seen in every art history book and on every Web site from here to kingdom come.)

Taken at face value, the tranquility of Asheville and Landscape belies the difficulties faced by these early pioneers, who were among the first to break white ­artistic-establishment barriers. Duncanson, grandson of an emancipated slave, was determined to be a great painter, despite the role society wanted him to play. In 1841, he moved to Cincinnati. Ten years later, this Hudson River School-influenced artist was lauded by Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth as "one of our most promising painters."

Despite both artists' success, the daily degradation they suffered took its toil. In 1872, while hanging a show in Detroit, Duncanson suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized at the Michigan State Hospital. Two months later, he died. Tanner, one of few truly notable American Impressionists, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art and later moved to Europe in order to escape rampant American racism. Achieving both national and international fame, he once told a correspondent, "Negro blood counts and counts to my advantage — though it has caused me at times a life of great humiliation and sorrow...this condition has driven me out of the country...still deep down in my heart I love [America] and am sometimes sad that I cannot live where my heart is."

Although in physically close proximity to these paintings, Jacob Lawrence's masterpiece The Brown Angel (1959, MFAH collection) leaps away from Western influences (remember, Cubism was influenced in part by African art) and adopts the chiseled, hewn shapes of the motherland. Using modest materials (tempera on gesso panel), Lawrence re-creates a Harlem bar overseen by a clock in the form of a brown angel. Men in porkpie hats drink alone or in groups, while one chats up a woman in an electric red dress. To the side, guys play pool, while in the back, people jitterbug on one side and cook on the other. Master of tiny details, Lawrence gave almost all the bottles in the bar novelty corks, including a duck, a bending angel and a Tam o' Shanter hat-topped Scotchman.

The second room, The Black Intelligentsia: Harlem Renaissance and HBCU's (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) suffers from a handful of mediocre works that distract from better ones. For example, great pieces like Charles White's Untitled (1959, Ann and James Harithas collection), an incredible charcoal drawing on paper of a man with upturned head and outstretched arms, and Aaron Douglas's Emperor Jones series (1930), based on the Eugene O'Neill play in which Paul Robeson later starred, are hung chockablock with banal pieces like David C. Driskell's Still Life with Flowers (1931, Douglas and Driskell, Gladys I. Forde collection). (In all fairness, two other nice small landscapes by Driskell are included in this room also.)

Aaron Douglas's Rembrandt-esque sugar lift etching Oak Bluff (date unknown, Gladys I. Forde collection) is a small and simple, yet emotionally charged, image of two tall trees with leaves blowing in the wind, standing along the banks of a river, whose strength is overshadowed by its relatively close proximity to Cool Grass (1944), a student-like lithograph by Stephanie Pogue (Gladys I. Forde collection) of a body stretched out in grass. The artist barely hides her inability to draw faces or arms by covering them up with overhanging leaves, a trick I employed my freshman year with hands and feet.

Enough kvetching, although there are a few other such indiscretions in the show. The noteworthy certainly outweighs the bad. Included in the former are all three works by Bill Traylor, who time after time proves one doesn't need a degree or expensive materials to create a masterpiece. A former slave without a nickel to his name, he conjured up works of genius such as Two men fighting (late 1930s, Stephanie K. Smithers collection). One man punches the other in the face, while he in turned is punched in the side. I dare you to show me one misplaced line.

The late Dr. John Biggers, a Houston treasure, gives us the magnificent Cradle (1950, MFAH collection), which is reminiscent of Lange's Migrant Mother. A mother in despair holds her three children close to her breast, but despite feelings of hopelessness, her powerfully rendered arms echo the "dogged strength" spoken of by Dubois.

Lauren Kelley's photographic riffs on hair are both poignant and fun. In Bubble Gum Wig (collection Dr. and Mrs. Danny Kelley), the artist, wearing a plaited wig of gum, looks at the camera while stretching another piece from her mouth.

Other favorites include three of Dawolu Jabari Anderson's blown-up comic book covers from his Gullah Sci-Fi Mysteries series featuring Madame Ethiopia, a.k.a. Mam-E, and Kara Walker's diptych Sweep, in which a woman eloquently sweeps a white man from a ledge into a boiling pot below. Great works abound, including photographs by Gordon Parks, Roy Decarava, Chester Higgins Jr. and Dawoud Bey, and a collage by my dear departed friend James Bettison that would put Max Ernst to shame.

My advice for museum-goers at "Houston Collects"? Take two days to see the show — it's that big! — and forgive the handful of less than worthy works.

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Beth Secor