Monday, April 9, 2012

Overdue Art History

R.I.P. Elizabeth Catlett.

The 97-year old African-American artist died three days after the VMFA opened a show focusing on the pioneering Washington, D.C. Barnett Aden Gallery.

"Making History: 20th Century African American Art" in the Focus Gallery just off the atrium is a fitting gift to the woman whose "I am the Negro Woman" series anchors the show.

A pastel done when she was an undergraduate is arresting for its simple color scheme (black hair and jacket, soft blue wall and vase) but it's the delicate modeling of the face that wouldn't let me take my eyes off of it.

For a student to have such mastery of technique must have caught the attention of every teacher she had.

Because the exhibit is only on view for a limited time, I wasn't willing to wait for company to join me in checking it out. Besides, I had a feeling I'd be willing to go back if anyone asked.

And I would. The 50+ works on display are a who's who of black artists of the mid-twentieth century. And, sadly, Catlett was the only one with whom I was familiar.

Besides Catlett's series, the show includes her iconic "Sharecropper" image from 1952, instantly recognizable because it's been reproduced endlessly over the years.

I was appalled to learn that her social activism working to improve the lives of black and Mexican women had gotten her listed as an "undesirable alien" by the State Department in 1962 and she was banned from returning here for years.

Wow. We were still branding artists for activism as late as 1962?

John Farrar's  1947 "Waiting" shows a woman standing in the yard of a typical Le Droit Park house, a style of architecture I recognize well from a childhood in D.C.

An untitled piece from the 30s or early 40s shows a group of faceless men sitting around an outdoor fire for warmth and a shared meal.

Given the economic climate when it was done, I was hardly surprised to see that it was done in tempera on cardboard and brown paper.

One thing I found fascinating was the myriad influences that 20th century black artists pulled from.

Like Picasso, many were inspired by African tribal motifs (James Lesene Wells'  1929 "African Phantasy" was visually stunning), but their influences were much wider than their motherland.

Wells himself went on to be influenced by German Expressionism while Felrath Hines embraced abstraction and color field painting.

Lloyd G. NcNeill, a flutist in addition to a painter, showed the influence of Cubism in 1963's "Jazz Players" where a (what else?) flute is prominent in the composition.

All the artists in the exhibit were associated with the Barnett Aden Gallery, set up on the first floor of Vernon Herring's house (where he lived with Aden), and the first privately owned black gallery in the country.

My favorite thing about pictures of the gallery was how it proved that a domestic setting emphasized the visual pleasures of living with art, a philosophy I also espouse.

The Barnett Aden Gallery closed in 1969, so it's not like I could have known about it despite its proximity to where I grew up.

But I can't help but wish I could have experienced walking into that house of a gallery and experiencing a world of artists I didn't get to see until now.

On the other hand, better late than never. It ended up being quite the gift today.

And just watch how many art-loving friends I take over there to have the same rush.

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