Painting and Sculpture
Painting and Sculpture
From the time of their first arrival in the New World, Africans were involved in a wide range of artistic endeavors. Much of the early art of African Americans was considered folk art and was connected to routines of life and work. Many Africans were highly skilled artisans who played a central role in the construction of cities and towns in early America. Their artistic expression often displayed a distinctive African sensibility that reflected traditional African practices such as the decoration of gravesites, basketry, pottery, ironwork, and quilt-making.
African-American participation in European modalities of fine artwork was slower to develop. This was due to the resistance of Europeans to the conventions of African art forms, and to the deliberate exclusion of blacks from access to the training and clients needed for successful careers as artists within the mainstream of Euro-American traditions. Despite these handicaps, the achievements of African Americans in painting and sculpture are rich and distinguished. Their history comprises determined individuals who, in addition to the usual struggles of artists to make a livelihood, had to overcome the additional burdens of discrimination and racist assumptions about the artistic abilities of persons of African descent. Black female artists had an additional burden, for they had to contend with gender bias as well.
Persons of African descent began to create Euro-American artworks at the behest of their masters or white patrons, or to prove their artistic abilities in the face of opposition to their participation in the marketplace. This process began early in America's development. By 1724 the Boston print shop of Thomas Fleet had two slave artisans, Pompey and Cesar Fleet, who made woodcuts to accompany broadside pamphlets and small books. Most of the black artisans in eighteenth-century America were anonymous. Primarily located in cities, both free blacks and slaves worked as carriage painters, silversmiths, goldsmiths, seamstresses, tailors, hairdressers, watchmakers, and makers of powderhorns, among other crafts. References to them are scarce and primarily glimpsed in newspaper advertisements for their services or in notices for runaway slaves.
Those painters whose names were recorded include Neptune Thurston, an eighteenth-century Rhode Island slave whose artistic prowess, according to a nineteenth-century tradition, was an early inspiration for the renowned artist Gilbert Stuart. Scipio Moorhead, a Boston slave, almost certainly painted a portrait of the poet Phillis
Wheatley that served as the basis for the frontispiece to the 1773 London edition of her works. Wheatley returned the favor in her poem "To S. M. a Young African Painter, on Seeing his Works," the first recorded critical evaluation of an African-American artist:
To show the lab'ring bosom's deep intent,
And thought in living characters to paint,
When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight?
Most of the work of nineteenth-century African-American artists is reflective of European and American conventions of technique and subject matter. The lack of a self-conscious "black aesthetic" in nineteenth-century African-American art has bothered some later critics, such as Alain Locke (1886–1954), who view this period as one of relatively little importance. But this perspective slights the achievements of these artists and overlooks the efforts they made and the indignities they withstood to be accepted by their peers.
Many of these early black artists were limners—often self-taught, itinerant portrait painters. One of the first was Joshua Johnson (c. 1763–c. 1824) of Baltimore. His origins, parentage, and other pertinent information about his life are vague, given the absence of written documents.
In a December 19, 1798, advertisement in the Baltimore Intelligencer, Joshua Johnson posted an announcement wherein he described himself as a "self-taught genius" who had overcome "many insuperable obstacles" in his efforts to become an artist. This is a subtle reference to his African-American background and the difficulties of being an artist in nineteenth-century America.
Johnson's style indicates that he came under the influence of the prominent painters Charles Wilson Peale and his nephew Charles Polk Peale. Johnson's paintings of Maryland's elite were distinguished by an individual sense of character and sharp attention to detail. Critics have described Johnson as the "brass tack artist" because of his repetitive use of the same sofa, studded with brass upholstery tacks, in many of the depictions of his subjects. Johnson painted few black subjects, though he has been identified as the painter of the matched portraits of Daniel Coker and Abner Coker, two early ministers of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
The painter, lithographer, and daguerreotypist Jules Lion (1810–1866) was born in France and later settled in New Orleans—he was listed as a painter and lithographer in the 1838 city directory. An advertisement lists Lion as a daguerreotypist in 1840 and credits him with the introduction of this medium to New Orleans. Although there are no extant examples of his painting, he is known to have exhibited successfully at the Exposition of Paris in 1833, cofounded an art school in New Orleans in 1841, and taught drawing at the College of Louisiana. Lion typifies many early African-American artists who worked in diverse genres and media. He remained active in the New Orleans area, traveling back to France periodically until his death in 1866.
Robert Scott Duncanson (1821–1872) was hailed at the height of his career as the "best landscape painter in the West" by eastern critics. Born in Seneca County in upstate New York, Duncanson was raised in Monroe, Michigan, located at the western tip of Lake Erie, and by the early 1840s had moved to Cincinnati. His landscapes, such as Blue Hole, Little Moon River (1851) and The Land of the Lotus Eaters (c. 1861), are excellent examples of the luminous Hudson River School landscape style.
Duncanson's commissions included photographs, portraits, still lifes, and landscapes, and in the Belmont House in Cincinnati (now the Taft Museum) he executed the first murals by a black artist. In the early 1850s he collaborated with the African-American daguerreotypist James Presley Ball in an enormous rolling panorama (over half a mile of canvas) that depicted in its unfolding the history of African Americans in the United States.
Duncanson was light-skinned, and this helped to give him access to white artistic circles, though the snubs he did receive, such as his failure to be elected to the National Academy of Design in New York, left him greatly disturbed. His physical and mental health deteriorated toward the end of his life. He made a distinctive contribution to the tradition of American landscape painting by becoming the first African-American artist to appropriate the landscape as a symbolic vehicle to express his own sense of creativity, freedom, and identity.
Boston, a major center for black cultural life in the nineteenth century, was the home of four artists of significance: William Simpson, Nelson Primus, Edward Bannister, and Edmonia Lewis. William Simpson (1818–1872) was listed in the Boston directories of 1860 and 1866. Critics of the period recall his strong talents as a portrait painter and his skill as a draftsman of exceptional ability. William Wells Brown, who escaped from slavery and became a noted writer and historian, recalled that Simpson began as a youth by "drawing instead of following his class work," and he later studied with Matthew Wilson (in 1854). Little is known about Simpson's career, and few works are extant.
Nelson Primus (1843–1916), born in Hartford, Connecticut, moved to Boston in 1864. He started out as a carriage painter in about 1858, and then began a professional career as a portrait painter. In 1859 he won a medal for drawing at the State Agricultural Society Fair. While he received high praise in Boston, his career was only partially successful in the East, and he later moved to San Francisco, where he continued to paint.
Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828–1901) was a prolific landscape painter and portraitist in late-nineteenth-century New England. Born in New Brunswick, Canada, to a father from Barbados and a local woman, he grew up with an early appreciation of the arts, encouraged by his mother. In 1850 he moved to Boston, where he worked as a hairdresser. As an artist he was largely self-taught, and by 1860 he had acquired a considerable local reputation. During the Civil War, Bannister was a leader in the effort to obtain equal pay for black soldiers, and he painted a portrait, not extant, of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.
Bannister's painting Under the Oaks (now lost) won first place at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. African-American newspapers and periodicals such as the AME Church Review proudly took note of Bannister's accomplishment. His work, influenced by the English landscape artist John Constable and the French Barbizon School, often featured seascapes and textured studies of clouds and trees. In 1870 Bannister moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where was accepted by his white peers (an unusual occurrence for a black professional of his era), and became a cofounder of the socially prestigious Providence Art Club. Following his death in 1901, the club hosted a memorial exhibition of more than one hundred of his works, a testament to his contribution to the American landscape tradition and to the high admiration of his fellow artists, patrons, and admirers.
The most prominent black sculptor of the nineteenth century was the remarkable Edmonia Lewis (c. 1845–1911?). The specifics of her biography remain unclear. Lewis was born in upstate New York to an African-American father and a mother of mixed Chippewa and African-American descent. Orphaned at an early age, "Wildfire" (her Indian name) was raised in Canada West (now Ontario) among the Chippewa. She attended Oberlin College, but she found herself embroiled in unseemly and unfounded accusations of poisoning two of her classmates and was obliged to leave in 1863. She moved to Boston, but the traumatic impact of the charges, which almost certainly had a racial basis, left Lewis distrustful and fostered an already strong sense of independence and self-sufficiency.
The city directory of Boston lists Lewis as a sculptor for the years of 1864 and 1865. Boston's active black and abolitionist community provided Lewis with numerous commissions to create portrait busts of leading abolitionist figures. In 1866, with the money earned from sales of a plaster bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the encouragement of the sculptor Harriet Homser, she moved to Rome. She was befriended there by a large community of American artists (including several women) and started carving in marble. Forever Free (1867–1868), probably her best-known work, is a commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although her work was deeply shaped by Greco-Roman neoclassical tradition, she was equally committed to portraying both African-American and Native-American heritages. After the 1880s she became less active and gradually lost contacts with America. Little is known about the last thirty years of her life, but it is believed that she was living in Rome as late as 1909.
Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) was the leading African-American painter of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he was encouraged in his artistic ambitions at an early age by a supportive and relatively well-off family (his father was an AME bishop) and the intellectual community of Philadelphia. He was one of the first black artists to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, studying with the artist Thomas Eakins in 1880 and 1881, but he withdrew after a racial incident. In 1891 he sailed for Europe, traveling to Italy and settling in Paris, where he experienced freedoms unknown to African Americans in the United States. He would remain in Paris for the rest of his life, making periodic trips home.
While in France, Tanner executed two genre paintings, The Banjo Lesson (1898) and The Thankful Poor (1893–1894), both displaying the influence of Eakins. These works represented Tanner's most realistic depictions of contemporary African-American life. For the remainder of his career he concentrated on visionary religious paintings, such as Daniel in the Lion's Den (1895) and The Raising of Lazarus (1896), a prizewinner at the Paris Salon of 1897. Tanner's achievements and personal encouragement would be an inspiration for several generations of African-American artists. Two painters who became pupils of Tanner were William Harper and William Edouard Scott. Harper was a landscapist in the tradition of the Barbizon painters, and he had admirable technical skill. Scott's landscapes displayed the influence of Tanner's use of light, and he later became known for his paintings of Haitian life.
The two leading black sculptors at the end of the century were Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877–1968) and May Howard Jackson (1877–1931). Meta Vaux Warwick married the pioneer African-American neurologist Solomon Carter Fuller. She was born in Philadelphia, and at an early age became curious about art through her older sister, an art student. Throughout her early education, her talent and interest in art blossomed. She won a scholarship to the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art and won a prize for Process of the Arts and Crafts (1897), a massive bas-relief composition of thirty-seven figures. After graduation, she continued her studies in 1899, attending lectures at the Colarossi Academy in Paris and later working with the renowned modernist sculptor Auguste Rodin. She was among the earliest American artists to be influenced by African sculpture and folklore, which is evident in such works as Spirit of Emancipation (c. 1918), Ethiopia Awakening (1914/1921), and The Talking Skull (1937). Her early works had a power and fierceness that many critics of that era found frightening. After her marriage, the birth of her sons, and a devastating fire in 1910 that destroyed much of her early work, she stopped sculpting for a period of years and created stage designs for theater groups in the community. When she resumed her career, her sculpture was more technically and conceptually mature, largely consisting of themes centered on African-American culture, history, and identity.
May (or Mae) Howard Jackson was educated at J. Liberty Todd's Art School in Philadelphia and won a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in that city. Jackson was primarily a sculptor of portrait busts and portrait groups, such as Mother and Child (1929) and Head of a Negro Child (1929). In many of her works she went beyond her classical training to depict the distinct uniqueness of African-American physiognomy. Jackson had a studio in Washington, D.C., and exhibited professionally at the National Academy of Design and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She won a prize from the Harmon Foundation in 1928. However, the general indifference of the public, despite many critical plaudits from intellectuals such as Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois, filled her life with frustration, anger, and isolation.
Charles Ethan Porter (1847–1923) was a painter of still lifes and landscapes. Born in Connecticut, he attended the National Academy of Design and later traveled to Paris to study, evidently through the generosity of Mark Twain. Porter established a studio in Rockville, Connecticut, in 1884. He specialized in still lifes with elaborate floral arrangements and fruit displays, painting primarily for local white patrons. He exhibited intermittently at the National Academy of Design of New York and the American Society of Painters in Watercolor. In 1910 he became a charter member of the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts, his only known professional association.
Laura Wheeler Waring (1887–1948), like Charles Ethan Porter, was a native of Connecticut. Born in Hartford, she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. In 1914 she won a Cresson Foreign Traveling Scholarship, which enabled her to travel to Europe and North Africa. Her interest in portraiture of African Americans of both humble and distinguished origins won high praise, and her painting Anna Derry Washington (c. 1930s) received the Harmon Foundation gold medal in 1927. Her portraits of women are powerful, dignified, intense images of poised strength. After she settled in Philadelphia, her paintings of leading African-American figures, including Marian Anderson, George Washington Carver, and James Weldon Johnson, were exhibited widely. Many of her paintings were commissioned by the Harmon Foundation. A memorial exhibition of these works was displayed at Howard University in 1949.
Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement
The celebrated March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic, reprinted under the title The New Negro (1925), heralded the arrival of the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. It established Alain Locke, a Philadelphia-born philosopher and Howard University professor, as the movement's mentor and intellectual leader. Locke became the first significant critic, curator, and historian of African-American art, and he was the author of path-breaking books, including Negro Art: Past and Present (1936) and The Negro in Art (1940). Locke urged African-American artists to look to their African ancestral legacy and incorporate the aesthetic traditions of Africa into their work to create a "racially expressive art." Locke initiated the call for African Americans to be not merely imitative of dominant European and American styles, but to develop their own self-conscious aesthetic.
The burgeoning of publications during the Harlem Renaissance provided a crucial forum for young black artists to showcase and experiment with images reflective of a cultural identity specific to African Americans. Among those active in the production of illustrations, caricatures, graphic design for book and magazine covers, and genre drawings were Aaron Douglas, Gwendolyn Bennett, Bruce Nugent, Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, E. Sims Campbell, Laura Wheeling Waring, and Lois Mailou Jones. These artists were well respected among their peers, even if at times the "new" imagery of the New Negro provoked resistance and disdain from the older, more conservative, generation of blacks.
Another crucial figure who encouraged visual arts during the Harlem Renaissance was a white real-estate developer and philanthropist, William E. Harmon (1862–1928), who founded the Harmon Foundation in 1922. The foundation, which sponsored the Harmon Awards for Distinguished Achievements among Negroes in Fine Arts, created exhibitions that toured the United States through the 1930s. These exhibitions, many supervised by his longtime assistants Mary Beattie Brady and Evelyn Brown Younger, provided an opportunity and showcase for black artists to gain national and international recognition that otherwise would not have been available to them.
Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) was probably the best-known artist to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance. Born and educated in Kansas, he is noted for his murals, paintings, book designs, and periodical illustrations. After teaching in Kansas high schools, he moved to New York in 1924, where he began studies with Winold Reiss, a German painter with an acute interest in American Indians and African Americans.
Douglas soon became a popular and prolific illustrator for periodicals such as The Crisis, Opportunity, Theatre Arts Monthly, Sun, Boston Transcript, American Mercury, Vanity Fair, Fire!!, and the special March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic. Douglas created images inspired by traditional Egyptian forms and stylized Art Deco elements. The striking mural series Aspects of Negro Life (1933–1934) at the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) is among his most compelling artistic achievements.
Palmer Hayden (1890–1973) was born in Widewater, Virginia, where he was educated in rural schools. Inspired by his brother, he began to draw at the age of four. He was primarily a self-taught painter, though he intermittently took courses and studied with various artists. In 1927 he entered the Harmon Foundation competition, won first prize (and $400), and traveled abroad to study and exhibit in Paris.
Hayden's early works were figurative and landscape compositions. Early narrative paintings such as Midsummer Night in Harlem (1936) and The Janitor Who Paints (1936) are stylized reflections of the stark realities faced by African Americans in general and African-American artists in particular. His most famous work is probably the John Henry series (1944–1947), twelve paintings depicting events from the folk legend.
The aesthetics and creativity of the Harlem Renaissance were not limited to New York City, but flourished in places such as Cleveland, San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Many of the artists who migrated to New York came from small towns in the South. These communities provided environments that gave artists a continuously rich supply of cultural material. William Henry Johnson (1901–1970) came from such a town—Florence, South Carolina. Johnson arrived in New York in 1918 and worked at odd jobs, sending money home to his family and saving the rest to enroll in art school. In 1921 he enrolled in the National Academy of Design. With the support of his teacher and painter, Charles Hawthorne, he left for Paris in 1926. He won the Harmon Foundation gold prize for painting in 1929. He lived for most of the 1930s in Denmark, returning to the United States shortly before the outbreak of World War II. In 1939 he changed his style from one heavily influenced by postimpressionism and expressionism to flat, bright, expressively colored, essential forms that appeared "naive." Johnson felt that these works portrayed a more modernist interpretation of the African-American experience. Compositions such as Jesus and Three Marys (1939), Going to Church (1940–1941), and his Folk Family series recall his cultural roots and his quest to understand African aesthetics and symbolism. He suffered severe mental deterioration in 1945 and was institutionalized for the remainder of his life.
Archibald J. Motley (1891–1981), born in New Orleans and raised in Chicago, painted numerous portraits of family, friends, and models. In 1928 he entered the Harmon Foundation competition and won the gold medal for Octoroon Girl (1925); many of Motley's works display an interest in the varieties of African-American skin color. Though his best-known work is probably Mending Socks (1924), a sensitive depiction of his grandmother, he also created works on the blues and jazz scene in Chicago, such as Blues (1929) and The Liar (1934). Many of Motley's paintings portray the social life of blacks and reveal an urban lifestyle that was a new experience to the recently arrived blacks who migrated from the South for better opportunities.
Sargent Johnson (1887–1967) was born in Boston. His father was of Swedish ancestry; his mother was Cherokee and African American. Early in his youth, Johnson was orphaned and sent to live for a while with his maternal aunt, the sculptor May Howard Jackson. In 1915 he moved to San Francisco and set up a studio in his backyard, after studying at the A. W. Best School of Art and the California School of Fine Art. Johnson was talented in a wide range of media—worked in wood, terra cotta, plaster, copper, cast stone, mosaic, ceramic clay, and polychrome porcelain on steel. He was also adept at lithographs, etching, and drawing. Remaining in the Bay Area for the duration of his life, he exhibited regularly with the Harmon Foundation and won awards in 1927 and 1928.
Even though Johnson lived far from Harlem, he was greatly influenced by the call of the New Negro movement to employ the aesthetics of traditional African arts as well as Mexican and Native American art forms. His sculpture captured an elegant linearism and a simple and direct approach to form derived from the study of African masks and Mexican folk art. During the 1930s he became active in the Works Progress Administration (WPA; later called the Work Projects Administration) as an artist, later becoming unit supervisor in the Bay Area, the highest post in the WPA held by a black artist. Some of his most important pieces are Sammy (1927), his copper mask series (c. 1930–1935), and Forever Free (1933).
Richmond Barthé (1901–1989) was the Harmon Foundation's most celebrated and widely exhibited sculptor. His figurative style was most popular from the 1920s through the 1940s. Early in his career his work was bought by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Born in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, he arrived in Chicago in 1924 and entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to study painting. He produced his first sculpture three years later. His early works helped him win a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to study in New York.
Barthé worked in clay, plaster, and bronze, and his technical and conceptual skill in the execution of the figure and portrait bust was highly regarded. During the 1930s he worked for the WPA, creating bas-relief murals. Much of his inspiration, especially in his later years, came from the world of theater, dance, and sports. The power of movement and the effort to capture kinetic motion in a sculptural form greatly fascinated him. He is known for such compositions as Feral Benga (1935), The Negro Looks Ahead (1937), and Mother and Son (1938).
The life of sculptor Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (1890–1960) was marked by abject poverty, remarkable skill, and a tenacious will to establish herself as an artist in spite of the harsh realities of race and gender bias. Born in Providence, Rhode Island, she was encouraged to become a teacher or a nurse, but she wanted to become an artist. She enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design in 1918, and in 1922 she studied at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. She continued to live, work, and exhibit in France until 1932. She had the support and admiration of W. E. B. Du Bois and Henry Tanner, who helped her exhibit with the Harmon Foundation in 1930, the same year her wood carving Congalaise was purchased by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Prophet worked in marble, alabaster, granite, plaster, clay, bronze, and wood. Her portrait busts were intense, powerful technical executions that abstracted the human character to reveal the psychological and physiological qualities of her subjects.
In 1932 Prophet returned to America to teach at Spelman College with Hale Woodruff. The position gave her little time to sculpt, and she left after 1945. Thereafter, she lived in poverty and obscurity in Providence, and much of her later work is either incomplete, lost, or was destroyed by her own hand.
Lois Mailou Jones (1905–1998) had an exceptional career filled with success, achievement, and productivity. She was born in Boston, educated in local schools, and supported by her parents in her decision to become an artist. She attended classes at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, and in 1930 she was invited to teach design and watercolor at Howard University. In 1931 she won an honorable mention at the annual Harmon Foundation exhibition for her drawing Negro Youth (1929). After 1937 Jones studied in Paris and Africa, and she lived for a while in Haiti. Jones's work includes portraits, landscapes, abstractions, and textile designs, all highlighting her facility
with color, texture, and design, She worked in such diverse media as painting, drawing, watercolor, and stage and costume design.
James Lesesne Wells (1902–1993) was the acknowledged "dean of Negro printmakers." Born in Atlanta and educated in Jacksonville, Florida, he later studied at the National Academy of Design, and at Teachers College of Columbia University. In 1930 he won the gold medal from the Harmon Foundation for the painting The Flight into Egypt (1929). However, he later largely abandoned painting for printmaking, and won a Harmon Foundation award for a woodcut, Escape of Spies from Canaan (1932). He was proficient in a variety of techniques, including intaglio, wood, and linoleum blocks, as well as painting and drawing. His works concentrated on biblical and religious subjects and were greatly influenced by African sculptural forms, as well as the Renaissance master woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer and those of twentieth-century German expressionists. In 1926 he joined the faculty of Howard University, and he continued to produce prints of great quality and complexity for the remainder of his career.
James Porter (1905–1970), born in Baltimore, was educated at Howard University and later became head of its art department. He was a painter of traditional portraits and won prizes in the Harmon Foundation exhibitions of 1929 and 1933. He authored the first seminal history of African-American art, Modern Negro Art (1943). He traveled widely studying, painting, lecturing, writing, exhibiting his work, and providing a critical foundation as the first major African-American art historian.
Hale Woodruff (1900–1980) was the founder of the Atlanta School of Art. He was educated at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, the Académie Scandinave, and the Académie Moderne in Paris, where he lived for several years. He won a bronze medal in the Harmon Foundation competition of 1926. After his return from Europe in 1931, he started to teach at Atlanta University, where he established a successful art program. His first paintings were landscapes and figure studies. In 1934 he studied mural painting with the Mexican painter Diego Rivera and became increasingly interested in social realism. From 1938 to 1939, under the auspices of the WPA, he created the famed Amistad Mutiny mural series at Talladega College, Alabama, detailing the events surrounding the 1841 shipboard slave mutiny and its aftermath. He helped establish a major competition and collection of art at Atlanta University to encourage young artists, and in 1963 he was a cofounder of the artists' group Spiral. In 1946 he joined the faculty of New York University, where he remained until his retirement. In the later years of his career his canvases were greatly influenced by abstract expressionism and traditional African art.
Edwin Harleston was a portrait painter who had an uncanny ability to capture the character and personality of his subjects, imbuing them with great humanity. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, he studied at the Avery Institute, Atlanta University, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts school (from 1905–1913), and the Art Institute of Chicago (in 1925). He also assisted Aaron Douglas with the murals at Fisk University. Before his death he won Harmon Foundation awards in 1925 and 1931, the first one for a portrait of his wife.
John Wesley Hardrick (1891–1968) was a landscape and portrait painter who received minimal attention during his lifetime. Born in Indianapolis, he was educated at the John Herron Art Institute in his hometown and remained in the Indianapolis area throughout his life. He exhibited at the Harmon exhibitions and won a bronze medal in 1927. Hardrick created several murals for churches and high schools during his career.
Malvin Gray Johnson (1896–1934), born in Greensboro, North Carolina, did not live long enough to realize the full potential of the psychological intensity of his early portraits. Educated at the National Academy of Design, his work shows a great interest in African-American subject matter. He was also inspired by his interest in postimpressionism, which he expressed in a radically distinctive style. In 1929 Johnson won a first prize in the Harmon Foundation exhibition.
Black Art and the New Deal
By 1934, during the Great Depression, between eleven million and fifteen million people were out of work. Approximately ten thousand of these jobless citizens were artists, both black and white, who were in desperate need of support. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Its purpose was to create all kinds of jobs at every level of the skill ladder, preserving professional and technical skills while helping individuals retain their self-respect. Artists in the program were paid $15 to $90 a month for a variety of assignments. The program was essentially terminated by 1939. In some areas, bowing to local custom, the WPA programs were segregated, though in other places they were integrated. In many places, most notably in Harlem, there were separate programs for African-American artists. The WPA gave many artists a sense of collective purpose and provided them with the resources to develop their talent for the first time in American history.
One of the leading figures in Harlem's artistic circles in the 1930s was the sculptor Augusta Savage (1892–1962). One of thirteen children, she came to New York from Cove Springs, Florida, in 1921 to study in the free art program at Cooper Union. She overcame numerous obstacles in her life, becoming an artist and an activist dedicated to the recognition of black artists. Her best work displays extraordinary power, energy, and technical prowess.
In 1929, after sculpting Gamin, a head of a Harlem youth, she won the first of two Rosenwald Fellowships that allowed her to study in Paris, to work at the studio of Elizabeth Prophet, and to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière for three years. She won citations at the Salon d'Automme and the Salon Printemps and a medallion at the Colonial Exposition of the French government. In 1932, upon her return from Europe, she opened the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem on 143rd Street. Many young artists, such as Norman Lewis, William Artis, Ernest Crichlow, Elba Lightfoot, Morgan and Marvin Smith, Jacob Lawrence, and Gwendolyn Knight, came to study with her. Among her many contributions to the arts was her role in establishing the Harlem Community Art Center in 1937. She created a large plaster sculpture, Lift Every Voice and Sing (also known as The Harp ), for the 1939 New York World's Fair, although there were no funds to preserve the sixteen-foot-tall piece, and it was destroyed after the exhibition. After World War II she moved to upstate New York, her active artistic involvement greatly diminished, and she drifted into obscurity.
As the WPA projects began to expand, the Harlem Artist Guild was formed in 1935 to address issues of equality and representation of black artists on WPA projects. Aaron Douglas was the first director of the guild, and Augusta Savage followed as director the next year. By 1936 Savage was an assistant supervisor for the WPA Federal Arts Project. At about this time, Charles Alston, who created important works as a muralist, realist painter, and illustrator, established a studio at 306 West 141st Street; "306" soon became the social and intellectual center of the Harlem arts community. Without the assistance of the guild, Charles Alston and Vertis Hayes may have never completed their murals for Harlem Hospital. Georgette Seabrooke Powell, a young New York artist trained at Cooper Union, contributed less controversial murals to that site, as did Elba Lightfoot. Powell also painted murals for Queens General Hospital.
The largest and most influential school to play a critical role in this area was the Harlem Community Art Center. It began as an outgrowth of the Uptown Art Laboratory, another project of Augusta Savage. In 1937 Gwendolyn Bennett replaced Savage as its director. The center served up to four thousand students a month and became a model for other WPA art centers. It is the longest-active art center still in operation from this period.
Selma Hortense Burke (1900–1995), a young sculptor who migrated from North Carolina, studied in New York, Paris, and London and later taught at the Harlem Community Art Center. Burke created works in stone, wood, and metal that were imbued with clarity of line, mass, and strength of spiritual character. Toward the end of World War II, she won a competition to execute a bronze plaque of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he sat for her several times. Most experts believe that, uncredited, Burke's design was used for the relief of Roosevelt on the face of the dime.
A number of African-American artists came to prominence during the 1930s. Ernest Crichlow (b. 1914), a resident of Brooklyn, became a teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center. Like Charles Alston, Crichlow created compositions influenced by social realism, often commenting on the conditions and culture of the African-American community. Gwendolyn Knight (b. 1913) was a quiet young painter who moved to New York from Barbados. She was active at "306" and the Harlem Community Art Center, and she later married the artist Jacob Lawrence. Richard Lindsey (b. 1904) was a native of North Carolina and came to New York to study at the National Academy of Design. He was active in the exhibitions of the Harmon Foundation and at the Harlem Community Art Center, where he also worked. Lindsey was a painter and printmaker, but very little of his work has survived.
Chicago also produced a number of prominent artists during the 1930s. Rex Gorleigh (1902–1987), born in Wynne, Pennsylvania, was another painter who taught at the Harlem Community Art Center. Educated at the Art Students League and the University of Chicago, he later studied in France, worked at the WPA in Greensboro, North Carolina, and later became director of Chicago's South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), which had opened in 1940. Despite its relatively short existence, the SSCAC had a number of distinguished artists, including Gorleigh, Charles White, Margaret Burroughs, Eldzier Corter, Gordon Parks, Archibald Motley, and Charles Sebree.
Charles White (1918–1979) established the medium of drawing in charcoal, ink, pencil, and collage as a means to depict figurative representation with intense drama. These idealized portraits and studies often had historical subjects as their focus. White continued using this style throughout his life, though he became less iconographic and more individualized in his portrayals in his later years. He was active in the WPA as well as the SSCAC.
Margaret Burroughs (b. 1917) was educated at the Art Institute of Chicago, was a versatile artist in painting, printmaking, and sculpture, and was a significant figure in Chicago area arts education. Eldzier Cortor (b. 1916) was primarily drawn to depictions of African-American women, reflecting their alienation from society and their introspection in positional studies using bedrooms and mirrors as stages. Charles Sebree (1914–1985) was a sensitive portraitist who evoked the spiritual character of the New Negro.
Another Chicago artist was Ellis Wilson (1899–1977). A Kentucky native, Wilson came to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was active in the Harmon Foundation exhibitions, the Savage Studio, and the Federal Arts Project. His mature style is based on strong color and flat figures that document the black working-class community.
Allan Rohan Crite (b. 1910) was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, and moved to Boston to study art. He was one of the few African-American artists to be hired for the WPA Federal Arts Project in Boston. Many of Crite's early works were paintings of street scenes and portraits. The balance of his career has been spent developing complex narratives of religious and spiritual themes.
One of the most active centers for African-American art in the 1930s and 1940s was Cleveland's Karamu Playhouse, founded in 1915. Karamu Playhouse was an interracial settlement house designed to address the cultural needs of the urban poor. By the time of the Great Depression it was recognized for its theater group. It was not until funding came from the WPA that it established a strong visual arts program.
Hughie Lee-Smith (1915–1999) studied at the Cleveland Institute of Arts and became part of the Ohio Federal Arts Project. His painted imagery is figurative and realistic, with metaphysical references to surreal or romanticized landscapes. Lee-Smith was active in numerous portrait commissions and was greatly respected for his technical skill in oil, watercolor, prints, and drawing. A significant part of his career was spent teaching at the Arts Students League in New York in addition to painting and exhibiting widely.
Elton Fax (1909–1993), born in Baltimore, moved to New York and worked with Augusta Savage and the Harlem Community Art Center. Later he became active in the Maryland Federal Arts Project. He was a versatile painter, printmaker, illustrator, and educator, and he was the author of several books on the lives of black artists. Fax played an important role in the development of regional art programs from Baltimore to New York.
One of the most important forms of African-American artistic expression in the twentieth century has been by so-called folk, or self-taught, artists. These artists developed significant artistic styles in spite of the fact that they had no formal academic training. The work often appears naive or child-like in its artistic conventions. Many self-taught artists took up art as an avocation later in their lives, after their retirement, a religious call, or a critical change in lifestyle or career. They have made important contributions to the development of modernism from the African-American perspective.
Clementine Hunter (1886?–1988) was born on Hidden Hill Plantation in Louisiana and worked as a share-cropper. Late in life, Hunter began to paint at the encouragement of one of her guests. She had a prolific career in exhibiting and painting canvases that recalled, with deep reverence, her memories of life in Louisiana.
Horace Pippin (1888–1946), born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, began to paint later in life, despite an injury to his painting arm during World War I. He started painting by using a hot iron poker to burn the image on a piece of wood. Pippin then slowly painted in the details with numerous layers of oil paint. Many of his intensely detailed paintings deal with his haunted memories of the war. His work also includes visions of childhood experiences (including his version of southern black rural life, a reality he never experienced), landscapes, interiors, and his visions of a utopian and peaceful world. During his last years, Pippin's subtle and profoundly moving art achieved great acclaim. He was an ordinary man with an extraordinary sensibility for observing the world around him.
Minnie Evans (1892–1987), born in Pender County, North Carolina, created compositions inspired by visions and dreams after Good Friday in 1935, when a voice directed her to "draw or die." Her imagery consists of a fusion of bright colors with figurative and abstract human and plant forms. She worked in watercolor, crayon, graphite, oil, acrylic ink, collage, enamel, and tempera.
Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–1980), who lived most of her life in New Orleans, was adept in a wide range of artistic expression. She was not only a gifted painter, but a singer and preacher as well. After she was "called" to a missionary vocation, she used her artistic abilities to spread the word of God. Believing herself to be the bride of Jesus Christ, her paintings had large areas of white—a color of holiness—which were filled with painted images of redemption, revelation, and red- and black-haired angels.
There have also been a number of important African-American self-taught sculptors. William Edmondson (c. 1882–1951), born in Davidson County, Tennessee, near Nashville, spent his working career on the railroad and later at a woman's hospital. Upon retirement he began to carve, believing he had been directed to do so by a command from God. He collected old limestone curbstone, and made grave markers for people in the community who had minimal funds to lay a headstone. As his skill increased, he produced images with great spirituality, humanity, and power. Religious figures, birds, ordinary and heroic individuals, and what he called "critters and varmits [sic]" were his favorite subjects. In 1937 he became the first African-American artist to be given a one-person show by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Elijah Pierce (1892–1984) was a barber, preacher, and wood carver. He was born in Baldwyn, Mississippi, and lived most of his life in Columbus, Ohio. Morality, ethics, and the stories of the Bible inspired many of the wooden panels he carved and painted, using bright colors to energize the message of his pictorial sermons.
Perhaps the most remarkable African-American sculptor was James Hampton, who migrated from Elloree, South Carolina, to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a janitor. A loner, he created The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly (c. 1950–1964), which was not known until it was found in a garage long after his death. It consists of more than 185 objects—mostly old furniture, light bulbs, and other household objects—covered with silver and gold foil, aluminum, and ornately decorated. The heavy use of metallic paper is a symbolic reference to heavenly or celestial light and inspired by Kongo traditions from central Africa. The work was inspired by biblical themes, notably from the Book of Revelations, and defines a sacred spiritual place.
The dominant African-American aesthetic sensibility during the 1930s was social realism. One reason for this was the desire of most African-American artists to convey political themes in a realistic form that was programmatically consistent with the aesthetic that was typical for most WPA projects. Although figurative painting continued to predominate in the postwar period, African-American artistic expression became more diverse and responded to the proliferation of modernist styles, with many artists experimenting with the possibilities of abstraction and expressionism.
The African-American artist to be affected most directly by abstract expressionism was Norman Lewis (1909–1979). A native New Yorker, Lewis trained with a variety of artists, including Augusta Savage. In the 1930s he painted a number of narrative paintings in the social-realist mode, demonstrating his strong sympathies for the unemployed and homeless. In the later 1930s and 1940s, he experimented with the cubist simplification of form, and he tried to convey visually the innovations of bebop jazz, which led to an abstract style by the late 1940s. Some critics complained that he was turning his back on figurative depictions of African Americans, though his work continued to conceptually comment on the civil rights movement and other important social issues. Although Lewis was among the earliest American artists to take up the cause of pure abstraction, until recently his name had been conspicuously left out of the canon of abstract expressionist innovators.
Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) was a painter and printmaker who began his career in the mid-1930s. He quickly established himself as an important modernist and developed a style based on expressive flat forms and direct color. He was greatly influenced by Augusta Savage, Charles Alston, and Henry Bannern during the time he spent working at the Harlem Community Art Center. His primary subject matter was African-American life and history told in a narrative format, in such works as The Migration of the Negro (1940–1941), a series of sixty panels representing a visual history of the Great Migration, the early-twentieth-century movement of blacks from the South to the urban North. Other important works include the Toussaint-Louverture series (1938), consisting of forty-one paintings; the thirty works in the Harlem series (1942–1943); and other connected thematic treatments of John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, African-American workers, and the theme of freedom in American history. Jacob Lawrence was the first modernist painter of critical significance to emerge from the New Negro movement and be included in the mainstream art world.
Beauford Delaney (1901–1979) came to New York in the 1920s from Knoxville, Tennessee. A sensitive portraitist, in the 1930s he experimented with brightly colored abstractions, and his subsequent portraits are highly expressionistic, dense compositions of color and form. After World War II he lived in Paris. His brother Joseph Delaney (1904–1991) was a figurative painter who was greatly influenced by the social realist painters and sought to create expressive, atmospheric compositions that reflected stresses in the life of residents in large urban areas such as New York. Thomas Sills (b. 1914), a laborer turned painter, moved to New York City from North Carolina. He is known for his "brushless" canvases with abstracted forms and bright colors, and was active from the 1950s through the early 1970s.
One of the most important African-American abstractionists was Alma Thomas (1891–1978), who studied at Howard University in the 1920s before beginning a long career teaching in the Washington, D.C., public school system. In 1943 she cofounded the first integrated gallery in Washington, D.C., the Barnett-Aden Gallery. Her own work was fairly conventional until the early 1950s, when she began to produce the colorful and lyrical abstract canvases for which she is best known.
Elizabeth Catlett (b. 1915?), a native of Washington, D.C., studied at Howard University and later with Grant Wood at the University of Iowa. She is a sculptor of immense power, versatility, and technical skill. Her media include printmaking, wood, stone, plaster, clay, and bronze. Motherhood, women, and the struggle of oppressed people have been the central themes of her compositions throughout her life. Mexican themes became important in her art after her marriage to Mexican artist Francisco Mora and her expatriation to his country.
Like Catlett and Beauford Delaney, a number of important African-American artists expatriated themselves after World War II. Ronald Joseph (1910–1992) moved to Europe in the 1940s, primarily living in Brussels. An abstractionist from the late 1930s, his restrained compositions received little recognition in the United States, and for many decades he had little contact with American artists, though he was making a comeback at the time of his sudden death in 1992.
Herbert Gentry (b. 1921) moved to Paris after World War II and studied at the Grande Chaumière. Linear movement and biomorphic form have been among his major concerns. Though primarily abstractions, a number of his canvases have featured representations of masks. In 1960 he settled in Stockholm, Sweden.
Ed Clark (b. 1926) moved to Paris in 1952; his paintings were often abstractions of the human figure. Other expatriates include Lawrence Potter (1924–1966), primarily a color field abstractionist, and Walter Williams (b. 1920), whose work often imaginatively evokes African-American childhood themes and narratives.
The Civil Rights Movement and the Visual Arts
The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a turning point for black art and culture. A number of important artworks were directly inspired by the movement, such as Norman Lewis's Processional (1964), Jacob Lawrence's The Ordeal of Mary (1963), and Elizabeth Catlett's Homage to My Young Black Sisters (1968) and Malcolm X Speaks for Us (1969). In 1963, Romare Bearden contacted Norman Lewis and Hale Woodruff and formed Spiral, a group of twelve African-American artists committed to supporting the civil rights movement and furthering its connection to African-American art. They held their first group show in 1964. The group had largely disbanded by 1965, however, though their impact as a politically conscious African-American artist collective outlived the short duration of the group.
One of the central figures in Spiral, Romare Bearden (1911–1988) was in his own right one of the most significant African-American artists of the postwar period. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, he was raised in Harlem and was a lifelong New Yorker. Spiral had a major impact on his art, which subsequently concentrated on painted, mixed-media collages that depict the African-American experience with a strong emphasis on spirituality and jazz idioms. Bearden was also an important writer on African-American art. His written works include the posthumous History of African-American Artists (1993), cowritten with Harry Henderson.
Benny Andrews (b. 1930) is an activist and an expressive figurative painter who has also worked in collage, using modeling paste and acrylic. Motivated by the belief that black artists should express themselves on a wide range of issues, he was active in teaching in prisons in Queens, New York, and he cofounded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) in 1969. John Biggers (1924–2001), who was raised in North Carolina and taught for many decades at Texas Southern University, was a figurative artist in the tradition of Charles White. He was profoundly influenced by numerous visits to Africa. His drawings, paintings, and murals were some of his most distinguished contributions to the field.
By the late 1960s, the black arts movement had evolved a more socially conscious African-American art that was community-based, militant, and African-centered in its politics. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Chicago-based AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) started painting community murals on the walls of vacant buildings, including the Wall of Respect (1968) in a black Chicago neighborhood. Nelson Stevens, one of the founders of AfriCobra, painted in "Kool-Aid" colors and produced prints that contained nationalistic positive images of black males and females, as well as heroic icons such as Malcolm X.
Vincent Smith (1929–2003) was influenced by the black arts movement, avant-garde jazz and blues of the 1960s, and African art. Many of his oil paintings are mixed-media explorations of the black experience. His etchings and monoprints are eloquent narratives on the distinctive nuances of African-American life. Faith Ring-gold (b. 1930), in contrast, executed huge reconfigured paintings of the American flag. She is an outspoken feminist and activist who has used her art to redefine the role of women. Over time, her paintings evolved into painted story quilts, telling complex narratives in a geometric format.
Other strategies for confronting viewers with unsettling observations on the nature of the relation between blacks and American society include those explored by Barkley Hendricks (b. 1940), who has painted larger-than-life-sized portraits of African Americans against stark ominous white backgrounds. Betye Saar (b. 1926) uses mixed media, found objects, and advertising images, as in her The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972). Mel Edwards uses found or discarded metal objects, such as parts of machines and tools, to create metaphors of the exploited classes within American society, as in his Lynch Fragment series, a lifelong, continuous series of explorations made from recycled metal machine parts.
Bob Thompson (1937-1966) worked in flat, brightly colored figures, creating compositions that echo the work of European masters, including Nicolas Poussin and the Fauves. His work has a strong symbolic component, but his development was cut short by his untimely death. Emilio Cruz (b. 1938), once a studio mate of Thompson's, has similar artistic concerns. Cruz has been concerned throughout his career with symbolism, spirituality, and the condition of humankind. The mood, tempo, and improvisational structure of jazz have been integral to his creative process.
Contemporary African-American Art
The diversity in medium, style, and philosophy within African-American art has burgeoned since the 1970s. In part, this reflects better opportunities for professional education and training, more international travel—especially to the continent of Africa, the ancestral homeland. With growing public prominence and a strong sense of self-confidence, black artists have realized their role in the world at large. Thematic issues of race, sexuality, class, and gender—combined with the freedom to experiment with materials, techniques, and styles—have increased the range of possibilities of artistic expression.
Among the most important African-American abstractionists has been William T. Williams (b. 1942). He works in large-scale abstractions characterized by the use of geometry, color, and complex surface textures, creating subtle moods and atmospheres as he responds to the aesthetic impulses of his environment. Al Loving (b. 1935) also works in an abstract idiom. Spatial relationships, color, and illusion dominate his large acrylic canvases and small watercolor collages. His forms appear suspended in space, amplifying the sense of illusion.
Other abstract artists include Jack Whitten (b. 1939), who explores surface textures and organic structures that resemble intensely magnified sections of human skin or the tile mosaics of ancient floor patterns. Whitten is also interested in human efforts to decorate and ornament the skin, as in the African practice of scarification. Oliver Jackson (b. 1935), a California painter, explores the power and energy of nature. His paintings reduce humanity to a subordinate element within the grand scale of his oversized acrylics. Jackson is also a sculptor whose wood creations reveal the power, energy, and strength of his vision. Raymond Saunders (1934) has developed a very personal style in which the environment around him is reflected in large studies, articulated with iconographic symbols and markings embedded in the surface of the picture plane. Saunders uses painting as a vehicle to communicate with the community by creating a visual dialogue of ideas, images, and symbolic metaphors.
Sam Gilliam (b. 1933) exhibited unorthodox canvases in the 1972 Venice Biennale, which broke his connection to "easel" art. The huge canvases (over 100 feet long) were painted on the studio floor by pouring buckets of paint on the surface and moving the pigment across the canvas with brooms. Later he extended this process by cutting and repasting sections of these canvases, configuring them into large shaped paintings, juxtaposing bright color, texture, and form. In other commission projects he would wrap entire buildings or drape interior spaces with his creations. Gilliam has been fascinated with the properties of paint, light, colors, and texture, and their relationship to architecture and space.
Another contemporary style was exemplified in the work of the highly publicized and controversial work of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988). Although often dismissed as a mere graffiti artist, he expanded and redefined the nature of abstract expressionist painting through the use of popular heroes and symbolic metaphors in his works. Basquiat reorganized the nature of the picture plane by using popular imagery and mixed media on grand-scale surfaces to make biting commentaries on society. He was especially concerned with the politics of African-American art within the larger society. His early stardom, friendships with Pop artists Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, and the media attention he garnered (as well as his early death) have to some extent obscured his true worth. Basquiat's work was far ahead of his time and extends the range of expression for abstract American art traditions.
Robert Colescott's (b. 1925) signature style of figurative paintings is intended to place African Americans within the canons of Western art traditions. In the Knowledge Is the Key to the Past series (1970s), Colescott recreates famous historical compositions by European artists and replaces the subjects with black characters. The results are satirical indictments of Western society that disturb both white and black viewers. Bold color and complex compositions combined with the gesturally painted figures amplify the importance of the issues involved. His sociopolitical commentaries, with their deft skewering of stereotypes, have often provoked controversy, negative reactions, and great debate about the relevance of art history and the dominance of Western mainstream attitudes of inclusion and exclusion.
A number of modern artists have integrated African philosophical systems with conceptual art. Howardena Pindell (b. 1943) is a multi-talented artist and writer who works in a broad range of media, including painting, prints, video, performance art, and installations. Her works are provocative and have often been compared to those of Colescott for their political stance. David Hammons (1943), like Pindell, has embraced controversy through his creations, made from materials such as hair-balls, wine bottles, greasy paper bags, bottle caps, snowballs, coal, chicken wings, and barbecued ribs. Hammons treats even the most conflicted and challenging aspects of the black experience with a sense of reverence and deep spirituality. Houston Conwill's (b. 1947) inventiveness creates sculpture, installations, and performance art that recall the time, place, and memory of African and African-American cultural rituals of the past. He has been preoccupied with defining the nature of sacred space in the African-American community and has executed numerous public commissions throughout the United States.
Richard Hunt (b. 1935) and Martin Puryear (b. 1941) are two of the most distinguished contemporary African-American sculptors. Both work in distinct styles. Hunt works in metal, usually steel, creating works that are derived from plant and animal forms. The metal is shaped to convey figuratively expressive forms of plants and insects. Puryear creates objects whose forms are inspired by architectural structures and functional objects essential to the lives of African-, Asian-, and Native-American peoples. His materials include wood, metal, fiber, stone, and wax. The expanded scale of the objects often sets up a psychological juxtaposition that challenges the notion of the function and role of the objects as art.
During the 1970s and the 1980s, sculptural traditions began to expand in the direction of environmental and installation art. One of the most important and successful artists in this stylistic genre was Fred Wilson (b. 1954). Wilson began as a mixed–media artist, using a wide variety of found objects to construct sculptural forms that had strong political commentary targeting America's inherent attitudes towards people of color. In 1994 he was commissioned to execute a unique installation at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, Maryland, using the artifacts of that institution. "Mining the Museum" was a groundbreaking exhibition that redefined how museums could effectively use the objects and artifacts to educate the public about culture, history, and aesthetics. Wilson was invited to museums all over the world and throughout the United States to teach curators his theories of exhibition artistry. In 1999, he won the highly prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (often called the "genius grant").
Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955) has continued in this tradition by focusing his work on the social, civil, and popular culture of the African-American experience. Marshall's work concentrates on larger-than-life paintings, but he has expanded this type of work to include sculpture, installation art, photography, comic books, and video. In 1992, he was a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship for his work examining and critiquing black history and identity.
Renee Stout (b. 1958), like Wilson and Marshall, works in a mixed media, installation tradition that explores the spiritual relationships within the African-American experience. Her work is very personal in the creation of boxes and spaces that reflect and use material culture to illuminate the extraordinary narrative within the lives of ordinary people of color.
Increasingly, African-American artists have become bold and confrontational in their aesthetic response to continual resistance of opportunity for all Americans. Kara Walker (b. 1969) has been most effective and intense in her approach to imaging the aesthetic issues of America. Using the eighteenth-century tradition of black cutout silhouettes, Walker creates fantastical narratives of black women, children, and men in various states of abuse, often explicit sexually, to draw direct attention to the hidden and covert practices of a culture whose history and attitudes were built on slavery. Kara Walker's work is often so startling in its detail of abuse that she forces the viewer to respond by having a conversation or reaction to the conditions of her artistic and intellectual crusade to attack racism and sexism. In 1997 she became the youngest recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship.
The proliferation of contemporary African-American art in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries represents the culmination of the work of many generations of creative black painters and sculptors. African-American artists first had to struggle simply to gain access to the world of fine art, and once the barriers began to open, they were faced with the equally important task of finding their own distinctive voice—and that of demanding that it be heard and given respect. Amid the turbulence of the contemporary artistic scene, few groups have been as important as African-American artists in directing the attention of artists to issues such as race, gender, identity, culture, politics, and a critical self-examination of the operations of the art world itself. At the same time, one cannot pigeonhole African-American art into one type of expression; black artists have created and are creating works in styles and forms ranging from quiet intellectual contemplation to works of militant engagement. The accomplishments of African-American art are testament to the creative expectations of black artists, as they meld the complexities of their African and multiethnic American heritages and the innovations and challenges of the electronic digital age with their personal visions. These achievements will continue to endure and lead to new forms of visual expressiveness.
See also Art in the United States, Contemporary; Bannister, Edward Mitchell; Basquiat, Jean-Michel; Black Arts Movement; Burroughs, Margaret Taylor; Catlett, Elizabeth; Delaney, Joseph; Douglas, Aaron; Fuller, Meta Vaux Warrick; Hammons, David; Harlem Renaissance; Johnson, Joshua; Lawrence, Jacob; Lewis, Edmonia; Ligon, Glenn; Locke, Alain Leroy; Marshall, Kerry James; Modernism and Primitivism; Motley, Archibald John, Jr.; Parks, Gordon; Puryear, Martin; Savage, Augusta; Stout, Reneé; Tanner, Henry Ossawa; Walker, Kara; Wheatley, Phillis; Woodruff, Hale
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leslie king hammond (1996)
Updated by author 2005