Catlett, Elizabeth (1915—)

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Catlett, Elizabeth (1915—)

African-American sculptor and printmaker. Born in Washington, D.C., on April 15, 1915; B.A., Howard University, 1936; M.F.A. in sculpture, University of Iowa, 1940; married Charles White (an artist), in 1941 (divorced); married Francisco Mora (an artist), in 1947; children: three.

Selected works:

The Negro Woman (series of paintings and prints, 1946–47); Olmec Bather (cast bronze statue, 1966); Reclining Woman (sculpture, 1968); Homage to My Young Black Sisters (mahogany, 1968); Black Unity (sculpture, 1968); Malcolm Speaks for Us (linocut, 1969); Target Practice (bronze sculpture, 1970); Homage to the Panthers (linoleum cut, 1970); Black Flag (cedar, 1970); Black Woman Speaks (Spanish cedar with polychromed eyes and ears, 1970); Magic Mask (mahogany, 1971); Louis Armstrong (bronze sculpture, 1976); Bronze Head (1976); Maternity (black marble, 1980); Torres Bodet (life-size bronze, 1981); Vasconcelos (life-size bronze, 1981).

"I have gradually reached the conclusion," wrote African-American artist Elizabeth Catlett, "that art is important only to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people." To that end, Catlett carried the politics of her work into her battles in the civil-rights arena.

Catlett's father died before she was born, and she was raised by her mother in Washington, D.C., in a comfortable, middle-class home. Excelling in art, she set her sights on Carnegie Institute of Technology after high school, but Carnegie had never accepted a black student. In spite of an outstanding entrance exam, Catlett was turned down. Instead, she went to Howard University, one of the first black institutions to establish an art department. After earning her B.A., she worked briefly in the mural division of the Federal Art Project before taking a job teaching elementary and high school in Durham, North Carolina, for $59 a month. In Durham, she worked with NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall in a campaign conducted by the state teachers' association to equalize wages for all teachers.

Catlett sought her graduate degree at the University of Iowa, living in Iowa City's black ghetto because she was unwelcome in the university dormitories; she graduated as the first M.F.A. candidate in sculpture from the university. She then took a position as chair of the art department at Dillard University. There, she fought for higher wages for teachers, worked to establish life classes with nude models, and pushed to get black students admitted to the local museum to view a Pablo Picasso exhibit.

She met and married artist Charles White in 1941; soon after, the couple moved to New York, where Catlett flourished in the cultural atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance. She continued studies in several mediums, working with French sculptor Ossip Zadkine, who would profoundly influence her subsequent work, and learning lithography at the Art Students League. During this period, she exhibited around the country, including at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Newark (New Jersey) Museum, and the Albany Institute of History and Art.

In 1946, after receiving a Rosenwald fellowship, she moved with her husband to Mexico. There, Catlett worked with the famous Taller de Grafica Popular (TGP), a collaborative of printmakers, on a volume depicting life throughout the Mexican republic. It was here that Catlett made a firm commitment to art as an aid to socio-political change and executed a series of prints and paintings on the theme The Negro Woman, depicting black women as laborers, farm workers, artists, and in a variety of other roles. She earned her first solo exhibition, at the Barnett-Aden Gallery, Washington, D.C., in 1948. Women, and the recurring theme of motherhood, would continue to dominate Catlett's work, with many of her works, such as Black Woman Speaks and Homage to My Young Black Sisters, intended as political statements about black women in society and their determined effort to elevate their position in cultures that subjugated them.

Remaining in Mexico, Catlett divorced White and later married Mexican artist Francisco Mora, also a member of the TGP, with whom she shared a commitment to the practice of social art. During the McCarthy era in the 1950s, the couple's art and leftist politics resulted in accusations of Communism, which ultimately led Catlett to become a citizen of Mexico. In 1959, she became the first woman professor of sculpture at Mexico's national university and continued to exhibit and win prizes in both Mexico and America. In the 1970s, she had 17 one-woman shows, most of them in the United States.

Catlett's sculptures are, for the most part, realistic in style, reflecting her training in the modern tradition and in African art, but her later work became increasingly abstract, in the manner of postwar sculptors Henry Moore and Constantin Brancusi. One of her larger works, Olmec Bather, a nine-foot-tall cast bronze, commissioned by Mexico's National Polytechnic institute, is a tribute to Mexico's great historical civilizations. Also well known is her Black Unity; seen from one side, this piece consists of two black walnut heads, seen from the other, the piece becomes a large clenched fist. Her bronze sculpture Target Practice achieves its powerful impact by presenting a view of the sculpture of a black man through the sights of a rifle.

Though primarily known as a sculptor, Catlett is also recognized for her prints, particularly her lithography and linoleum prints. She preferred these processes because many originals can be made at a relatively low cost, thus making art accessible to the working class as well as the elite.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Catlett sought to inform the public as to the significance of black achievement with a series of works portraying great figures in black history. Her depictions ranged from 19th-century abolitionists like Harriet Tubman to more contemporary heroes represented in Homage to the Panthers and Malcolm Speaks for Us. In 1973, she was commissioned by Jackson State College in Mississippi to create a bust of Phillis Wheatley , and two years later she created a ten-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Louis Armstrong for the City Park of New Orleans.

Through the decade of the 1980s, Catlett had more solo exhibitions and was included in four traveling survey exhibitions: "Amistad II: Afro-American Exhibition" (1975–77); "Two Centuries of Black American Art" (1976–77); "Forever Free: Art by African-American Women" (1981); and "The Art of Black America, Art Museum Association" (1985–86). In 1981, she completed two life-size bronze sculptures, Torres Bodet and Vasconcelos, commissioned by the secretary of education in Mexico City. That year, the Women's Caucus for Art honored Catlett with one of their coveted prizes.

suggested reading:

Dover, Cedric. American Negro Art. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1960.

Fax, Elton Clay. Seventeen Black Artists. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1971.

Lewis, Samella. The Art of Elizabeth Catlett. Claremont, CA: Hancraft Studios, 1984.


Printed material in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

related media:

Elizabeth Catlett, film by June Mora, Contemporary Crafts, Los Angeles, California.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts