Monday, February 22, 2010

African American History Month III

Like the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, African American artists of the late 20th and 21st centuries often focus on the relationship between African art and African Americans. For the majority of contemporary African American artists, they access imagery from Africa through modern Western art which was, after all, influenced by African art in the first place. This is true of an awesome contemporary artist about whom I just learned after we acquired one of his pieces from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery: Willie Cole. While his work is grounded in the early twentieth-century medium of found object, it transcends the mere irony or shock-value sought by Dada and Surrealist artists. Actually, many of Cole’s found object works have powerful spiritual and cultural connections to sub-Saharan Africa. Such is the case with Speedster tji wara.

Willie Cole was born and still works in New Jersey. He studied at Boston University and the New York Art Students League. Like many African American artists who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement, his work reflects the combination of American studies and African studies that gained prominence in the 1960s. It also reflects a solid ground in the history of modernism. Beyond Cole’s direct adaptations of African art, his oeuvre can be connected to a wide range of artwork by specific historic and modern European and American sculptors and painters. An employment of everyday objects for art originates in Marcel Duchamp’s and Man Ray’s “readymades.”

Cole’s artistic emergence occurred between the poles of the Pop Art of Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg and the Minimalism of Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. Cole’s exploration of racial identity and heritage places him within a remarkable generation of African American artists of the late 1970s and 1980s affiliated by their use of found/existing objects with powerful African American history and nostalgia-laden content. The coming of age of African American artists in the 1970s and 1980s has a direct line of descent from the Harlem Renaissance artists. It was during the period of the Harlem Renaissance that interest in sub-Saharan Africa flourished, a result of the debate among the large numbers of African and African American artists and intellectuals in Paris.


Cole’s assemblage of every day objects imbued with banal daily personal energy pays homage to the African practice of veneration of personal objects (for instance, a chair) of the deceased. He is interested in the religion, legends, and spiritual beliefs of West African cultures, particularly the Yoruba of Nigeria. The tji (or chi) wara is a mask from the Bamana people of Mali. The tji wara represents the antelope that the Bamana believed taught humans farming skills. The mask is worn at planting and harvest times to assure good crops. The horns represented the millet stalk, a staple of Bamana life. Cole has cleverly introduced the spokes of the bicycle wheel to represent the zigzag mane of the antelope. The zigzag of the tji wara mask is thought to represent the path of the sun between the summer and winter solstices.

The Tamarind Institute’s site features Cole’s work with irons!

Monday, February 15, 2010

African American History Month II


The first time I saw the paintings of William H. Johnson, they were works from his expressionist period, the first time he lived in Europe (1926-1929). Needless to say, it was one of those “holy cow!” moments, because I find those expressionist landscapes awesome! As an exhibiting/selling artist, he did not have a heck of a lot success, either in Europe or America. He had a challenging, emotionally turbulent life, rather like van Gogh did, and, like van Gogh, he seems to have expressed some of that intensity of feeling through the vibrant colors he used in his painting.

Johnson was born in Florence, South Carolina. He discovered a love for drawing at an early age, but it was not until he was twenty that he could afford to start art training. He went to New York, which he considered to be the artistic center of the US. He learned the rigid, disciplined way of painting at the conservative National Academy of Design.

Between 1924 and 1926 he won several important prizes for his painting while working in the studio of Ash Can School painter George Luks (1867-1933). Luks’s painterly canvases and recommendation to paint life’s moving experiences particularly influenced Johnson.
Between 1926 and 1929 Johnson painted in Europe. He was drawn to the expressionist color and forms in the work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), and considered himself a primitive painter in the manner of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903). Although encouraged by another expatriate African American in Paris, Henry Tanner (1859-1937), Johnson never achieved the same success in Europe. Johnson won the Harmon gold medal in 1930. Beginning in the 1920s, the Harmon Foundation, a white philanthropic group, had sponsored yearly exhibits called “Negro Art.”

Like many artists of the Harlem Renaissance, he worked on WPA mural projects from 1939 to 1943. Jitterbugs reflects the radical change Johnson adapted in his work during the late 1930s. After seeing Jacob Lawrence’s (1917-2000) Harlem scenes, Johnson abandoned the Soutine-type of Expressionism for one which reflected black life and culture. The emphasis on music, especially jazz, reflected Johnson’s pride in what he considered a uniquely African American art form. The simplified forms reflected Horace Pippin’s naïve paintings and Lawrence’s use of flattened shapes. The distorted space reflects the lingering European influences of Expressionism and Cubism. Johnson produced paintings of the Jitterbugs subjects and the subsequent prints after those paintings were widely popular.


A nice retrospective of Johnson’s work that shows his progression from Expressionism to simplified abstract forms from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Monday, February 8, 2010

African American History Month


To celebrate African American History Month, I’m going to feature black artists the month of February. Naturally I’m going to start with one of my favorites, Horace Pippin. One of the most interesting phenomena when studying African American art, I think, is the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. After World War I (1914-1918) large numbers of African Americans moved from the South to cities in the North looking for better opportunities. Many settled in large communities in cities such as New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. In the 1920s a large number of artists came together in these cohesive African American communities, something that could not have happened in the rural South. Exposed to museums, libraries, and art collections, African Americans explored their heritage, and this fomented a flourishing in African American art.

Pippin grew up in rural New York and became interested in drawing and painting at an early age. He taught himself to draw and paint while holding odd-jobs to support himself. As a self-taught artist, he was not influenced by established mainstream American artists. He was interested in subjects concerning the black community.

In World War I Pippin was seriously injured in the right arm. His early paintings depicted scenes of the horrors of the war. By the 1930s, he returned to subject matter that reflected everyday African American life. He felt confident enough in his paintings by the late 1930s to start selling them. His work attracted the attention of illustrator N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945, father of painter Andrew Wyeth). This led to a one-person show in Westchester, New YorkChester county art critic). In 1938 Pippin’s work was included in a show on naïve art at the Museum of Modern Art. After that show he gained nationwide attention. A Newsweek critic compared his work favorably to that of French naïve artist Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). (the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a portrait by Pippin of a Pippin’s paintings were represented by a gallery in Philadelphia with great success, making him one of the first African American artists to establish himself commercially.

In his Self-Portrait Pippin places himself within a great tradition in western art. He joins the likes of Judith Leyster, Rembrandt, and van Gogh, depicting himself at the easel. This beautifully simple portrait shows Pippin’s pride in his chosen vocation, while revealing the essence of his mature style: flat planes of color, even lighting, and flattened space and form. Pippin always felt that artists did not need to learn too much about technique, but rather to paint what they felt in their heart. His earnest, dignified depictions of African American life are a tribute to the triumph of the African American spirit coming out of the Harlem Renaissance.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Revivalist Architecture

Have you ever thought about the way “keeping up with the Jones’” applies to art? There’s probably never been a time in the history of art when patrons of art haven’t wanted to show that they were “with it” by showing the latest, most fashionable trend in artwork. Heck, after the ancient Roman’s invaded Greece, Greek art flooded into the homes of the wealthy so that they could show off their sophistication to each other, such was the esteem for Greek art on the part of Romans. For many centuries in Japan, the influence of Chinese art dominated what was “the latest thing.” In more recent centuries, in the West, the discovery of the ruins of ancient Roman Pompeii in the mid-18th century initiated a two-century love affair with all styles past. Imitating styles from the past is called revivalism, or revival styles. Americans in the nineteenth century (well, wealthy ones, anyway) trashed whole houses of colonial furniture to “modernize” their homes and show that they were aware of the latest trends.

Revivalist art styles affected all art forms, but especially architecture. Revivalism really took off during the nineteenth century, in part as a romantic reaction to the impersonal nature of the industrial revolution. Mass production of objects, including furniture and art, caused people to hark back to the “good old days,” firmly rooted in the prevailing trend of Romanticism. No past style was safe from “updating” during the nineteenth century, especially in the United States. Initially, classically inspired styles such as Greek Revival and Roman Revival were madly popular in the US because of the perception by Americans that American democracy was based on the “democracies” of antiquity. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, there were revivals of Italian Renaissance (called Italianate or French Chateau), ancient Egypt, Gothic, Romanesque, and Baroque art. Even the florid Rococo style received the revivalist treatment mid-century.

The Gothic Revival style was popular for public buildings, churches, of course, and even mansions and more modest private homes. It was introduced in the United States in the early 1800s, having been revived in the late 18th century in England in such buildings as Strawberry Hill. The style was popularized for domestic architecture in 1850 with the publication of architect Andrew Jackson Downing’s (1815-1852) book The Architecture of Country Houses. Although rare in pure, historically accurate renditions in America, it was adapted in a variety of ways, remaining popular through the 1930s. With the invention of the jigsaw, Carpenter Gothic flourished in ornament on existing houses.

When I first moved to New England from Chicago, I was fortunate to visit Kennebunk, Maine and see this wonderful example of Carpenter Gothic. Around 1850 retired shipbuilder George W. Bourne decided to “update” his lovely Federal style house (from about 1826) into the “latest craze,” the Gothic “taste. This house shows the typical jigsaw ornament applied to houses to give them the Gothic look: buttresses with finials, pointed arches, cornices ornamented with pierced carving, and crenellation in imitation of the tooth-like ornamentation on medieval castles. The overall effect, aesthetically, is not unpleasant, and pays homage to the earlier English Gothic Cottage form. But, it is a nineteenth-century example of modernization for modernization’s sake.