Monday, February 28, 2011

African American History Month IV – Abstraction

To close out African American History month, I’d like to explore an aspect of the African American contribution to art that is somewhat sidelined: abstraction. When the term “African American Art” is proposed, many think of the Harlem Renaissance, justifiably so. Most of the artists active during the Harlem Renaissance were more-or-less realists, who were concerned with documenting the African/African American experience. But, it is my contention that there were many who participated in European-influenced modernism that inspired another generation of African American artists, notably Sam Gilliam.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s galvanized black artists to push for a revival of exhibitions and study of African American art. This revival in the black community led to the formation of a group called Spiral in New York in 1963 meant to promote African American art and aesthetic ideas. The styles of the artists involved – including some who had been active during the Harlem Renaissance – ranged from Abstract Expressionism to Social Realism. The same ideological concerns dominated Spiral as had the artists of the Harlem Renaissance – how to best address and represent the black community. Some felt that their art should reflect recognized symbols and elements of their African ancestry. Others believed that style was a means to and end, and that every black artist’s individual style, regardless of its “blackness,” could represent African American art.

Although the Spiral group did not last into the 1970s as a leading force, it caused a resurgence in vitality for the African American artistic community. By the 1970s and 1980s, many black artists were represented in major galleries and museums around the US. A major trend in black art of this nascent period was a variety of styles of modernism.

Gilliam has been a major figure in abstract art in the African American community since 1962, when he moved to Washington DC after graduating from the University of Kentucky, Louisville.

At the time he moved to DC, abstract expressionist color field painter Morris Louis (1912-1962) was active there and was surrounded by a circle of students. Gilliam became one of them. Louis was inspired by Jackson Pollock’s (1912-1956) innovative techniques in action painting and applied them to color field. He painted energetically on large, unstretched canvases, emphasizing color rather than process, as did Pollock. Gilliam soon adapted the technique of staining large, unstretched pieces of canvas. He folds and twists the canvas as he splatters the paint on it, creating a vital yet elegant surface that is a combination of structure and improvisation. He typically drapes his unstretched canvases, and has even created monumental draped canvases as installation pieces. After abandoning stretcher bars in his work in the 1960s through the 1980s, he has since returned to stretched canvases, often with objects protruding from them.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; A Global Pursuit: 2.2, 4.2, 9.1; The Visual Experience: 16.7; Discovering Art History: 17.3

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

African American History Month III – Empathy in Art

John Woodrow Wilson has been a painter, printmaker, sculptor, and illustrator. Like many African American artists, he faced the struggles of a black man in a white-dominated art culture, particularly during the 1950s when Abstract Expressionism was the “darling” of the art world. And, like many others, he became an important art educator for younger up-and-coming black artists. From the late 1960s to early 1970s, he was instrumental in setting up a visual arts program in the black community in Boston.

The progress made by African American artists during the Harlem Renaissance (c1918-1939) declined markedly after World War II (1939-1945). Widespread racism and discrimination increased during the 1950s because of the Cold War and fear of Communism, which led social protest to be considered “un-American.” Many black artists continued to study in Europe because of the overall lack of opportunity in the US.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s galvanized black artists to push for a revival of exhibitions and the study of African American art. By the 1970s and 1980s, many black artists were represented in major galleries and museums around the country. Three landmark shows took place in the 1970s which furthered the study of African-American art: "Contemporary Black Artists in America," 1971, the Whitney in New York; "Two Centuries of Black American Art," 1976, Los Angeles County Museum; and "Afro-American Artists in Afro-America," 1975, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

John Woodrow Wilson, the son of middle-class blacks from Guyana, grew up in Boston. He was encouraged at an early age to read and draw, and attended the school of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He studied there through World War II (1939-1945) and earned a fellowship to study in Paris 1948-1949. The greater lack of discrimination against African Americans impressed him in Paris, and his teacher was the great cubist Fernand Léger (1881-1955). He also studied in Italy and was greatly impressed by the early masters of the Italian Renaissance.

Between 1950 and 1956 Wilson lived in Mexico, where he was influenced by the Mexican mural masters Siqueiros and Rivera. The large, simplified figures in Campesinos also reflect the influence of Léger’s large, cubist figures, and the ancient Mesoamerican sculpture that influenced figures of the Mexican artists. Wilson did many works concerning the poor people of Mexico, reflecting his background with the underprivileged African Americans with whom he had lived in the US. From the late 1950s on, Wilson devoted himself to art education, particularly in the black community. In the 1980s he produced a sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr for the US Capitol.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.9, 5.26; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 1.2; Explorations in Art Grade 5 1.2, 1.5, 1.6; A Global Pursuit: Theme 2 core lesson; A Community Connection: Theme 1 core lesson, 7.1; The Visual Experience: 4.4; Discovering Art History: 15.4

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

African American History Month II – Heroes (messages)

The history of African American art is rich in its “cataloging” (for lack of a better term) of the African American experience. This was the aim of the Harlem Renaissance. The depiction of African American life in the US combined with recognition of African heritage has been a strong vein in African American art. I think that Michael Richards is the perfect melding of the two ideas. His work is both physical and spiritual, in that it deals with a forgotten element of our history as Americans. Between 1941 and 1946 there were 996 African Americans who became certified pilots for the army air corps, a fact that seldom gets printed in history books about World War II (1939-1945). Richards, like so many other African American artists, was trying to update awareness of contributions of African Americans to US society.

Born in New York, Michael Richards grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. The connection to African art there remained a strong influence on Richards when he returned to New York in adulthood. Going against the expectations of his Jamaican family, Richards decided early on to be an artist. He received degrees from Queens College and NYU. In 1994 he became a member of the Artists in the Marketplace program at the Bronx Museum. As a part of the World Views program in 2001, he had a studio on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center, and was killed there on 9.11.2001. Ironically, a large part of his work had to do with airplanes.

The Tuskegee Airmen Series celebrates a little-reported aspect of World War II, a war in which African Americans took a large part, albeit in segregated units. The Tuskegee airmen won more than 150 Flying Crosses for Valor because of their aviation skills. Richards was trying to promote the recognition of these brave Americans in his work, instilled with his African heritage. The Tuskegee Airman Series figure is a conscious reflection of the African nkisi nkondi (power) figures. The nkisi nkondi are used by village religious specialists who are responsible for the well-being of the community. Each nail or object inserted in the figure represents a prayer or legal settlement.

For this sculpture Richards made a mold of his own body and pierced the form with nails (other works in the series were pierced with airplanes). The work refers to both the Christian Saint Sebastian (a person who refused to lie about his faith) and the nkisi nkondi (a healing image). Richards did not live to witness the surviving Tuskegee Airmen receive the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress, the Congressional Gold Medal, on March 29, 2007.

Correlations to Davis programs: SchoolArts Looking and Learning: August/September 2010, December 2010, February 2011; A Global Pursuit: Core lesson; A Community Connection: 8.3; The Visual Experience: 14.3, 16.8; Discovering Art History: 4.8

Monday, February 7, 2011

African American History Month I - Messages

Let’s start off African American History month with one of my favorite artists, John Biggers. The theme for this month in School Arts Magazine is “Messages,” so let’s examine what Biggers promoted to young African American students as one of the great educators of the 20th century. Biggers grew up during the Harlem Renaissance, a flourishing period in African American art. It developed after the mass migration (1918-1925) of southern blacks to northern industrial cities where they felt that job opportunities were better. The concentration of large urban communities of African Americans produced a fertile artistic and literary climate (both traditional and avant-garde) that became a springboard for later African American art movements.

Biggers was born in Gastonia, North Carolina. As a child he was inspired to be an artist from his childhood experiences. While at Lincoln Academy in King’s Mountain, Biggers drew while working in the school’s boiler room. Although he originally attended Hampton University in Virginia to become a plumber, a teacher urged him to go into the arts because of his obvious talent. After studying with the artist Charles White in the 1940s, Biggers went on to paint murals in the regionalist/realist style, concentrating on the history of the African American community.

Although Biggers’ early works emphasized the struggles of American blacks, they also pointed to the proud heritage of African Americans. In Biggers’ works, the every day lives of African Americans showed the dignity and value of African American life, something he would later go on to show in his images of Africa itself. He became a prominent educator at SMU in Houston, teaching generations of African American youth to be proud of, and visualize, their heritage.

In 1957, Biggers became the first African American artist to visit Africa on a UNESCO grant. His experiences in Africa changed his dominant subject matter from urban scenes of black life to those from Africa, the heritage of African Americans. Ghana Harvest Festival is a result of his 1957 Africa visit during which he documented in sketches the daily life and festivals of African people. The festival depicted in Ghana Harvest Festival is most likely a durbar of the Akan culture, a celebration in which the local leader celebrates his stewardship of the people and receives the loyalty of local sub-leaders. Striking in his works after his African trip is Biggers return to realistic monumentality from his earlier cubist-inspired works.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.3, 1.4; A Personal Journey: 1.1, 2.1; A Community Connection: 7.1; The Visual Experience: 14.3; Discovering Art History: 4.8.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Process versus Creation

Before we go into African American History Month, I thought I’d throw you all a mind-bender: Are Process and Creation the same thing? Is this a sort of “chicken-and-the-egg” thing? Looking at the work of Roxy Paine is an exciting trip down the philosophical highway, and it is especially refreshing in the 21st century, a time when we tend to glaze over and think “oh, everything’s been done.” Well, I may look at my own paintings and think that, but it is just not true. There are so many artists out there blazing new territory and I aim to point them out to you.

“Process” has been a focus for certain artists in western art since the nineteenth century. For the Impressionists, translating the visual perception of light on local color was all important. Many art historians consider the focus on light and atmosphere on color to negate Impressionist subject matter. For the Surrealists, the most vital aspect of creation was the subconscious, or dream state. Thus, we had the first instance where process trumped creation. For the Abstract Expressionists, process was all important compared to the finished product. In Minimalism, the extinction of brushstroke or narrative content reduced the artist’s subjective input to practically nil.

What is fascinating about the work of Roxy Paine is that he creates copies of complex forms from nature (plants, trees), and he has also pioneered computer programed painting and sculpting machines. His giant cast trees with prominent welding focus the viewer’s attention on the growth and decay cycle of trees, and also the eternal cycle of creation. His computer-programmed “Erosion Machine” is set to erode a piece of sandstone. While the computer has been given certain parameters, the make up of the stone ultimately decides the outcome of the finished piece.

Paine’s Painting Manufacturing Unit (PMU) is programmed to emit bursts of paint at controlled intervals. The randomness of the control program ensures that the effect is, ironically, spontaneous.

The thing I like the most about Paine’s works that result from the PMU is the build up of paint into a spontaneous relief-form. I totally see connections with the built-up surfaces of Jackson Pollock’s works, where the resulting image was not as significant as the process that built it up. This type of work could engender an interesting dialogue between you and your students about:

1) What constitutes art? 2) How should the artist focus energy: on process or on resultant image? 3) Can you think of any artist who does both?

View Paine’s arboreal splendor, Maelstrom (ironically at a museum that once shunned modernism).

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.23, 6.35; A Community Connection: 9.2; Discovering Art History: 17.2.