Wednesday, February 29, 2012

African American Month 2012 IV

In recent weeks, we have explored African American artists who were self-taught, and one who is contemporary and explores the background of black people in American culture. This week we will explore an artist who, in my (overanalyzing) art historical mind, should be considered a pioneer of the early American landscape: Robert Duncanson. He painted at the same time as the Hudson River School artists, and had the fortune to spend his formative years in Cincinnati (an awesome town with an awesome museum). Although Duncanson was primarily self-taught, he quickly learned the taste of American patrons for romantic scenes of the American wilderness. Such scenes were madly popular in the first half of the 19th century in America as cherished documents of the growing new nation.

Duncanson was the child of an African American mother and a Canadian father. Although he was born in New York State, he was raised in Canada, where he was able to attend good schools. In school he developed a love for English poetry and literature, which helped to form a romantic sensibility that shaped his later painting. As a young man he enjoyed painting scenes from English literature. His parents separated and he joined his mother in Cincinnati in 1841. At the time, Cincinnati had the largest population of free blacks and former slaves of any American city. It also had a lively artist community that was more accepting of African Americans than cities like New York or Philadelphia.

In Cincinnati, Duncanson declared his determination to be an artist. He was primarily self-taught. Mount Healthy and Fruit Still Life are representative of his early period and show a naive quality and an insistence on specific realism in details. They are reminiscent of the early American limner tradition. However, the artistic community of Cincinnati was impressed with his work and the Art Union of Cincinnati exhibited three of his works in 1842. He was the first African American artist to have his work displayed with white artists.

By the late 1840s, after studying engravings and the work of European painters, his style evolved into a combination of American Realism and European Romanticism. The primary influences on Duncanson’s mature painting style were William Sonntag (1822–1900) and Worthington Whittredge (1820–1910), both of whom were associated with the Hudson River School. The Hudson River School was the first prominent American “school” of painting. This group of artists worked in a romantic-realist style and painted scenes of the Hudson River Valley that emphasized the grandeur of nature. A visit to Italy in the late 1850s added to his romantic tendencies. Duncanson was impressed with the ruins of ancient Rome and began including them in his paintings.
Like Frederic Church (1826–1900) and Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) of the Hudson River School, Duncanson painted huge panoramic vistas, often enhanced by dramatic lighting. Although he often painted real locations, Duncanson preferred to idealize the landscapes. His work was very popular in Canada. His murals in the Longworth Mansion in Cincinnati became the core of the collection of the Taft Museum housed in that building.

Activity: Using pastels, draw a romantic landscape with what you know about warm and cool colors or a seascape or just plain clouds. In order to increase the emotional input into this drawing, crinkle the paper or add gesso for texture. Make sure to pay attention to color to heighten the mood of the landscape.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 3.15; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.4, 1.5; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 2.12; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.6; A Personal Journey: 5.1; A Community Connection: 4.1; A Global Pursuit: 1-2; Exploring Visual Design: 2, 5, 7; The Visual Experience: 2.3; Discovering Art History: 2.3 (space)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

African American Month 2012 III

We’ve discussed self-taught art, nineteenth century academic art, and contemporary issue-oriented art in relation to African American History Month. Let’s now talk about black art that has been on the cutting edge of abstraction, at a time when there was a debate within the African American artists’ community: should African American artists continue to document black participation in American society or should they document how black artists had become part of the mainstream of contemporary American art? Interestingly, many African American artists involved in contemporary abstraction evolved their own personal dialogue with abstraction to become a valuable addition to American modern art, and, in a broader sense, to contemporary art on a global level.

The Civil Rights movement in America during the 1960s engendered the first true revival of African American art since the Harlem Renaissance (ca. 1920‒1939). There were still artists who advocated that black artists should produce work that reflected the black experience. There were others, yet, who felt that the African American artist’s individual style, even if it was abstract, was as important to the artistic pool. Such a discourse led to the formation of the Spiral group in New York (1963‒1965). The main tenets of the group were that the artists were free to explore the various forms of abstraction present at a time with only minimal relation to the African American experience in America. The styles within the group ranged from Abstract Expressionism to Social Realism. The divergent views by black artists to express the African American point on view became one of the grounding stones of the Black artistic movement in the early years of postmodernism.

William T. Williams, born in North Carolina, moved with his family to New York and studied art during the waning dominance of Abstract Expressionism. He studied at Yale under such milestone minimalists as Al Held (born 1928). The artists at Yale were part of the rejection of the emotive, personal signature style of Abstract Expressionism in favor of more formal types of abstraction such as Minimalism, Color Field, and Hard Edge. Held’s teaching helped Williams pursue a painting style that was a synthesis of the Minimalist emphasis on the grid, and the exploration of subverting it to establish the sense of figure and ground through vibrant color. 

At a time when most artists’ works were “Untitled,” Williams gave a personal aspect to his type of Minimalism by naming this painting for his grandfather. Rather than a static grid, he creates a sense of movement not only with the bright colors, but also the concentric, asymmetrical diamonds that touch all four corners. In many ways, his work prefigures by a couple of decades the work of such 21st century minimalists as Sarah Morris.

Activity: Experiment with creating a wordless message. Use crayons, chalk, colored pencil, or watercolor to create a nonobjective artwork that conveys something personal. First draw several large shapes. Add smaller shapes and lines to create a feeling of movement. Remember that adding bright colors will help heighten the personal feelings about the abstract composition. (Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35 studio time)

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 6.35; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 5.25; A Global Pursuit: 9.1;  Exploring Visual Design: 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12

Monday, February 13, 2012

African American Month 2012 II

During the Harlem Renaissance (ca. 1919–1939), African American artists encouraged each other to document  the black experience in the United States. This included uplifting scenes of African American life, particularly those of life in Harlem. They were convinced that equality was on its way. Because equality was slow in coming, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s proved that, African American art of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has focused more on the historical racism in American society, going back to slavery. Contemporary artist Glenn Ligon is not alone in touching on this subject. Other artists include Kara Walker, Michael Ray Charles, and Alison Saar.

Glenn Ligon is known for works in a number of media concerning race, identity, representation, and language. His work explores the combination of images and text from the past with contemporary ideology. Initially a painter, he branched out into installation art, although his graphic works are an important part of his oeuvre. He grew up in the Bronx and went to school in Manhattan, developing a deep appreciation for the history of slavery and black history. He graduated from both Wesleyan University and the Whitney Museum. For over twenty-five years his work has consistently explored race relation issues and the history of race relations in the US.

Almost all of Ligon’s paintings, prints, and (recently) videos are based on appropriation of some sort. Although he may rewrite the original text, the meaning of his works is universal, and open to endless reinterpretation. In the Runaways series, Ligon has appropriated the format of the runaway slave posters from the pre-Civil War period. He asked friends to write descriptions about him, in an ironic parody of the original broadsides. While the works may seem gently humorous, they provoke contemplation on the original intent of the broadsides and, by extension, lead us to examine how far race relations have evolved in the US. What is (unfortunately) compelling is that, despite the advances made during the Civil Rights movement, African American artists in the 21st century are still prompted to explore the history of slavery in the US and how it relates to the status of African Americans today.

Friday, February 10, 2012

African American Month 2012

There are many artists whose name is not a household word. That is particularly true for women, and African Americans. Additionally, artists who are self-taught and have a unique vision aside from mainstream art are also neglected in the annals of art history.  As I have posted in the past, I reject the terms “folk art” or “primitive art” as these designations have negative connotations, particularly a “lack of substance.” Interestingly, most self-taught artists feel compelled to follow ideological or religious themes as opposed to common subject matter. Many self-taught come from economically and socially deprived areas, and their art developed late in life. This is true in the art of Minnie Evans.

Evans was born in Long Creek, North Carolina and moved to Wilmington in 1893. She was raised primarily by her maternal grandmother. Her keenest interests in school were mythology, history, and biblical stories. Much of her art was influenced by visions and waking dreams. These dreams concerned nature and life force combined with the spiritual power of the Bible, part of her deep Baptist faith. It was just such visions that prompted her to start drawing only at the age of 43 in 1935. She produced two drawings at that time and then not again until five years later.

After 1949, she spent most of her life around Airlie Gardens, a plantation opened to the public. She became the gatekeeper and displayed her work there, selling each drawing for fifty cents. Even while working in the gatehouse, she continued to hone her craft. The lush flora of the gardens was an inspiration to many of her works, evident in this drawing. Although Evans’ work has been compared to work from Africa, the Caribbean, Iran, and Egypt, the personal vision of the artist transcends any one style. This work, with its symmetrical balance and flat, decorative composition, is reminiscent of many women artists of early America.

In 1962 Evans’ work was discovered and photographed by a college student who later became an advocate for the artist in New York. Evans eventually exhibited her work in New York, leading to a one-person show at the Whitney Museum. Despite the success of her work, Evans reportedly never considered her work “art,” but rather an inner necessity, compelled by her spiritual life. On May 14, 1994, she was honored by “Minnie Evans Day” in Greenville, NC.

Activity: Create a flower still life like Minnie Evans. Study a bouquet of flowers in a vase and choose colors of crayons or colored pencils in hues that are personally satisfying, not necessarily realistic. Try and simplify the forms of the flowers into shapes, and do not be concerned about space or background. Pay close attention to symmetrical balance, and the use of line to create interesting rhythm or patterns.

Correlations to Davis programs:   Explorations in Art Grade 2: 1.3; A Personal Journey: 2.4; A Community Connection: 7.1; A Global Pursuit: 1.2; Exploring Visual Design: 1, 5, 7, 8, 12