Friday, February 24, 2017

Forty Years Later / African American History Month, part 9

Margaret Burroughs (1917–2010), Slum Child, 1950. Oil, 37" x 28 3/8" (94 x 72 cm). Hampton University Museum, Norfolk, Virginia. Image courtesy Los Angeles Museum of Art, 1976. (8S-21935)

The final post in my series celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Two Centuries of Black Art exhibit features Margaret Burroughs. Known more as an educator, equality advocate, and prolific writer, Burroughs was also a painter and printmaker. I’ve always been fond of her, not only because I once met her at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, but because I passed by the DuSable Museum in Washington Park every day on my way to the Engelwood-Howard El line on 55th Street when I worked in Chicago. She left an amazing legacy for the advancement of African American art and artists in my home town.

Born in Louisiana, Burroughs’ parents moved to Chicago in the Great Migration when she was four years old. Together with graphic artist Charles White (1918–1979), whom she met in high school, she helped establish the Art Craft Guild (1932) that taught art lessons from the School of the Art Institute to many future prominent African American artists. She also helped to found the South Side Community Arts Center in 1937, which had had backing by the Depression-era Federal Arts Project.

Burroughs received a teaching degree from Chicago State and later got an MA in art education from the School of the Art Institute (1948). She and her husband, Charles Burroughs, established weekly “salons,” which gathered artists and writers in their South Side home, much on a par of those in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. The art collected at these salons became part of the seed collection of the DuSable Museum (originally the Ebony Museum of African American History), founded in 1961.

This painting is particularly appropriate to represent her, because it reflects her lifelong concern with education and African American children. The painting represents a view of the typical Chicago tenement apartment buildings with their wooden back porches, easily seen from the El train.

Other posts in this series:

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Forty Years Later / African American History Month, part 8

Henry O. Tanner (1859–1937), Three Marys at the Tomb, 1910. Oil on canvas, 42 1/8" x 50" (107 x 127 cm). © 2017 The University Galleries, Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976. (8S-21851)

Today’s post in my series about the artists and artworks in the exhibit Two Centuries of Black Art features Henry O. Tanner. I really like Tanner’s paintings of his late period after he had lived in France, because they’re a combination of American realism and French Impressionism. After I read about the horrible racist attacks on Tanner while a student—including being tied to an easel “crucifixion” style by printmaker Joseph Pennell (1857–1926), as mentioned in Pennell’s autobiography—at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, I can understand why many African American artists chose to study in Europe where racism was not as prevalent.

Tanner was born in Philadelphia, son of a Methodist-Episcopal priest (and later bishop). His spiritual upbringing would heavily influence his post-France paintings. He was inspired to become a painter by the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which featured great art from around the world. He enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1879 and for two years was mentored by the great American realist Thomas Eakins (1844–1916). Settling in Paris in 1891, he became greatly influenced by the palette of the Impressionists and the broad, flat areas of brilliant color of Post-Impressionists such as Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) and Paul Sérusier (1863–1927).

Tanner began producing religious subjects in the 1890s. Works such as this are a great example of the combination of influences on Tanner’s work, including the Impressionist palette, the realism with psychological impact of Eakins, and the stark contrasts in dark and light that were a feature of Eakins’ work, as well. The French government bought one of his religious works in 1897, making him the first African American artists to attain an international reputation.

The series wraps up tomorrow with the work of Margaret Burroughs

Other posts in this series:

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Forty Years Later / African American History Month, part 7

Aaron Douglas (1899–1979), Building More Stately Mansions, 1944. Oil on canvas, 53 15/16" x 42 1/8" (137 x 107 cm). The University Galleries, Aaron Douglas Collection, Fisk University, Nashville, TN. Image courtesy the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976. © 2017 Aaron Douglas Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York. (8S-21886dsvg)
Let’s continue our look at the exhibit Two Centuries of Black Art with the work of Aaron Douglas. My first “wow!” moment for the work of Aaron Douglas came when I saw a series of relief print poem illustrations he executed for Opportunity magazine in 1926, the year after he moved to New York. They’re so modern and so Art Deco. And then when I saw his paintings, another “wow!” He was doing modernist work like this while most American art was mired (yes, I said “mired”) in Social Realism.

The works of Aaron Douglas are most often identified with the Harlem Renaissance. After graduating from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (BFA, 1922), and teaching art for two years in Kansas City, Missouri, Douglas moved to New York in 1925. Trained in academic methods of drawing and design, he became an illustrator of books and magazines, including such major periodicals as Vanity Fair, which gained him national attention. He also painted in oil, tempera, and gouache.

This painting (and a study for it at RISD, Providence), was painted while Douglas was teaching at Fisk University. It depicts African Americans helping to build the future, grounded in their achievements from the past. For Harlem Renaissance artists, the past included the great African civilization of ancient Egypt, represented in the pyramid and sphinx. The shallow space and monochromatic palette of Cubism and the simplification and abstraction of form in African sculpture helped form his mature style.

Check back tomorrow for a look at the work of Henry O.Tanner.

Other posts in this series:

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Forty Years Later / African American History Month, part 6

Joshua Johnson (ca. 1765–1830), Young Woman on a Red Sofa, ca. 1810. Oil on canvas, 30 5/16" x 25 9/16" (77 x 65 cm). Private Collection. Image courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976. (8S-21822)

Today’s artist from the exhibit Two Centuries of Black Art is Joshua Johnson. You probably get sick of hearing me say “I’m a big fan of…” but I don’t say what I don’t mean when it comes to art. I’m a big fan of the indigenous, self-taught artists of the world. I’m happy that in the last twenty years, museums have started recognizing what used to be called “primitive” or “folk” art. Now it is referred to as “visionary” art, although I have trouble with that term, as well. Because there were no official art schools/academies in the US until 1805 (Pennsylvania Academy of Arts) or 1825 (National Academy of Design, New York), there was a propensity of self-taught artists in the early United States.

If it was hard for white colonists to acquire artist training, then it was doubly or triply hard for African Americans, even if they were free. Joshua Johnson is thought to have been the first African American to become a professional painter and make a living from his art. Born as a slave around 1763 of a white father and black mother, Johnson was purchased (awful term!) by his father when about a year old. He was apprenticed to a blacksmith in Baltimore and freed in 1782. It is believed that he developed his style through his own keen perception of nature and art.

Although there are no records of his painting education, Johnson may also have been influenced by the style of Charles Willson Peale's (1741–1827) nephew, the Baltimore portraitist Charles Peale Polk (1767–1822), whose naïve style Johnson’s resembles. As of 1796 he advertised himself as a portrait painter and limner (itinerant painter). Like other itinerant painters, he traveled a lot, often relocating to areas where there were other artists, especially chair makers, which suggests he may have taken on such work to supplement his portrait income. 

The series continues tomorrow with the work of Aaron Douglas.

Other posts in this series:

Monday, February 20, 2017

Forty Years Later / African American History Month, part 5

Clementine Hunter (1882–1988), Funeral on the Cane River, ca. 1948. Oil on wallboard, 15" x 20" (38 x 51 cm). Private Collection. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976. (8S-21860)

Today’s post in my series on artists from the exhibit Two Centuries of Black Art features Clementine Hunter. American art is blessed with many a self-taught artist who have contributed immeasurably to a greater understanding of some of the fascinating cultures that most people pass by every day and never notice. If I had not studied the work of Clementine Hunter, I never would have found out about the amazing jewel called Melrose Plantation. It was built in 1796 by the son of a thriving business woman who was a freed slave. Although it was subsequently bought by others, during the early 1900s the owners encouraged writers and artists to settle there.

Hunter was born on Hidden Hill Plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana, but moved to Melrose when she was twelve to be a field hand. She then became a housekeeper and cook. The region of the Cane River where Melrose was located was called the Isle Brevelle Creole of Color Community because of the many freed slaves and persons of mixed race who had established prosperous businesses. Hunter was among the numerous artists to move into the main house of the community.

Hunter initially produced quilts that were greatly admired. When she was 42, she came across some paints discarded by another artist and the rest is history. Although she never learned to read or write, she told numerous stories of the Cane River culture through the roughly 4000 paintings she produced in her career. She was the first African American woman artist to have a one-person show at the Delgado Museum of Art in New Orleans.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at Joshua Johnson and his work featured in the exhibit.

Other posts in this series:

Friday, February 17, 2017

Forty Years Later / African American History Month, part 4

Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828–1901), Landscape. Watercolor on paper, ca. 7 1/2" x 10 1/2" 19 x 27 cm). Private Collection. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976. (8S-21843)

My series about the exhibit Two Centuries of Black Art (1976–1977) continues. Edward Bannister’s paintings always put me in the same mood as the paintings of the Barbizon “school” artists who were the precursors of French Impressionism. Actually, Bannister was introduced to that style by the painter William Morris Hunt (1824–1879), who was a buddy of the French painter Jean-François Millet (1814–1875). Millet painted with the Barbizon painters at times. Bannister’s work displays not only the Barbizon love of painting nature, but also the spiritual power of it. I find his works a wonderful combination of awe and melancholy.

Born in New Brunswick, Canada, Bannister received a good education, as slavery was abolished there in the 1830s. An ardent draughts-person from a young age, he went to sea in the merchant marine in the late 1830s and settled in Boston in the 1840s. He learned the Daguerreotype photographic process and became an expert at tinting photographs. He learned a great deal about European art visiting museums, galleries, and libraries. He also worked in a hair salon to earn a living, while painting was his first love.

In the 1850s he began to exhibit his paintings, the majority of which were landscape. This lovely study has “Barbizon” written all over it. Some of his studies—such as the pastels that are in the Brooklyn Museum—are more stunning than his finished works, because of the spontaneity and acuity of his vision.

Check back Monday for part 5 of the series with the work of Clementine Hunter.

Other posts in this series:

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Forty Years Later / African American History Month, part 3

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), Subway Acrobats, 1959. Tempera on paper, 11 13/16" x 24" (30 x 61 cm). Private Collection. Image courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976. © 2017 Estate of Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-21940lwars)

Today’s artist to mark the fortieth anniversary of the exhibit Two Centuries of Black Art is Jacob Lawrence. His style is truly one of the most unique, personal styles to come out of the Harlem Renaissance period, during which he grew up in New York. I’ve read it variously designated “Social Realism” or “Expressionism,” neither of which I think are a precise fit. Going against the art historian grain, I feel it is too sophisticated of a style to categorize!

Lawrence was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but moved to Harlem when he was twelve years old. His mother enrolled him in after school art programs where he discovered a love of drawing and painting. His earliest drawings were crayon and color pencil copies of the patterns he saw in rugs from the Middle East, which he filled in with color. Lawrence subsequently used this technique in his painting all his life.

Lawrence began painting scenes of life in Harlem in the 1930s. Meeting other artists of the Harlem Renaissance, he learned to appreciate the importance of promoting African American culture and its unique place in American history through art. He made a name for himself for the first time in 1939 when he exhibited his series of panels on the life of Haitian general Toussaint l’Overture. The famous Migration of the Negro series followed to critical acclaim. Throughout his life he depicted the life of African Americans in all its facets in New York, including in the subway.

His style varied little through his career except to become a more sophisticated, involved process. He applied one color at a time to the whole work, in that way providing uniformity of color balance. The technique also enhanced the pattern and lively surface. It was equally as effective in silkscreen prints as in painting.

Tomorrow I will feature Edward Mitchell Bannister and his work from Two Centuries of Black Art.

Other posts in this series:

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Forty Years Later / African American History Month, part 2

Alma W. Thomas (1891–1978), White Dogwood, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 68" x 55" (172.7 x 139.7 cm). Image courtesy the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976. (8S-21879)

Today my series about the exhibit Two Centuries of Black Art (1976–1977) continues with the work of Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891–1978). She has always been one of my painting heroes. Not only was she an art teacher all of her life, but she also turned to abstraction when she was in her 60s! And the subtle nuances of brilliant color in her paintings are fabulous. Born in Columbus, Georgia, Thomas was the first graduate of Howard University’s newly formed art department in 1924. Howard, founded in 1867, was the first historically black university in the US. After graduation, Thomas taught art to children for thirty-five years in Washington, DC. While teaching, her personal paintings were realistic in style. She exhibited in shows for black artists.

In the 1950s Thomas studied painting at American University and became interested in color and abstract art. At the time, Abstract Expressionism, with its emphasis on pure color, dynamic brushwork, and fields of unmodulated pure color, held sway in the art world. Thomas’s interest in color led her to choose Color Field painting, rather than representative works.

In 1966, when she was seventy-four, Thomas was offered a one-person show at Howard University. Instead of exhibiting her color field paintings with large, flat areas of color, she decided to exhibit paintings that were in a totally new style. She was fascinated by the leaves outside of her window and the way that sunlight coming through them created endless varieties of pattern and color. Her style of mosaic-like color fields was born. Having started showing in her seventies, Thomas became one of the most exhibited African American artists.

Check back tomorrow for my next post in this series, featuring Jacob Lawrence.

Other posts in this series:

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Forty Years Later / African American History Month, part 1

The landmark first retrospective exhibition of African American artists from slavery to contemporary took place forty years ago. Between September of 1976 and August of 1977, the exhibition Two Centuries of Black Art traveled to the Los Angeles County Museum, High Museum in Atlanta, Dallas Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Museum. To celebrate African American History Month, I thought you might like to see some of the works that were in that groundbreaking, historical art show over the next few posts. Many of the works came from private collections.

Unknown artist, Butter patter, 1800s. Wood, length: 13 3/8" (34 cm). Private Collection. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976. (8S-21813)

The Africans who were taken to America as slaves to cultivate crops brought with them the skills they learned in Africa: pottery making, wood carving, weaving and dyeing, and basket making. As they did in Africa, they used materials available to them from nature. Because slaveholders rejected any overt African influence in the handicrafts of their black artisans (to discourage communication among them), subtle references to the slaves’ pasts were incorporated into their artwork.

The carved end of the handle of this butter patter is in the image of an African American male’s head. The flattened, abstracted features of the face are reminiscent of African masks or ancestor figures. In Africa, figure sculpture was intended to memorialize the dead, protect a shrine, or express a person’s status within the community. The human figure in African art was also carved on a variety of utilitarian wooden objects, including bowls, furniture, house posts, doors, and pulleys.
As slaves, wood sculptors had to be slightly retrained to produce Western household objects. The butter patter was used to scrape butter out of the churn and form it into blobs or sticks. The inclusion of the African American head is an expression of pride by the slave who carved it and (most likely) by the one who used this patter.

Monday, February 13, 2017

ART for the Bleak Midwinter

To quote the title of an old British Christmas dirge (and, I do mean dirge), In the Bleak Midwinter is where we stand right now. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t look at a gorgeous painting of winter to keep our spirits up! And, of course, it’s always more interesting when there’s a fabulous backstory to the artists I post. As much as I love the paintings of Monet and Sisley, I think Pissarro is my favorite Impressionist. What is so endearing about this artist—aside from the thrilling color in his paintings—was his fervent commitment to Impressionism (and the destruction of the Old Order of the Academy), as well as his encouragement and mentoring of his fellow Impressionists, even though he was far from a rich artist in the beginning.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903, France), Rabbit Warren at Pontoise, 1879. Oil on canvas, 23 5/16" x 28 7/16" (59.2 x 72.3 cm). © 2017 Art Institute of Chicago. (A7275)

Not all of the Impressionists were born in France. Pissarro was born Jacob-Abraham-Camille Pissarro in Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands, then part of the Danish West Indies (I didn’t know the Danish had colonies). His father was a Sephardic Jew, a French citizen of Portuguese descent, and his mother was French. As a young man, he spent much of his time drawing. In 1842 he was sent to boarding school in France, where he quickly attained a love for old master paintings. After returning to Saint Thomas for a brief stint running his father’s business, he returned to Paris in 1855 to study art.

Pissarro was one of the artists who—disgruntled with the rigid conservatism of the French Academy—pushed for more progressive (though not officially recognized) artists to form a break-away group to exhibit their work. This group eventually included all of the major Impressionists. The thirty artists who exhibited for the first time in 1874 included Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, and Cézanne. It was called the “Society of Anonymous Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, Etc.” 

Camille Pissarro, Orchard in Bloom, 1872. Oil on canvas, 17 3/4" x 21 9/16" (45.1 x 54.9 cm). © 2017 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P1157)

Among the many reasons Pissarro and his fellow Impressionists rejected the Academy was because landscape painting and genre scenes were lowest on the list of works to be accepted. Also, the intimate scale of Impressionist works, usually painted outdoors, were dwarfed by the gigantic and grandiose history and classical painting subjects. This early work already shows the high-key Impressionist palette creeping into Pissarro’s work during the period when he was first associating with Monet and Sisley. While he’s depicting a subject dear to his heart—working people in the country—look at the gorgeous cobalt violet in the shadows. Yes, the Impressionists liberated painters from adding black to shades!

Camille Pissarro, L’ Île Lacroix, Rouen (The Effect of Fog), 1888. Oil on canvas, 18 3/8" x 22" (46.7 x 55.9 cm). © 2017 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-2751)

By the last Impressionist show of 1886, the group was dominated by artists whose style would now be called Post-Impressionist. Chief among them were Signac and Seurat, whose works were exhibited separately. It was during the 1886 exhibit that Seurat showed his landmark A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884. Pissarro himself showed Neo-Impressionists paintings at the last exhibition. He had moved to Eragny on the Epte River from Pontoise, and there met Georges Seurat (1859–1891) and Paul Signac (1863–1935), who had developed a painting style that conveyed the Impressionist obsession with perceived light and color in a scientific, rather than objective, manner. Eager to reinvent Impressionism, Pissarro adapted the style, until he tired of it in 1889 and returned to what he found most conducive to his pictorial frame-of-reference.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 4: 4.21; Explorations in Art Grade 6: 7-8; A Community Connection: 4.4; A Personal Journey: 5.4; A Global Pursuit: 6.4; The Visual Experience: 16.4; Discovering Art History: 13.1, 13.2

Thursday, February 9, 2017

What’s in a Snake? part 4

Tony Smith (1912-1980 US), Snake is Out, 1962. Painted Cor-Ten steel, 15' x 23' 2" x 18' 10" (457.2 x 706.1 x 574 cm). Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas. © 2017 Estate of Tony Smith / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (8S-28527smiars)

For the last post in my Snakes in Art series, I’ll take a look at modern sculpture. This is a neutral snake, neither sinister nor benign. Like a piece from 1961, Willy, Snake is Out references crawling natural things in the form of steel tetrahedrons (four-sided form). I like to think of it as an updated Mucalinda!

Smith turned from architecture and architectonic paintings to sculpture in 1961. His earliest monumental pieces, such as this one, explored shapes and geometric relationships found in models of architecture he had never seen built. Despite a title that relates it to a life form, Smith’s work is not pictorial or anecdotal. In spirit, Snake is Out is related to his first monumental work Cigarette, where the writhing, elongated form encourages the viewer to walk completely around it to get a sense of the whole.

Despite the purity of form and simplicity of Smith’s shapes, he resisted the stylistic term Minimalism. He insisted that his work was always on the edge of dreams. However, he shared modern artists’ enthusiasm for abstraction, partly because he conceived of his works on such a large scale. His sculptures reflect in part his enthusiasm for architecture.

Other posts in this series: