Monday, February 26, 2018

Happy African American [Art] History Month IV

Henry Taylor (born 1958, US), Untitled, 2011. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 78" x 62" (198.1 x 157.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Henry Taylor. (MOMA-P5082)

One of the avenues of expression in the flourishing of African American art since the Harlem Renaissance (ca. 1920s–1940) has been the exploration of subject matter concerning the contemporary Black American experience. Many of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance believed that it was important for them to document the struggles and triumphs of their community. Perhaps because of the power of the Harlem Renaissance movement, the exploration of contemporary Black life has become more dynamic than ever.

The work of Henry Taylor (born 1958), particularly his portraits, are evidence that there is no disconnect between art and life. He paints scenes of everyday life (genre) and current events, but portraiture seems to be his forte. His subjects include friends, people off the street, folks from the art world, relatives, and even sports figures. He renders them in expressionistic brush work that is reminiscent of the work of Alice Neel (1900–1984). His works are, dare I say it, a form of social realism that has great sincerity, dignity, and monumentality that transcends the work of many artists designated under that style.

Taylor’s portraits are roughly painted, often reflecting the world of the artist’s experience. However, the people are depicted with a spirit of affection rather than detachment or judgement. His portraits of everyday African Americans reflect the same spirit as artists like Bob Thompson (1937–1966) or Robert Colescott (1925–2009).

Taylor was born in Oxnard, California, the youngest of eight children. While working at a state hospital as a nurse (1984–1994), he began taking art classes at the California Institute of Arts at age thirty-one. Major influences on his work are the Art Brut of Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), the slashing figures of Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), and German Expressionist Max Beckmann (1884–1950).

Transcending all of his art training experiences was his own childhood. His parents had lived through the Great Depression (1929–1939) in Texas. He lost a brother in Vietnam. Through all of his experiences, Taylor always remembers his father’s advice to treasure every moment for what one can learn, because of the transience of life. 

Carmen Cartiness Johnson (born 1954, US), To Get Together, 2005. Color lithograph on paper, 19 ¼" x 27" (48.9 x 68.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Carmen Cartiness Johnson. (PMA-4171)

Carmen Cartiness Johnson (born 1954) describes herself as a self-taught artist and storyteller. Indeed, storytelling is a big part of her body of work. Her passion for painting comes from her wish to visually (and joyfully) share personal narratives from her past, as well as from the people close to her. She does so in the simple, brilliant palette influenced by the work of Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), employing forms that are composed of simplified color shapes. She also references Lawrence’s tendency to depict scenes from unusual vantage points. This painting would make one swear they were dangling from the ceiling fan!
While works such as this may suggest the simplicity of color shapes in the work of Lawrence, there is a complexity of composition (the birds-eye view) visible in the painting-collages of Romare Bearden (1911–1988), another of her stated influences. The artist also admires the political content and color of Diego Rivera (1886–1957).

Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Johnson now lives and paints in New Jersey. She began teaching herself to paint after her grandmother died. Her earliest works were emotional memories of spending summers with her grandparents in Arkansas. Connecting to intimate circumstances and transmitting feelings of warmth and affection are a main goal of Johnson’s art. She also gets subjects from the words in songs, poems, novels, and movies. Ultimately, she wants viewers of her work to be able to relate to what she has depicted. In the grand scheme of things, Johnson’s work embraces the whole range of human experience from joys to sorrows. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Happy African American [Art] History Month III

Sam Gilliam (born 1933, US), The Illustrious Kites Made in Boxing Styles, 2004. Acrylic, flag bunting, cotton/polyester thread, installation: 50’ x 15' x 8’ (15.2 x 4.6 x 2.4 meters). Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC. © 2018 Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MIN-28Agilars)

Whenever you’ve got a massive case of the “sads” in winter, it’s always helpful to seek color to give you a lift. What am I saying? Even if you don’t have a case of the sads, color will always come through for you! This is particularly true in the case of the awesome work of Sam Gilliam (born 1933). To say he is a colorist would be to wallow in understatement. I think his most recognizable work for most folks are his massive, draped canvases drenched in color. What I’m showing you is an exciting piece he designed for the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina (an amazing museum collection). 

Illustrious Kites was commissioned by the Mint Museum to fill their lobby. Gilliam decided on the motif of box kites after being inspired by the park-like setting around the museum. What is exciting about his work is that he has taken the Color Field branch of mid-1900s American modernism and converted it to the three-dimensional realm. Imagine if artists like Morris Louis (1912–1962), Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), or Mark Rothko (1903–1970) had done this! They would have made American Modernism exciting!

Sam Gilliam, The Illustrious Kites Made in Boxing Styles, 2004. Acrylic, flag bunting, cotton/polyester thread, installation: 50’ x 15' x 8' (15.2 x 4.6 x 2.4 meters). Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC. © 2018 Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MIN-28Bgilars)

Gilliam, who was born in Mississippi, has figured prominently among African American artists committed to abstract art. He has painted in the Color Field style since graduating from the University of Kentucky and moving to Washington, DC in 1962. Color Field painting and Action Painting were the two “schools” of Abstract Expressionism. Color Field painters began to gain more public attention between 1960 and 1962.

Gilliam associated with two other Color Field painters, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland (1924–2010). Both artists worked in a more painterly manner than most Color Field painters by staining the canvas, often throwing paint onto the canvas. The surface was not emphasized as in Action Painting, but rather the interaction of the colors.

Starting in the late 1960s, Gilliam became famous for his canvases. He stained the canvases in much the same way as Louis, but removed the canvases from the stretcher bars and draped them on gallery walls.

Sam Gilliam, Petals, 1966. Acrylic on canvas, 87 ¾" x 93" (222.8 x 236.2 cm). Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. © 2018 Sam Gilliam/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PC-493gilars)

Petals clearly shows the influences of Louis, Noland, and especially, in my mind, Helen Frankenthaler. It resembles Louis’s “veil paintings,” in which the colors staining the canvas were allowed to freely flow together. However, it is a lot less muddy than Louis’s work, in my humble opinion. The colors are brilliant.

Check out the other posts in my African American [Art] History Month series.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Happy African American [Art] History Month II

Thomas Gross, Jr. (1775–1839, US), Chest-on-Chest, 1805–1810. Mahogany, yellow poplar, pine, and brass fittings, 82 ¾" x 43 ¼" x 22 ½" (210.2 x 109.9 x 57.2 cm). © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-1927)

Let us not forget that African American artists have existed since the founding of America. Unfortunately, they were not colonists, but forced here as slaves on Dutch, Portuguese, French, Spanish, and British ships. Many of those artists represent aspects of American art history that get very little reportage (classy, huh?). Yet, they are fascinating pieces to the puzzle that constitutes American art history. Some of these artists are only known by their advertisements in papers or by the customers for whom they did work. When one digs deeply into the history of African Americans in the American colonies, it’s an eye opener.

Very little is known about Thomas Gross, Jr. (1775–1839), a cabinetmaker in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. He is thought to have been a former slave who specialized in large chest-on-chest pieces of furniture. He also operated as an undertaker, as did many cabinetmakers in the early United States. Like many freedmen, he most likely learned cabinetmaking while a slave, and learned all of the most fashionable styles of furniture at the time, which were based on pattern books that came from Britain.

This cabinet does not really reflect any of the contemporary British styles such as Chippendale, Sheraton, or Hepplewhite. These British styles usually had bombé (curving) fronts. This reflects more the contemporary simple, utilitarian style of Pennsylvania German or Amish chest-on-chests, as well as the geometric simplicity of Neoclassicism.

Germantown, a settlement of German immigrants in 1683, was the first town in America to issue a protest against slavery in 1688. Slavery was not banned in the colony until 1780, but Germantown became host to a large community of freed African Americans. Ironically, it was also the home to one of the largest and last of the major slave-holding plantations in Philadelphia, the Chew family of the Cliveden estate. Despite outlawing of slavery in 1780, the state of Philadelphia’s manumission (freedman) law allowed slave holding until 1840. 

Moses Williams (1777–ca. 1825, US), Silhouette of Angelica Peale, later Mrs. Robinson (died 1853). Hollow-cut silhouette with black ink on paper, sheet: 4 7/8" x 4" (12.4 x 10.3 cm). © 2018 Philadelphia Museum of Art. (PMA-5241)

Speaking of freedmen, Moses Williams (1777–ca. 1825) typifies the situation of the children of emancipated slaves, who were required to remain in the slave owner’s household until the age of twenty-seven, according to manumission laws. Fortunately (an ironic choice of words) for Williams, his owner was Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), the patriarch of the first American dynasty of painters.

Williams was the son of Scarborough and Lucy Peale. Slaves often took their owner’s last name. Peale freed Scarborough and Lucy in 1786, and Scarborough subsequently took the name of John Williams. Moses, however, stayed behind in the Peale household, raised with the Peale children and trained as an artist.

At an early age, Moses developed his talent creating silhouette portraits, at the time called “shadow portraits,” “profile portraits,” or “shade portraits.” He learned to use the newly invented “physiognotrace” (face-tracing) machine. This device (originally called physionotrace)—invented by Gilles-Louis Chrétien (1754–1811)—used a lens to transmit the sitter’s likeness to an etching needle. The machine was upgraded in America by John Isaac Hawkins (1772–1855) to traced around the subjects face with an actual bar connected to a pantograph (a system to copy drawings in different sizes via a series of connected rods), which reduced the silhouette to less than two inches (5.1 cm).

Silhouettes were popular until the 1840s when Daguerreotype and calotype photographs became easier and cheaper methods of portraiture. The genre continued through the late 1800s, although it was no longer fashionable. Moses created silhouettes in a combination of cut out paper that was adhered to white paper. He then augmented it with small details in black ink or gouache. He did silhouettes of all of the Peale family, and some 800 beyond that. Like all of the other Peale children, Angelica, portrayed in this silhouette, was a gifted painter of still life. 

View all of the posts in my African American [Art] History Month 2018 series.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Happy African American [Art] History Month

Alma Thomas (1891–1978, US), Earth Sermon—Beauty, Love and Peace, 1971. Acrylic on canvas, 72" x 52 1/8" (182.9 x 132.2 cm). Image © 2018 Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. (SI-409)

I have decided to apply officially to change the name of one of this month’s official designations to include African American Art History Month (although I haven’t really). When one looks at the contributions to our society of African American artists and art educators, everyone would agree with my application! Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891–1978) is one of the most inspirational art educators and artists I’ve ever come across. I’ve also always admired Claude Monet (1840–1926), because even in later life he continued to expand his Impressionistic dissolution of form to the point of abstraction. Similarly, Thomas began abstraction later in life after a lifetime of painting realistic still-life and landscape works. Her work is brilliant!

Thomas retired in 1960 after working as a public-school art teach for thirty-five years. She began studying at American University and discovered a love of color learning about Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. In 1966, Howard University—from where she was the first woman graduate in their art program (1924)—offered her a one-person show. Rather than show her works inspired by Color Field, she minimized her brushwork and, inspired by the moving leaves outside her window, came to her ultimate mature style as seen in Earth Sermon.

Earth Sermon is part of Thomas’s series of Earth paintings that came out of that shift in strategy. If you look at these paintings close up, you see a multi-colored underpainting, over which is laid a field of pure color in short brush strokes. Visually, one could compare this to the pointillist technique of the Post-Impressionists, because the colors reverberate off one another in glorious effect. In short, her work is full of joy! 

Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963. Acrylic on canvas, 47 5/8" x 44 ¼" (120.9 x 112.1 cm). Image © 2018 Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. (SI-386)

This work dates to the period (1960–1966) when Thomas was inspired by the coloristic aspects of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. This is clearly influenced by Color Field’s reliance on un-nuanced blocks of pure color. However, it was mainly inspired by another artist who was a brilliant pioneer of pure color abstract works, Henri Matisse. Thomas applied the precepts of Color Field—pure color laid down in unmodulated shapes—to pay homage to Matisse’s late work The Snail (1953, Tate Gallery, London). The Snail came from Matisse’s period when he produced collages of cut paper painted in bright gouache colors. 

View all of the posts in my African American [Art] History Month 2018 series.

Correlations to Davis programs:  Experience Painting: 5; Exploring Visual Design: 7