SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH.- The UMFA is proud to offer African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum during the months of January and February, celebrating cultural diversity during Human Rights Month in January, and the U of Us Black Awareness Month in February. African American Masters features 61 paintings, sculptures and photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museums collection that reveal both universal concerns and a special awareness of being Black in the 20th century. Historical events, political issues, personal memories, music and folklore traditions, and deep spirituality inspired these artists. Among the masters included are Jacob Lawrence, Richmond Barthé, Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, Gordon Parks and Renée Stout, among others. Exceptional works by such modern greats as Mel Edwards, Roy DeCarava, and Betye Saar among many others complete this show. This exhibition will be on view at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts through February 28, 2005.
No single style or approach can define African American art. The artists in African American Mastersreveal a complex mingling of influences and experiencesincluding historical events, political issues, spirituality, music and folklore, as well as personal vision. The Smithsonian American Art Museum began acquiring work by African American artists in the 1960s, some in-depth such as William H. Johnson and Alma Thomas. This exhibition is a sampling of these worksnot a comprehensive survey of themselected from approximately 2000 artworks by African Americans now in the Museums collection that give insight into the story of America in the 20th century.
American music inspired many artists in the exhibition. In Romare Beardens Empress of the Blues (1974), swaying musicians back up the mesmerizing soloist Bessie Smith. Shifting planes of colored paper and magazine cutouts create staccato patterns and rhythms, creating their own visual music. Bearden saw legendary singer and songwriter Bessie Smith, who earned the title Empress of the Blues, perform in Harlem where he grew up. She was one of the biggest stars of the 1920s and was popular with both black and white audiences.
Horace Pippins Old Black Joe (1943) is an interpretation of plantation life and the lot of African American slaves. Pennsylvanian-born Pippin derived this image and its title from Stephen Fosters Civil War-era ballad of the same name, conveying the sense of loss that also haunts the ballads lyrics. Primarily self-taught, Pippins engaging narrative style led to national acclaim.
In 1930, Lois Mailou Jones joined the fine arts faculty at Howard University in Washington, D.C. where she taught for 47 years. She painted Les Fétiches (1938) while on sabbatical in Paris in the 1930s, her first major painting to explore African themes. Jones art developed throughout her long career, moving from landscapes and colorful street scenes to works that were influenced by her African American heritage.
William H. Johnson, who studied in New York City and Paris, changed from impressionism to a flat, consciously naïve style in the late 1930s, when he began to focus on African American subjects. In Café (about 1939-40), Johnson used modernist flat colorful forms in a humorous portrayal of a couple in a Harlem café. Below the table, human and wooden legs are tangled together, while above, the smartly dressed woman holds tightly to her date, who looks away.
Augusta Savage is one of many artists in this exhibition who came to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. In her painted plaster bust Gamin (about 1929), Savage convincingly captures the rebellious nature of a young man, reputedly her teenage nephew, Ellis Ford, who lived in Harlem. It is one of several surviving plasters of the life-size bronze that is among Savages best-known works.
At a time when many artists were concerned with social commentary, William E. Artis sought to reveal the universal beauty of the human form. Artis usually worked in clay, so his marble bust Untitled (about 1946) is one of his few ventures into stone carving. The idealized head of a young woman is a lively play of geometric and abstract patterns, a cylinder for her neck, alternating triangles and ovals for her facial features. The large ovals of her eyes recall ancient African sculptures, while the polished marble evokes classical Greek sculpture.
In Jacob Lawrences The Library (1960), figures engrossed in reading are situated in his characteristically flattened space. Lawrences library view evokes his childhood experiences when he frequently visited the 135th Street Public Library in Harlem.
Bob Thompsons Descent from the Cross (1963) combines Christian religious imagery and fantasy in an expressive and highly personal painting. Accents of color punctuate the composition moving the eye across the paintings surface.
Sam Gilliam has advanced the innovations associated with the Washington Color School. During the late 1970s, he began cutting and rearranging geometric shapes from thickly painted canvases. The shifting irregular patterns in these randomly patterned canvases resemble those found in African American crazy quilts. In Open Cylinder (1979), thrusting verticals covered with rectangles and arched forms suggest a pillar that has been shattered, its shards now resting side-by-side.
Portraits and documentary images have dominated the subject matter of modern black photographers, including James VanDerZee, Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks and Robert McNeill. McNeills 1938 photograph New Car (South Richmond, Virginia) from the project The Negro in Virginia, gives us a slice-of-life image. A native of Washington, D.C., McNeill created this photograph while working for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. This lighthearted scene of young men admiring a new car emphasizes shared moments of rare success at a time when economic distress was common for most.
Allan Rohan Crite tapped into the social milieu of his community. Sunlight and Shadow (1941) is one of about two dozen paintings Allan Rohan Crite created for the governments art projects during the Depression, in which he documented the people and architecture in his Roxbury, Mass. Neighborhood. The scene reminds us of the importance of extended families in African American communities.
Purvis Youngs images are inspired by personal visions and the culturally rich environment of the Overtown neighborhood in Miami that is home to many Haitian and Cuban immigrants. In Untitled (about 1988), the spirited horses that dominate the composition seem capable of flight, one actually winged, while the figures are isolated and trapped in box-like cells, seemingly unaware that the horses and truck offer an escape from the maze. Youngs message is powerfula way out can exist in the midst of turmoil and struggle.
African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of five exhibitions featuring the Smithsonians collections that are touring the nation through 2005. The tour is supported in part by the Smithsonian Special Exhibitions Fund. Local support has been provided by American Express, Wells Fargo, George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, S. J. & Jessie E. Quinney Foundation, Ray, Quinney & Nebeker Foundation, Morgan Stanley/Robert H. Rose, UMFA Special Exhibitions Council and Jeanne & Richard Kimball.