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African American Works on Paper from the Wes and Missy Cochran Collection

December 20, 2003 - February 15, 2004


The enormous contributions of African-American artists to our country's culture are clearly evident in this exhibition of 75 works from the Cochran Collection. The 64 artists represented read like a "Who's Who in African-American Art." Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Mel Edwards, Sam Gilliam, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Howardena Pindell, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, and Alma Thomas. The media encompass drawings, prints, a watercolor by Jones, an acrylic by Thomas, and collages by Catlett.

African-American Works on Paper from the Wes and Missy Cochran Collection opens at the MFA December 20 and continues through February 15, 2004. The exhibition honors African-American History Month in February. This is the most extensive exhibition of African-American art ever presented at the MFA.

For the most part, the artists with works in this show have emerged since the 1930s. Many are still working today, and women artists are prominently represented. Also featured are striking works by lesser known artists who merit increased attention: Trena Banks, Marvin and Morgan Smith, and James Wells, to name a few. The exhibition catalogue, available in the Museum Shop, includes 47 reproductions, an essay and introductions, and helpful biographies of the artists represented in the show.

The Cochrans of La Grange, Georgia established these impressive holdings during two years of intense study, consultation with artists and curators, and studio and museum visits. According to artist Robert Blackburn, himself represented in the collection, "it reveals the personal vision and joy of one couple who bring their enthusiasm, love, and deep feelings about African American art."

Never intending for the works to remain solely in their home, the Cochrans wanted their collection to increase appreciation of African-American art and works on paper. They wanted these works to be seen, especially in their home region, the South.

This show provides an intimate look at the creative process. As art historian Dr. Judith Wilson points out in the exhibition catalogue, "we often find artists being most fully and frankly themselves when they turn from the glamour of sculpting and painting to humbler acts of artmaking on paper."

The human figure emerges throughout this collection, as in Romare Bearden's The Family (1975). In this colorful etching by one of our most significant African-American artists, the father dominates with his imposing physical presence and head. But who are the women and especially the one at left? There are undercurrents and mysteries in this family, and several of the heads seem inspired by African sculpture. In fact, a number of the works in the exhibition reveal the influence of African art. (right: Romare Bearden, The Family, 1975, etching)

Elizabeth Catlëtt's two depictions of strong women - Virginia (1994) and Cartas (Letters) 1986 - demonstrate her sculptural eye. The use of Spanish in the latter title reminds us that Catlett has lived more than 50 years in Mexico, where she fell under the spell of the best Mexican graphic-political art and that country's great murals.

Virginia also has Cubistic touches, recalling Picasso's interest in African objects. John Biggers's Holy Family (1983) also has elements of Cubism and draws on traditions of African sculpture and African and African-American quilts. This print has rich spiritual meaning as well, with a cruciform image of a child in front. Suffering and ultimate triumph rest side by side; there are vessels and a bird, a sacred image in many traditions, in the work.

The church has played a leading role in African-American culture and survival and like the Biggers, a number of these works contain Christian imagery, as well as African symbols and motifs. Walter Williams's The Black Madonna (1965) is particularly striking and reverential and points to the powerful role of women in sustaining African-American families, communities, and culture.

Visionary artist Betye Saar does not adhere to Christian symbols in Silver Linings: The Unknown (1982), but instead turns to more expansive imagery, as she blends the celestial and earthly realms to mystical and lively effect. Judith Wilson writes in the exhibition catalogue that "the piece can be linked to the Los Angeles artist's longstanding interest in the occult."

A number of these works fuse cultures and several, like Aminah Robinson's Chicken Foot Woman (1989), Hale Woodruffs A Celestial Gate (1977), and Beverly Buchanan's Happy Shack (1987) draw on the great tradition of African-American folk art.

Jacob Lawrence's Revolt on the Amistad (1989) combines representation and abstraction,illuminates a critical event in African-American history, and conveys its violence. One of the great 20th-century American artists, Lawrence was dedicated to exploring history through masterfully executed art, often created in series. He was especially dedicated to printmaking and its promise of making art more accessible to the public.

Other works like Alma Thomas's untitled acrylic (1973) are completely abstract. Thomas turned to acrylic late in life and is chiefly admired now for those paintings. She also became recognized as a significant American abstract artist, mainly after her death, and is now represented in major museum collections. For many years, she persevered in the face of relative obscurity, facing the double challenge in the art world of being both African American and a woman.

In fact, the more abstract works are some of the most striking in the exhibition. In its use of line, Howardena Pindell's Kyoto Positive-Negative (1980) is both wonderfully subtle and charged with energy. And Ed Clark's Yucatan Series (1977) draws on the spiritual essence of landscape.

Professor Richard Long of Emory University writes in the catalogue that "viewers of these works will find in them, singly and in concert, affirmations of the unending human quest for meaning and enlightenment, fulfillment and joy. The questions remain open; the quest continues."

Smith Kramer Fine Art Services of Kansas City, Missouri has arranged this tour, and the exhibition was selected for the MFA by Chief Curator Dr. Jennifer Hardin. The St. Petersburg Times is the media sponsor.

RLM editor's note: See also:


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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