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The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art

October 1, 2004 - January 9, 2005


(above: Catlett, Elizabeth, Homage to Black Women Poets (1984), mahogany 69 x 15 x 13 inches)

Growing up in the south in the 1940s, Walter O. Evans studied great black writers and thinkers. But he had no opportunity to visit museums and galleries. "Blacks simply were not allowed in these so-called public facilities," he writes. It was not until his college years that art became a passion, and not until the late 1970s that Evans, by then a physician, began collecting works by African American artists. (left: Duncanson, Robert Scott Man Fishing (1848), oil on canvas 25 x 30 inches)

Today, the Evans collection is one of the best of its kind in the world and one of the broadest-based, with more than 200 works in all media by 19th-and 20th-century artists. Among these are the largest number of privately-held works by two 20th-century icons, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. (More than a dozen, from the 1940s to the 1980s, are included in the current exhibition.) In the 1990s Dr. Evans was named by Art & Antiques magazine as one of the 100 top collectors in the country.

Selected works from the collection are on view through January 9, 2005 at the Memorial Art Gallery. The 80 objects range from Barbizon-inspired landscapes to works from the Harlem Renaissance to Cubist abstractions. The earliest is an 1848 rural scene by pioneering artist Robert Scott Duncanson; the most recent, a 1997 bronze by renowned metal sculptor Richard Hunt.



Before 1860, American art in general followed Europe's lead. African American artists like Robert Duncanson who wanted to succeed in the marketplace dared not venture far from the traditional portraits, landscapes and Biblical subjects that were most popular. Anti-slavery organizations such as the Freedman's Aid Society sponsored scholarships for black artists, and wealthy abolitionists sometimes provided commissions to help advance their careers. (right: Lewis, Mary Edmonia, The Marriage of Hiawatha (ca.1868), white marble 29 x 11-1/2 x 12 inches)

Yet even after the Civil War, professional African American artists were few in number and generally too isolated to influence each other in developing a new aesthetic based on their shared heritage. Like their white counterparts, the most fortunate went abroad for serious study. Edmonia Lewis, for example, established a studio in Rome, and Henry O. Tanner became part of the liberal art scene in Paris. Both artists flourished in Europe, where they were able to create and exhibit freely.



Following World War I, an explosion of creative activity known as the Harlem Renaissance took place in art, music and literature. Originally named for the Harlem neighborhood in New York City, the same type of activity took place in Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other northern cities. Many African Americans migrated to urban centers during this period, and a new sense of community developed among artists. Encouraged primarily by Alain Locke, professor of philosophy at the newly-founded Howard University in Washington, DC, artists like Aaron Douglas and Archibald Motley began looking to African culture for inspiration. Work celebrating traditional black culture and contemporary daily life was the cornerstone of this new movement.



The federally-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided employment for many artists during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Artists were paid to paint murals for public buildings, create easel paintings, and document both urban and rural life through photography. The WPA also sponsored art workshops in cities with large African American populations, guaranteeing teaching jobs for many of the artists who had risen to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. From the ranks of their students rose a powerful group of artists, including Jacob Lawrence and Charles White, who sustained the legacy of black pride through World War II and beyond. (right: White, Charles, The Bridge Party (1938), oil on canvas 22 x 17 inches)



By the end of World War II, conditions in Europe caused a great influx of European artists into American cities and universities. The dialogue that had existed between artists on the two continents now continued at a much faster rate. Many artists, regardless of their race, no longer felt the need to produce works that visually mirrored their daily lives. Norman Lewis and Alma Thomas were two African Americans who challenged the art world with canvases based on the evocative power of color and form, rather than strict narrative. Others, such as William Johnson, never abandoned traditional subject matter but were influenced by the work of self-taught artists such as Horace Pippin and Clementine Hunter, appropriating their simple and direct style.



Perhaps the most significant influence for black artists in the late 1960s and '70s was the Civil Rights Movement. The impassioned speeches of leaders like Malcolm X ignited an increased social consciousness among African Americans. When confronted by the general lack of interest from an art world dominated by white males, black artists like Richard Hunt and Elizabeth Catlett responded with powerful works about dignity, bigotry, the African diaspora and racial identity. Today, museums and galleries alike are helping to build broad-based appreciation for African American artists though acquisitions and exhibitions. (left: Bearden, Romare, Sunrise (1978), collage on board 18 x 14 inches)



Paintings, sculpture and works on paper represent only one aspect of Dr. Evans's passion for collecting. He is equally fascinated with books, manuscripts, letters, photographs and other documents of the African American experience. A chance encounter in 1983 with the New York book collector Glen Horowitz marked the beginning of a long friendship and of Dr. Evans's education in matters of rarity, quality and the significance of objects associated with noteworthy people. Today, he maintains an extensive archive of signed first-edition books, correspondence between important African Americans, autographed photos, and other ephemera. (right: Dr. Walter O. Evans, photo)

Dr. Evans says that "Collecting has not only been rewarding for the anecdotes and stories affiliated with objects but also for the encounters with people." Over the years, he has met and formed lasting relationships with Romare Bearden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and others. He loves the dynamic process of collecting and his enthusiasm is infectious. Through the creation of the Walter O. Evans Foundation for Art and Literature, he and his wife Linda hope to educate and inspire others to appreciate more fully the cultural contributions of African Americans in our society. (right: Dr. Walter O. Evans, photo, courtesy of Walter O. Evans Foundation for Art and Literature )

The exhibition and its national tour is organized by the Walter O. Evans Foundation for Art and Literature and sponsored in Rochester by Gleason Foundation and the Herbert W. Vanden Brul Fund.



(above: Bearden, Romare, The Magic Garden (1978), collage on board 9 x 6 inches)


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