African American Art

By Richard Powell



The Harlem Renaissance

The social and political anxieties that many African Americans felt just after World War I (1914­1918) were alleviated, in part, by mass migrations to the urban North. Northern cities offered a respite from the repressive attitudes and mandates of the old Southern order. The new racial compositions of cities like WASHINGTON, D.C, PHILADELPHIA, NEW YORK, PITTSBURGH, DETROIT, CHICAGO, and Saint Louis in combination with a heightened social consciousness and a seemingly unbound desire for leisure and escapism, conspired to help create the cultural phenomenon known as the New Negro movement. Part social engineering and part spontaneous expression, this HARLEM RENAISSANCE (as the cultural movement later became known) was realized by a mix of American movers and shakers: social reformers, political activists, cultural elites, progressives in public policy and education, and, of course, artists. Although each of these constituencies had its own reasons for promoting African American achievements in the literary, musical, visual, and performing arts, the collective results of these endeavors was an unprecedented, broad-based focus on African Americans, their art, and the connections to a larger, modernist vision.

Visual artists played a key role in creating depictions of the NEW NEGRO. Alongside their counterparts in literature, music, and theater, painters Palmer C. Hayden, Malvin Gray Johnson, and Laura Wheeler Waring, among others, exhibited bold, stylized portraits of African Americans during this period, as well as scenes of black life from a variety of perspectives. Sculptors RICHMOND BARTHÉ, SARGENT JOHNSON, and AUGUSTA SAVAGE used clay, wood, and bronze to create comparable representations.

Book and magazine publishers of the 1920s and 1930s also helped to disseminate Harlem Renaissance imagery. Published in the pages of THE CRISIS, Opportunity ,and New Masses were the blockprint illustrations of James Lesesne Wells, the etchings and drawings of ALBERT ALEXANDER SMITH, and the illustrations and jacket covers of one of the period's most prolific artists, AARON DOUGLAS.


Great Depression and World War II Years

As the debates among artists and intellectuals around a "racially representative art" shifted to discussions about social responsibility and a "folk" identity, artists like Aaron Douglas increasingly turned to the public arena as a means of addressing art and life in the 1930s. Douglas's murals for schools, libraries, and YMCAs exemplified this shift toward the social, as did the colorful, compositionally rhythmic easel paintings of Archibald J. Motley, Jr. Many artists in the 1930s who had begun their careers during the Harlem Renaissance and under the aegis of philanthropic organizations like the Harmon Foundation now made art under the auspices of the Federal Arts Project of the WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION. These artists, like ALLAN ROHAN CRITE, Ernest Crichlow, and DOX THRASH, embraced a visually conservative but politically radical figurative art in which the themes of poverty, racial discrimination, and a growing social consciousness took center stage.

This newfound fascination in the art world with the masses resulted in an expanded appreciation for those artists -- black and white -- who had not attended art school, whose art was often unsophisticated, and who functioned on the margins of the art scene proper. One of these so-called folk artists, the Tennessee stone carver William Edmondson, was honored in 1937 with a one-person exhibition at New York 's Museum of Modern Art. He was the first African American artist to receive that distinction.

In the final years of the Federal Arts Project several painters emerged out of obscurity and into national prominence. The most celebrated in this group was painter JACOB LAWRENCE. His multipaneled series on such topics as the eighteenth-century Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, the African American migration experience, and HARLEM struck an emotional chord among art aficionados in the 1940s. Paintings by the intuitive artist HORACE PIPPIN on the lives of ABRAHAM LINCOLN and JOHN BROWN as well as others inspired by biblical verses were also critically acclaimed and highly sought after. Other painters of the late 1930s and early 1940s -- like WILLIAM H. JOHNSON, Charles Sebree, and Eldzier Cortor -- achieved a measure of success in the larger world of art as well, often fusing the style preferences of the day (color abstraction, figural expressionism, and surrealism) with the artists' affinities for selected African American subjects.


Abstraction and Realism during the Postwar Years

This balancing act between a race consciousness in art and visual assimilation into the white cultural mainstream -- exemplified most emphatically in a nonfigurative, abstract art -- was undermined by several artists in the post-World War II years. The work of these artists -- decidedly abstract and expressionistic yet at times referential to Africa, black America, and to the evolving civil rights struggle -- necessitated an altogether different definition of what was then described as modern Negro art. At the forefront of this new paradigm was HALE WOODRUFF, whose integration of African-design motifs into his colorful, large-scale canvases stood alongside an enigmatic and symbol-laden painterly abstraction in works by other painters. Similarly, a 1950s brand of New York School abstraction was defined in part by the "all-over" compositions of painter Norman Lewis. Lewis, a master of visual wit, irony, and critique, figured in contradistinction to another abstractionist, BEAUFORD DELANEY, who wavered between completely nonillusionistic, gestural canvases and thickly painted, expressive portraits.

In the midst of this moment when abstract art was considered the status quo, several figurative artists, among them Hughie Lee-Smith and CHARLES WHITE, achieved broad recognition. Lee-Smith painted desolate, urban landscapes inhabited by solitary people of different ages and sexes and across the racial spectrum. White, whose career dated back to the 1930s, produced in the 1950s a series of monumental crayon and ink drawings of idealized African American figures. These works, when thematically framed by the news reports of civil rights bus boycotts, lunch-counter sit-ins, and attacks on black protesters by angry whites, took on an even greater power than their abstract counterparts in explicitly communicating something about African American aspirations and dreams. MINNIE EVANS and James Hampton, although far removed from the New York art scene in their respective communities of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., created powerful artistic statements during this period that not only reintroduced socalled folk elements into the art world, but added a spiritual dimension to black visual culture as well.

The two 1960s artists whose careers and products may be considered to have formed a bridge between the visual past (the omnipresent black figure, overtures to visual modernism, and the need to acknowledge the politics of race) and a visual future for African American art (artistic singularity over racial unity, narrational/perceptual simultaneity, and the interjecting of class, gender, and sexuality into art) are Bob Thompson and ROMARE BEARDEN. The colorful, silhouetted, and enigmatic figures in Thompson's paintings, derived from the works of the old masters of European painting and the new young lions of jazz, introduced a whole new set of options in African American visual culture. Similarly, the cut-up, collaged, and reconstituted images of Afro-America that Bearden introduced to the public in 1964 inaugurated an expanded and progressive view of art and art-making: a picture that reflected ambiguity, complexity, nuance, and affirmation in black culture.


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