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Aaron Douglas, African American Modernist

September 8 - December 2 2007


Opening September 8 and continuing through December 2 2007, the Spencer Museum of Art will present Aaron Douglas, African American Modernist, a major exhibition celebrating the life, art and legacy of Aaron Douglas, an African American artist from Kansas who went on to become the most important visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance. The Spencer-organized exhibition, some seven years in the making, is the first-ever national traveling retrospective of Douglas's work, and brings together nearly 100 works from public institutions and private collections across the country.

Aaron Douglas, African American Modernist will also have venues in Nashville (Frist Center for the Visual Arts, January 18 - April 13, 2008), Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian American Art Museum, May 9 - August 3, 2008), and New York (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, August 30 - November 30, 2008).

Born to laborer parents in Topeka, Kansas, Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) overcame many obstacles to pursue his passion for art and ideas. He was one of the first African American artists to portray racial themes within the context of modern art, and his ambitious pursuit of justice through his paintbrush continues to influence artists today. After earning a BFA degree in 1922 from the University of Nebraska and teaching at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, he migrated to New York in 1925 to join in the cultural flourishing that has variously been called the New Negro Renaissance or the Harlem Renaissance. He later taught art at historically black Fisk University in Nashville.

A socially conscious artist, Douglas vividly captured the spirit of his time and established a new black aesthetic and vision. Working from a politicized concept of personal identity, he combined art-deco dynamism with African and African American imagery to produce a new visual vocabulary that evoked not only current realities but also hope for a better future. His work is the most powerful visual legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and has had a lasting impact on the art and cultural heritage of the nation.

Of special interest to the Spencer's exploration of Douglas and the Harlem Renaissance is the Midwestern origin of artists associated with what seems a distinctly urban and East Coast phenomenon. Douglas and his good friend Langston Hughes both spent their childhoods in Kansas, while other important writers such as Claude McKay and Countee Cullen both had Midwestern ties. The exhibition will illuminate not only the Midwestern roots of the "New Negro" outpouring in Harlem, but also how Douglas's influence extended far beyond the Harlem neighborhood and the years most closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue edited by Susan Earle, the exhibition curator and the Spencer's Curator of European & American Art, with contributions by leading scholars of African American art. Yale University Press is co-publishing the exhibition catalogue with the Spencer. Support for the exhibition and catalogue comes from the Henry Luce Foundation, with additional exhibition support from the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

For more information about the exhibition, national conference and public programming, please visit www.aarondouglas.ku.edu.

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