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African American Images and Artists from the Swope Collection

January 13 - March 21, 2009


How artistic perspective and audience reception change with the times is illustrated in African American Images and Artists from the Swope Collection, January 13 - March 21, 2009. In striking contrast are a painting by John McCrady (Canton, Mississippi 1911-1968), a regionalist from the agricultural south of the 1940s, and a sculpture by Richard Hunt (born Chicago, Illinois 1935-), an abstract expressionist from the industrial north of the 1960s.

McCrady, a Caucasian from Mississippi and son of an Episcopal clergyman, received critical acclaim in the late 1930s and 1940s. The acclaimed work was dramatic and based on the morality plays and spirituals he witnessed in Southern Black churches. McCrady was known for a multi-stage process. He spent considerable time composing the painting and would then methodically build up the image with layers of translucent paint, which created a luminescent quality. He was praised, in Time magazine, as the new-bright-star rising from the American South. However, In 1946 The Daily Worker, the newspaper of the American Communist Party, published a scathing review of his show at the Associated American Artists Gallery in New York, criticizing the paintings as racially chauvinistic and paternalistic. The criticism profoundly affected McCrady, who stopped painting for several years after.

Earlier, while studying in New York at the Art Students League, McCrady met Thomas Heart Benton, whose regionalist philosophy most likely influenced his choice to paint what he knew -- Southern life. Though considered a Southern regionalist, McCrady was not a social realist with a political agenda. He was a romantic and mystic and his work can be seen as a white man's romantic look at African American life in the South of the 1930s and 40's.

Hush, Somebody's Calling My Name is one of his dramatic paintings based on "Negro spiritual" music. The image of a tiny man in the vast wilderness overwhelmed by ominous hovering clouds shows a kinship to two other Swope paintings; the regionalist painting Threshing Wheat by Thomas Heart Benton and the magic realist painting White Cloud by John Rogers Cox.In all three paintings the human presence is dominated by a vast landscape with hovering stylized clouds.

In contrast, the sculpture Poised and Extended Forms by African American artist Richard Hunt, has no reference to race or place. Instead, this early work reflects an affinity with and integration into the international art-scene of second generation Abstract Expressionists. The abstract sculpture, made from discarded steel yet organic and fluid, is an example of Abstract Expressionists focus on subconscious expression. Hunt uses a direct process of composing while cutting and welding, rather than a removed process of pre-planned design prior to fabrication.

Poised and Extended Forms is one from a series Hunt called "hybrid figures," in which the abstracted and surreal imagery reference the original utility of the steel part but also human and plant-life forms. It relates to other Swope works such as the assemblage sculpture, No Title for Sure II by Mark DiSuvero and the second generation Abstract Expressionist painting Phenomena Near Baber Woods by Paul Jenkins.

In part Abstract Expressionism was a reaction against the regionalism and social realism so prevalent during the depression and before World War II. Along with other modernist genres it was a movement forward in philosophy, technique and subject, and in the case of sculpture in materials as well. Abstract Expressionist sculpture utilized new materials and techniques that had developed for industry. Regionalists like McCrady, in opposition, often looked backwards with nostalgia and utilized traditional techniques and materials. Ironically the rise in confidence of American artists provoked by the provincialism of the regionalists helped set the stage for the meteoric rise of the American Abstract Expressionists and the shifting of the art world center from Europe to America. Within this context, Hunt, and other artists, moved forward from racial categorizations and segregation to inclusion in the larger art world. With no mention of his race, Hunt was called "one of America's foremost living sculptors" in a catalogue forward to his 1971 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Though Hunt was rising in the art world, when he made Poised and Extended Forms in 1965, violence and turmoil accompanied an accelerated push for civil rights across America.


Selected wall texts from the exhibition

Groups of artists once exhibited primarily in segregated shows are now widely integrated into the larger American art scene. That being said it is worth re-focusing on one group to take a fresh look at their contributions and tribulations. In 2004 African American artist Thomas Shaw, when interview by Jessica Turner for Cincinnati's periodical City Beat, questioned this type of exhibition but concluded it was necessary saying, "how are kids going to know their heroes?"
This exhibition is rich in a diversity of artistic approaches and historical perspectives. Prints by Jacob Lawrence (1917- 2000) and Thomas Shaw (b. 1947) directly address racial and social issues. But other works, such as the painting by William Edouard Scott (1884- 1964) and the sculpture by Richard Hunt (b. 1935), refuse racial categorization. Works by Billy Morrow Jackson (1926 - 2006) and John Dowell Jr. (b. 1941) reside somewhere in between, where a superficial look offers a standard nude and abstract but a more thorough viewing reveals a subtle commentary.
Spanning nearly a century, this exhibition contains work as early as the 1911 impressionistic seascape by Indiana's own William Edouard Scott and as contemporary as the 2003 German Expressionist- inspired social commentary by Cincinnati's Thomas Shaw. African American subject matter, by Caucasian artists, includes a painting based on a "Negro Spiritual" by Southern Regionalist John McCrady (1911-1968) and a nude, portrait of his wife, by Champaign-Urbana's Billy Morrow Jackson. All of the works in this exhibition reveal perspectives on race and civil rights that reflect the eras in which they were made and are presented in conjunction with the national celebration of Black History Month.

* * *

Gilbert Brown Wilson
(Terre Haute, Indiana 1907- Frankfort, Kentucky 1991)
John Henry, c.1960s
Oil, gift of Allen and William Morrison in memory of the families of Gilbert Wilson and Benjamin Blumberg 2004.04
Gilbert Wilson championed social equality and racial harmony through his artwork. In 1960, Wilson, a Caucasian, was artist in residence at Kentucky State College in its last year as a segregated Black college. For the gymnasium, he proposed a set of murals depicting black history, but the gymnasium burnt and Wilson was fired for his communist beliefs. Painted in a knife technique Wilson used in the 1960s, this portrait of the legendary "Steel driving man," made famous in work song, was likely among his proposed subjects for the space.
Born a slave in the 1840s and freed by the civil war, John Henry worked laying railway track in the South's reconstruction. The story matches him against a new steam -powered drill over which he triumphs but then dies from exhaustion. His legend of virility, and strength grew among men working in deplorable conditions for poor wages.

Noel Rockmore (New York, New York 1928- New Orleans, Louisiana 1995)
Basin Street Swing or the Back Porch, 1959,
egg tempera , museum purchase 1962.11
Swope's one artist in residence Noel Rockwell (April 1964, sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the American Federation of Artists) is best known for his portraits of Jazz musicians in New Orleans' Preservation Hall. Rockwell, a Caucasian, was born in New York City to artist parents. When the New York art scene became dominated by abstract expressionism he found haven in New Orleans.
Basin Street Swing was painted around the same time Rockwell began the Jazz portraits. The disrepair of the house reflects the artists preoccupation with the subject of decline and decay; a preoccupation befitting his pessimistic, self-conscious and tormented personality. Details such as the down-turned horseshoe and the empty melon rind symbolize a loss where there was once prosperity. This painting also has a surreal feel to it, a style Rockwell utilized more directly in later works.

Billy Morrow Jackson (Kansas City, Missouri 1926- Urbana, Illinois 2006)
Daily News, 1968
Oil, Museum Purchase 1970.20
Jackson, a Caucasian, often used family members as models; this is reputed to be Blanch Mary Jackson, the artist's first wife. The couple was married in 1949, a time when interracial marriage was a courageous undertaking. According to a 1965 article about the artist in the RIT Reporter (Rochester, NY) two years earlier the Jackson home, in Urbana Illinois, had been surrounded with effigies and painted with the words "Nigger get out."
Daily News is from a series of interiors with figures devised, in part, as frameworks for panting abstract patterns of light. But also common to these paintings were figures in thoughtful repose. The key to the mood in this painting is the headline in The Daily News, which has fallen to the floor; it reads, "Questions Still Unanswered." Beside the headline is an image of the slain Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated the year Daily News was painted.
Angie Bellinger (b. 1961)
Nubian Princess, 1995
Black and white, pin hole, photograph, gift of Dr. Barbara Weinbaum in Memory of Beatrice S. Hyman. 1996.02
Bellinger, an African American, moved from Atlanta to Terre Haute to study photography at Indiana State University. This photograph is from her Master's thesis.
Bellinger's first portraits were family and friends, she explains:
My aim was to photograph them the way in which I saw them. No pretense, just straight forward... I began to bring out on film what I saw in each person ...To be able to do this I had chosen to photograph them in tight surroundings and up close.
Produced with a homemade pinhole camera, this photograph required the subject to hold a pose for several minutes just as sitters for the earliest photographs did. The sitter is Bellinger's friend Gwen Lee Thomas. Though she moved during the exposure, Bellinger liked the effect of the slightly blurred image. Bellinger titled it Nubian Princess because of Thomas' love of her African heritage, and her regal and dignified bearing.
Raphael Soyer (Borisoglebsk, Russia 1899 - New York, New York 1987)
Mother & Child from Memories Suite, 1969
Lithograph, gift of LaVelda Goble 2008.04
Raphael Soyer, and his brothers, were taught the principles of drawing by their father, a Hebrew teacher and writer. In 1912, the Soyer family were forced to leave Czarist Russia and immigrated to New York's Lower East Side. Sensitized by the immigrant experience, Soyer, a Caucasian, used art to chronicle life of the common man. Though categorized as a Social Realist his Humanist portrayals lack political agenda or social criticism. Mother & Child illustrates Soyer's special affinity for new and expecting mothers. This print isolates two figures from a crowd in his 1965-66 oil painting Village East Street Scene (private collection).
Village East is the result of my seven years' living on the Lower East Side. I tried to get the feeling of the area.... bearded, long-haired young men.... white mothers with their Negro babies against the background of drab walls bearing Fall-Out shelter signs.- Soyer from the print portfolio
Richard Hunt (born Chicago, Illinois 1935)
Untitled from the portfolio Details, 1965
Lithograph, Museum purchase 1967.008
The African American sculptor Richard Hunt received a fellowship to work at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, Los Angeles, funded by the Program in Humanities and the Arts of the Ford Foundation. He was in Los Angeles in February and March of 1965. The portfolio Details was produced at this time. Untitled has the same sense of space and the same organic and Abstract Expressionist feel as Hunt's early three dimensional work.
Richard Hunt (born Chicago, Illinois 1935)
Poised And Extended Forms, 1965
Steel, Museum purchase with funds provided by the Museum Purchase Plan Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts 1973.054
Poised and Extended Forms is from a series Hunt called "hybrid figures," in which the abstracted and surreal imagery reference the original utility of the discarded steel but also human and plant-life forms. Hunt was using a direct process which reflected an Abstract Expressionist focus on subconscious expression. Catalogues and other texts from the time rarely mention Hunt's African American heritage, nor was it a subject of his artwork. Working in Chicago and exhibiting in such prestigious institutions as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hunt was rising in the international art-scene of second generation Abstract Expressionists. Though Hunt and other African Americans were bridging the race chasm and forging successful careers, in 1965 when he made Poised and Extended Forms, the majority of Blacks faced the violence and turmoil which accompanied an accelerated push for civil rights across America.
William Edouard Scott (Indianapolis, Indiana 1884-Chicago, Illinois 1964)
Etaples, France, 1911
Oil, museum purchase 1999.41
William Edouard Scott was a leading artist in Chicago's version of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Indianapolis to a railway worker, Scott attended art classes taught by Hoosier artist Otto Stark at the Manual Training High School in Indianapolis. He became the first African American to teach in the Indianapolis public schools while raising funds to further his education in Chicago and France. While studying in France Scott befriended the renowned African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. Scott is known for his portraits of prominent African Americans, genre scenes of the black experience and for helping to stimulate an interest in Haitian art.
Etaples, France was painted while Scott was studying in France where he depicted scenes of French peasant life. The loose brushwork and subdued palette of this work reflect the modified Impressionist style used by Tanner who mentored the young artist.
Georges Schreiber (Brussels, Belgium, 1904-New York, New York, 1977)
Cotton Pickers, c. 1949
Lithograph, museum purchase 2000.06
When Schrieber immigrated to the United States from Belgium in 1928 he worked, as he had in Europe, for newspapers as a free lance graphic artist. Schrieber, a Caucasian, built a reputation as an American Regionalist and a fine lithographer. In the late 1930s he traveled to and painted impressions of all 48 states. This trip culminated in a popular exhibition at the Associated American Artists Gallery and work exhibited at the Whitney Museum in 1939. Schrieber went on to make five more transcontinental painting trips. In a 1943 Art Digest article about an exhibit of his Southern works Schrieber was quoted as saying:
The paintings of this part of America I dedicate to the people I've seen there and who made the villages and fields breathe with life. They have felt the dangers to a threatened democracy, a democracy which has neglected them, but which still is their only hope for a better life of liberty and peace. - V. 17, no.13
John McCrady (Canton, Mississippi 1911-1968)
Hush, Somebody's Calling My Name, 1939
oil and tempera, Museum purchase 1941.21
McCrady, a Caucasian, grew up in Mississippi the son of an Episcopal clergyman. Called a luminary of American Southern Regionalism, McCrady felt alienated while studying in New York City, but there he met Thomas Heart Benton whose Regionalist philosophy may have helped McCrady find his subject. Upon returning home he painted nostalgic Southern scenes, many based on the morality plays and spirituals he witnessed in Black churches.
This painting was inspired by the "Negro Spiritual" of the same title, popularized in the South in the late 1800s. In the following variation each line repeats twice:
Hush, hush, somebody's calling my name.
Oh my Lord, Oh my Lord what shall I do? I'm so glad that trouble doesn't last always.
Oh my Lord, Oh my Lord what shall I do? I'm so glad the devil can't do me no harm.
Oh my Lord, Oh my Lord what shall I do? Early one mornin, Death came knockin at my door.
Oh my Lord, Oh my Lord What shall I do? Oh, Hush-- Hush-- Somebody callin my name." -from Rollin Along in Song edited by J. Rosamond Johnson, 1937
Billy Morrow Jackson (Kansas City, Missouri 1926 Urbana, Illinois 2006)
Symmetrical Man: Portrait Of Dr. Martin Luther King, 1968
offset lithograph, gift of Mr. Howard E. Wooden 1990.13
This portrait memorial of Martin Luther King Jr. was drawn and reproduced as a poster the same year that Daily News was painted; both in response to the assassination of this civil rights leader. A few years before Jackson had begun a series of blatant political and satirical drawings called the Civil Rights Series. These allegorical images were printed as posters which were sold to raise funds for various Civil Rights organizations.
Jacob Lawrence (Atlantic City, New Jersey 1917- Seattle, Washington 2000)
The 1920's...The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots from the Kent Bicentennial Portfolio: Spirit of Independence, 1974
screen-print (7 colors, hand cut film stencils), Gift of Lorillard, A Division of Loews Theatres, Inc., New York, NY 1976.16.08
During the post World War I period millions of Black people left Southern communities in the United States and migrated to Northern cities. This migration reached its peak during the 1920s. Among the many advantages the migrants found in the North was the freedom to vote. In my print, migrants are represented exercising that freedom. -J.L. 1974 from the portfolio
The parents of Jacob Lawrence took part in that great migration and as a child he cherished learning about African American history and culture. His modernist style was married with a social consciousness that developed into narrative depictions of Black history and everyday life. This print is related to a series of 60 panel paintings Lawrence did in 1940-41 called The Migration of the Negro now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Phillips Collection, Washington DC.
Thom E. Shaw (b. 1947 Cincinnati, Ohio)
Untitled from the Malcolm X Paradox series, 2003 print : 1998 block
Wood cut (tempered masonite), gift of the artist 2003.11
Thom Shaw began as a commercial artist. His dramatic and provocative work show influences as diverse as German Expressionist prints and comics. Shaw, an African American, began The Malcolm X Paradox series after witnessing a gang fight.
...I asked those gang members wearing big Xs if they really knew who Malcolm X was and they said sure, so then I asked them why they were beating the hell out of each other? ...We've Been dealt these cards here-poverty, discrimination, the inner city -- and we'll use "any means necessary" to take over. But that's what Malcolm X referred to... before he went with the Nation of Islam. When he came back from Mecca he was preaching global unity and reconciliation of the races -from an interview with Ruth K. Meyer, in IRhine.com, 2003.
Thom E. Shaw (b. 1947 Cincinnati, Ohio)
The Glorious Return, 2000
ink pen, gift of the artist 2003.12
The Glorious Return is drawn with a rapidograph pen, a tricky medium he mastered as a commercial artist. The title likely refers to a homecoming he made to the Art Academy of Cincinnati where he is an alumnus.
John E. Dowell, Jr. (b. 1941 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Incidents, 1980
Together And Alone, 1980
Lithograph, gifts of Mr. & Mrs. Samuel Dorsky 1991.105, 1991.106
John Dowell's expressive prints are largely inspired by his African American heritage and love of jazz music. In Together and Alone and Incidents, Dowell presents on paper the genesis of sound. Calligraphic strokes of color and line vivify the white paper much like an instrument piercing the silence of a performance hall. The spontaneous arcs, lines, and curves move and flow like the swells of a song. In the 1970s Dowell reinterpreted the visual works into musical performances with fellow musicians.
John E. Dowell, Jr. (b. 1941 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
White Wheel of WTH, c.1967
Etching, museum purchase 1968.008
John E. Dowell is the Head of Printmaking at the Tyler School of Art, Temple University in Philadelphia. Briefly, from 1966-68, Dowell taught printmaking at Indiana State University. At that time his abstract work was inspired by jazz, life experiences and his African American heritage. By 1967 he had befriended a group of ISU student musicians and one night went to hear them. Their gig was in West Terre Haute at a bar called Walt's Wheel of Fortune. Dowell, not familiar with the racial attitudes of the area, went right on in and waited for his friends. When he tried to order a drink, however, he was confronted by an unwelcoming bartender and threatening patrons. For self-preservation, he left before the band took the floor. The White Wheel of WTH refers to this incident.
Lee Koch (n.d.)
The official Chuck Berry souvenirs and Decal sheet, from the portfolio FWA-4, 1971
collage; halftone photo; screen-print, gift of Dr. Barbara Weinbaum in Memory of Beatrice S. Hyman. 1972.15.10
This Pop inspired print explores popular culture, mass media and celebrity and was created at Purdue University. Little is known about the artist.
Chuck Berry (b. 1926), the "Father of Rock & Roll," came to prominence as a black songwriter and entertainer in the predominantly white musical world of the late 1950s. Typically popular songs by black artists were re-recorded by whites for white audiences, however a few renegade radio Djs played the originals reaching the white teenage population. Berry furthered his career but alienated Blacks by playing segregated venues. In 1986 Berry became the first inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Ranier Fetting (b. Germany 1949)
Bust of Desmond, 1986
glazed terre cotta, gift of Mr. & Mrs. Samuel Dorsky 1991.119
Rainer Fetting quickly rose and fell in the international art scene of the late 1970s and '80s but is now being rediscovered. In 1983 Fetting, a Caucasian, moved to New York from Berlin, a move he repeats regularly. In New York, at a photo shoot for a German art magazine that was featuring the artist, Fetting met Desmond Cadogan who had been hired to pose as artist's model. Fetting's work at the time was populated by sensual male nudes. The two fell in love and 25 years later Codogan still models for Fetting. While German Expressionism has influenced much of Fetting's work, it is not reflected in this clay portrait. Bust of Desmond was cast from a mold and some works from the un-numbered edition were glazed in a manner different from this one.

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