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The Chemistry of Color: Contemporary African-American Artists

February 5 - May 9, 2010


The Columbia Museum of Art celebrates its 60th anniversary year by hosting a major exhibition of art by contemporary African-American artists. The Chemistry of Color: Contemporary African-American Artists and its accompanying catalogue chronicle the accomplishments and struggles of African-American artists in the latter half of the 20th century with approximately 72 works by a number of preeminent modern artists such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Faith Ringgold and Betye Saar. The exhibition includes works by 41 artists including Moe Brooker, James Brantley, Charles Searles, Sam Gilliam and others who have made major contributions to the development of American art. This show presents an opportunity for residents of South Carolina and the surrounding region to see an exhibition of nationally and internationally known African-American artists not seen in the state in nearly a decade. (right: Romare Bearden, 1911-1988, Born Charlotte, NC, Died New York, NY, The Piano Lesson (Homage to Mary Lou), 1983, Color lithograph on paper, edition 23/150, 29 1/2 x 20 1/2 inches. ©Romare Bearden /Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The lively form and exuberant color of the works -- paintings, sculpture, works on paper and textiles -- showcase diverse styles, from portraying scenes of African-American culture to abstraction and abstracted realism in which artists were breaking boundaries in terms of style. The Chemistry of Colorrepresents turning points in the development of African-American art and presents the emerging visibility, tremendous sense of self-determination and experimentation of African-American artists after decades of relative invisibility in the art world. 

The exhibition opened on February 5, 2010 at the beginning of Black History Month and runs through May 9, 2010. The exhibition comes from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia, known internationally for its collections of 19th- and 20th-century American paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. This represents the first partnership between the Columbia Museum of Art and this distinguished institution. PAFA received the ARCO Chemical Company Collection of African-American Art from Harold and Ann Sorgenti and was one of the few traditional art schools to accept African-Americans into its program since the 19th century. As African-American artists struggled to have their work accepted in the Philadelphia art community, societal changes in the 1970s, '80s and '90s fed into tremendous artistic innovation, resulting in overwhelmingly bold and colorful works. 

The Sorgenti Collection is traced to the early 1980s when ARCO Chemical Company, under Sorgenti's leadership, underwent a period of tremendous growth committed to cultural diversity, the Philadelphia-based company formed an art collection that reflected a culture of inclusion in the organization. When ARCO Chemical was sold in 1998, Harold Sorgenti, a PAFA trustee since 1980 and chairman of the board from 1986 to 1993, and his wife Ann purchased the collection from the company and donated it to the Academy. The gift dramatically increased PAFA's representation of contemporary African-American artists. Support for the catalog has come from Harold A. and Ann R. Sorgenti. 

The Columbia Museum of Art has a long history of presenting exhibitions featuring African-American art and African cultural heritage -- more than 37 years, beginning in 1972. In addition to the more than 25 exhibitions, the Museum's collection includes works by more than 30 African-American artists, including Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Beverly Buchanan, Elizabeth Catlett, William H. Johnson, Betye Saar, Carrie Mae Weems and others. (left: Barbara Bullock, Born 1938, Philadelphia, PA, Resides Philadelphia, PA, Animal Healer (Healer Series), 1990, Gouache on shaped paper, 67 x 39 1/4 inches)

The Chemistry of Color: Contemporary African-American Artists was organized by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. BB&T, SCE&G, and Dr. Suzan D. Boyd and Mr. M. Edward Sellersare presenting sponsors for the Columbia presentation of The Chemistry of Color, with additional support from the Hilliard Family Foundation, The Pierrine and Hootie Johnson Fund of the Central Carolina Community Foundation,and Colonial Life. February 5 and every Sunday are free admission days, courtesy of BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina.

In conjunction with The Chemistry of Color, the Museum presents works from its permanent collection in Color Vision, a Gallery 15 exhibition. Color Vision explores the politics of race and identity from the vantage point of African-American artists working in the 20th century and today. Each art object, selected from the Museum's permanent collection, gives insight into how the artists see themselves and the African-American experience. Works by modernists Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White include portraits of an everyman. Examples by Romare Bearden and William H. Johnson celebrate popular pastimes. John Biggers, Willie Cole, and Lorna Simpson address the history of their race and the challenges they faced. Their works confront and provoke viewers into rethinking the problematic past. Color Vision is on view in the permanent collection galleries until May 30, 2010.

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For biographical information on certain artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

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