Monday, August 20, 2012

Celebrating African-American Art and Life in the 20th century

Sam Gilliam, The Petition, 1990, mixed media

Smithsonian American Art Museum's exhibition, African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Era and Beyond gives a broad overview of 43 artists whose work spanned 8 decades of the 20th century.  Over 40 photographs, as well as paintings, give a provocative picture of urban and rural life during the Depression, the age of segregation and the Civil Rights and later.  Although there is some overlap with other 20th century art movements, the exhibition is mainly art focused on African-Americans and their lives.  Both abstract and figural paintings are included, but also sculpture by Richard Hunt, Sam Gilliam, an important recent figure in the art scene of Washington, DC.   The artists come from the South and North, with a large number from urban areas of Detroit, New York, St. Louis, Baltimore and Washington, DC.

Detroit artist Tony Gleaton recorded his travels to Nicaraguain in Family of the Sea, 1988,  from the series Tengo Casi 500 Anos: Africa's Legacy in Central America, above.   Roy De Carava was a New Yorker whose photos capture aspects of city life  as in Two Women Manikan's Hand, 1950, printed  1982, on right.  (gelatin silver prints)

The portraits give impressive concentrated views of individual personalities, particularly by Tony Gleaton and Earlie Hudnall, Jr. I especially liked the photographs of Ray DeCarava, for the artistic compositions with interesting value contrasts. Although the portrait photography is very interesting, I'm partial to DeCarava's staged compositions which look like film stills.

Ray DeCarava, Lingerie, New York, 1950, printed 1982, gelatin silver print, left.

Gleaton's works are part of series photos, such as Africa's legacy in Central America.   But there is also a series from the WPA (Works Project Administration of the 1930s, part of the New Deal.   Robert McNeill 's several photographs include those from his project entitled, The Negro in Virginia which has both interesting portraits and slices of life.  The art of photojournalism really began at this time, during the 1930s.

The contrast of black and white photography works well exhibited next to bold, colorful works of art by the Harlem Renaissance artists, such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, who worked with collages.  Bearden, Lawrence, as well as Lois Mailou Jones and Norman Lewis, are among the most important painters who contributed to the artistic life of Harlem in the 20s and 30s.  The Harlem Renaissance also produced writers, musicians and poets such as Langston Hughes. 

Community, by Jacob Lawrence is a gouache of 1986.
It is a study for the mural of the same name in Jamaica, New York

Lawrence lived until 2000 and spent his last 30 years as a professor at the University of Washingon in Seattle.  The exhibition has both an early and a late work.   Lawrence maintained a similar style in the   later work, always influenced by colors in Harlem which he said inspired him.  Lawrence's most famous works are the series paintings, The Migration Series, half of which is in Washington's Phillips collection, and the Harriet Tubman series and the Frederick Douglas series at the Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, where another large collection of African-American art is kept.

Charles Searles' Celebration is an acrylic study for a mural painting
in the William H Green Building, Philadelphia, made in 1975

Charles Searles was from Philadelphia and the Smithsonian's Celebration is actually a study for a mural done in the William H Green Federal Building in Philadelphia.   Likewise, Community is a study for a mural Lawrence did in Jamaica, New York, 1986.  It evokes a spirit of togetherness and cooperation.

Norman Lewis, Evening Rendezvous, 1962

Abstract works may actually be visualizations with other meanings.  Norman Lewis's Evening Rendezvous of 1962, is an abstract medley of red white and blue, but the white refers to hoods of the KluKluxKlan and red to fires and burnings.  Not all is innocent fun, but Enchanted Rider, done by Bob Thompson in 1961 is more optimistic.  The rider may actually be a vision of St. George who triumphed over evil and is a traditional symbol of Christian art.

Enchanted Rider by Bob Thompson, 1961

Though the exhibition is somewhat historical, it wants the viewer to judge each piece on its own merit, and to see it as a unique expression of the individual artists.  There is not a heavy emphasis on chronology or history.   Lois Mailou Jones is one such personal, but symbolic artist who picked up ideas from living in Haiti and traveling to 11 African countries.  In Moon Masque, 1971, pattern, fabric design and African rituals are evoked.  I like the color in most of these paintings and the celebration of life so vividly expressed in these works.

Lois Mailou Jones, Moon Masque, 1971

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has the largest collection of African-American Art in any one location, but this exhibition is only a portion of their collection.  Some modern masters, such as Elizabeth Catlett, Faith Ringgold and Perry James Marshall, are not included in this showing.  After the exhibition closes in Washington September 3, it will travel to museums in Williamsburg, Orlando, Salem, MA, Albuquerque, Chattanooga, Sacramento and Syracuse for the next 2-1/2 years.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Magic or Remedios Varo

Since going to the Miró exhibition recently, I've been reminded of Remedios Varo.  In 2000, I discovered this marvelous Surrealist in an exhibition devoted to her at Chicago's Mexican Fine Arts Museum. Called The Magic or Remedios Varo, the exhibition had been organized by Washington's National Museum of Women in the Arts and shown there. At the moment of this writing there is an exhibition at Mexico City's Museo de Arte Moderne de Mexico, entitled Remedios Varo: 50 Keys.  It includes 50 works of art and a single sculpture.

Certainly Frida Kahlo is much better known, but I find Varo, who knew both Kahlo and Diego Rivera, more evocative and interesting as an artist. Varo also uses a female subject as her chief descriptive vehicle, but she is less self-absorbed than Kahlo and more concerned with the larger world.

Varo was a Surrealist born in Spain in 1908, but exiled to Mexico after 1941. Like Gaudi, Miró and Dalí, she was Catalan, originally from Angles, near Girona and close to the French border.  Some of the literature I read of her suggested she was a scientist with a dedication to nature close to that of Leonardo da Vinci. She learned much through her father, an engineer, and lived part of her childhood in Morocco. Varo is certainly a detail artist and paints more in the style of a tempera painter than an oil painter. Yet I hardly see a deep devotion to science; her art taps into more of a spiritual quest for understanding the world.  Perhaps, to other observers, she bridges the gap between science and the mystical.

Varo's people are tall and thin, elongated like Sienese or Catalan figures from around 1400.   Her perspective is also similar, somewhat long and exaggerated, also. She has a delicate touch and is able to find connections unexpectedly.  As a woman spins in The Alchemist, above, the checkerboard of her cloak turns into tile patten of the floor  beneath her.  Or is it opposite?  She could be weaving the tile floor into her clothing.  Some kind of contraption behind her is the machinery that connecting what's inside with the outdoors.  The perspective is like Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo.

Throughout her work I'm reminded of creativity, where it comes from and where it goes.  Her artwork evokes these connections again and again.  There something mystical in how it comes about.  While The Flutist, above, plays next to a mountain, the stones magically rise and form a tower, while a schematic mathematical drawing holds the tower in place.  Stairs of the tower are rising, going up to heaven like a Tower of Babel.  However, some sources cite the the periodic table of chemistry, though I don't quite see that connection.   There are fossils on these stones, so a connection to the ancient past, present and future come together in one place.
Creation of the Birds, left, dates to 1957.  As a wise woman in owl's clothing paints birds, the birds fly out the window, She also holds a magnifying glass lit by a star out the window which, in turn, illuminates her creation.   The brush comes out in her center, the heart source of creativity, which is really a guitar strung around her neck.  There are egg-shaped contraptions on the floor and out another window.  In fact, this machine mixes her paint, while a bird eats on the floor.  Art, music, inspiration, heart, mind, and inspiration flow together, while birds fly in and out.  The artist's work is to connect inner and outer worlds.

Varo's connection to Surrealists in Paris and Barcelona was strong.  She attended the Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, the same art school as Salvador Dalí had attended. We know little of her work in Europe before she went to Mexico, but we know she admired the paintings of Heironymous Bosch at the Prado and philosophical writings of the hermetic tradition.  Most of the work that can be seen is comes from the 1950s up to her death in 1963.  Her association with the Surrealism made her unacceptable to either the Spanish government after the Civil War or a France during Nazi occupation.  She and her French husband fled to Mexico where they met other artists such as English-born Leonora Carrington, perhaps the artist closest to her in style.

We can't always know what was on her mind, as in the case of much Surrealism, but there seems to be a desire to tap into the origin of creativity and to connect the self (herself) to the larger universe.  Her last painting, before she unexpectedly died of a heart attack at age 53, was Revolving Still Life.   Pieces of fruit spin off plates as the planets orbit the sun. How interesting the many ways she can connect the small and ordinary with the big, cosmic implications!  She has many online followers and fans of her work.  There was an exhibition in Los Angeles last Spring which featured 10 of her paintings.