Art City: Broadening the spectrum

The Figge’s African American Art Since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center constitutes 55 artists represented through 62 works of art in a variety of media: paintings, prints, collages, photography, ceramics, sculpture and video. The work, which is on loan from The David C. Driskell Center, encompasses the broad spectrum of political and social issues that African-American artists have grappled with over the past 60 years. Although the show includes examples of abstract art, the exhibit predominantly portrays societal and racially inspired issues through numerous forms of representational art. The exhibit revolves around three major themes.

First, it focuses on artists who were contemporaries of David C. Driskell, a man bearing many job titles: Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of Maryland, artist, art historian, collector and curator. In the 1950s and 1960s, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Sam Gilliam and others re-examined their cultural heritage via the art of the African Diaspora and opened up a dialogue about what it meant to be African American.

"Jazz Singer, Lady of Leisure" by David Driskell -- image courtesy of the Figge Art Museum
“Jazz Singer, Lady of Leisure” by David Driskell — image courtesy of the Figge Art Museum

The exhibit’s second aim is to illustrate how black artists in the later part of the 20th century integrated postmodern theories into their work. Pieces by artists like Beyte Saar, Carrie Mae Weems and Elizabeth Catlett reflect on questions of identity, sexuality, gender and race. Lastly, the exhibit spotlights emerging talents who are reinvigorating themes of cultural and ethnic identity from a global perspective, such as Sanford Biggers and Willie Cole.

The breadth of artistic approaches and the emotional and intellectual magnitude present in the exhibit is incredible. Five of the artists on display in African American Art Since 1950 particularly exemplify the themes in the exhibit.

Driskell’s peers, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence are recognized as two of the most famous African-American painters of the 20th century. Early on in their careers, they received critical acclaim for their portrayal of African-American life.

Lawrence is best known for his Migration Series, a group of 60 panels that depicts the Great Migration—the movement of millions of African-Americans from the rural south to urban settings across the country. One silkscreen by Lawrence from 1977 that appears in the exhibit, “The Carpenters,” addresses both metaphorically and literally the act of building and construction. In “The Carpenters,” a hulking man in the foreground leans over a table with his arms angled out the side, resembling a mountain. Behind him two other carpenters who energetically brandish the tools of the trade, appear undaunted by the task at hand.

A collage by Romare Bearden, entitled “Morning” (1975), characterizes the artistic sensibility that made him the “the nations’ foremost collagist,” as he was described in the New York Times in his 1988 obituary. “Morning” shows a mother and child beside a breakfast table overflowing with flowers and fresh fruit. A picnic basket, pot-bellied stove and a rocking chair serve as emblems of Americana. It is a heart-felt domestic scene that speaks poetically about the human condition and about our collective experience of family life.

"The Black Woman Speaks" by Elizabeth Catlett -- image courtesy of the Figge Art Museum
“The Black Woman Speaks” by Elizabeth Catlett — image courtesy of the Figge Art Museum

Artist Lorna Simpson is primarily a photographer, but her contribution to the show is a mixed media sculpture called “III” (1994). Three wishbones—one white, the second black and the third transparent—are displayed on a felt setting inside a wooden box. The work calls to mind both medieval reliquaries and assemblage art by the Dadaists. Though this piece appears to be a plea for racial equality, the meaning is open-ended. By altering the colors of the bones, Simpson would seem to be alluding to the antiquated but long-held belief that whites and blacks were anatomically different.

A print by Kerry James Marshall, “May 15, 2001 RI” (2003), confronts racial prejudices within the art community by displaying the huge disparity between the pricing of work by white and black artists of equal stature. The print lays out key players in the contemporary art world next to the price of a single piece of their artwork. Artists featured include Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, Gerhard Richter and Jean Michel Basquiat. Much of the work by the artists, except for Basquiat (an artist of color) fetched several millions of dollars apiece in 2001. In Marshall’s print, we see that the same year one of  Pollock’s pieces brought in close to $8 million, Basquiat’s “Furious Man” went for only six figures. Until 2002, Basquiat’s work had never sold for more than $3 million. Over the decade since Marshall’s “May 15, 2001 RI” was created, Basquiat has gained popularity—as evidenced by one of his pieces selling for upwards of $16 million in 2012 and several others averaging $14 million each according to a New York Times article.

"Party's Over" by Felrath Hines -- image courtesy of the Figge Art Museum
“Party’s Over” by Felrath Hines — image courtesy of the Figge Art Museum

One of the most astute and emotionally charged pieces in the exhibit is by a young Chicago-based artist named Jefferson Pinder. His video installation, “Invisible Man,” reenacts the first passage of Ralph Ellison’s famous novel. In this opening scene, the narrator describes living rent-free in the dank basement of an apartment building occupied solely by white tenants. The basement, which has no windows, is lit symbolically by 1,369 light bulbs that reveal the reality of his social invisibility. Dressed in a suit, Pinder stands stock-still before the camera. One by one the bare bulbs suspended above him switch on. Gradually, all the lights come on and he is engulfed by the glare of white light. Then the process reverses, as each of the 1,369 bulbs switches off, and it is pitch-black again. This process continues in a continuous loop, and each time the viewer becomes more aware of something they missed before.

African American Art Since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center opened Sept. 27 and will be on display through Jan. 4. The exhibit is well-curated, inspiring and, quite frankly, incredibly moving.

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