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Works on Paper by African-American Artists

January 14 - February 25, 2007


The Snite Museum of Art celebrates African-American artists with a selection of artworks installed within the Scholz Family Works on Paper Gallery. Artists include Richard Hunt, Debra Muirhead, Martin Puryear, Faith Ringgold, Lorna Simpson, and Vincent Smith.


Text from the exhibition brochure


My People
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
-- Langston Hughes, 1923


In the 1920s, the neighborhood of Harlem in New York City experienced a flourishing of the arts. A burgeoning population of African Americans, many arriving from the South in hopes of escaping racial discrimination, was encouraged to study and pursue visual, musical, and literary arts. This cultural hotbed generated the Harlem Renaissance, paving the way for progress toward racial equality and inaugurating a legacy of African American contributions to the arts that would continue throughout the twentieth century. African American writer Langston Hughes and artists Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence confronted racial stereotypes, impugning prejudices and fighting to elevate the cultural identity of African Americans. They glorified blackness, seeking recognition as an equal, but distinct, part of American society.

The stock market crash of 1929 left a destitute economy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as part of his New Deal, established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to stimulate the economy by providing jobs through government-supported programming, including the construction of public buildings and roads and the development of a large arts project. The Federal Art Project (FAP) gave work to many artists, often in the form of public murals. The government administered commissions, provided materials and time, and sponsored exhibitions and classes, building artistic communities throughout the cities of America. Although African American artists were underrepresented and often met with inequity when applying for employment within the FAP, the opportunities that nevertheless arose allowed them to experiment with a variety of media and subject matter. They depicted contemporary life and its struggles, the continued oppression of blacks throughout the history of the South and the rest of America, and their African heritage -- themes that continue today.

When the WPA ended in 1943, the demands of World War II sustained the economy, increasing defense-related production and providing wartime jobs. Many blacks joined the service and the associated work force, but they faced prejudice when assigned positions and given responsibilities, whether at home or on the battlefront.

During the 1960s, African Americans encountered widespread social and professional discrimination. Their unrest demanded activism, and many African American artists created imagery intended for black audiences. Black expressionism was born out of the Civil Rights Movement. The artworks it engendered -- primarily brightly colored figurative compositions -- were expressive, rich in palette, and politically charged. Expressionists explored a wide range of subjects and techniques, all seeking to portray black pride and identity. Meanwhile, other artists such as sculptors Richard Hunt and Martin Puryear sought to reconnect with their African roots, and many black women artists, such as Faith Ringgold, aligned themselves with the feminist art movement.

In the late twentieth century, the struggle by black artists to create an African American cultural identity evolved into a desire for recognition of their creative achievements as artists, regardless of their race. Over the course of the century, the production of images that focus on African American life, its history in the United States, and its African heritage cultivated a unique artistic character and helped to overcome social injustice. We hope that this exhibition reveals the beauty of African American art, an art that defies categorization.


Further Reading

Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.
Driskell, David C. The Other Side of Color: African American Art in the Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2001.
Farrington, Lisa E. Creating Their Own Image: A History of African-American Women Artists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Lewis, Samella. African American Art and Artists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Powell, Richard J. Black Art: A Cultural History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002.


Artworks in the exhibition

Romare Bearden
American, 1912-1988
Gift of Beatrice Riese
Romare Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1912. His family moved to New York City in 1914 to escape racial discrimination. While taking classes at the Art Students League, Bearden was introduced to the political imagery of both the Dada art movement and the Mexican muralists, as well as to the process of collage -- the assemblage of found and fabricated images. In 1963, he helped to found Spiral Group, bringing African American artists together to address their concerns and their role in a predominantly white culture. His extensive involvement in the community influenced his subject matter, which often commented on African American life in New York City.
Mother and Child recreates a familiar Western icon with dark skin, compelling the viewer to see it in a new light. Bearden's use of the silk-screen process indicates a collage aesthetic, compartmentalizing the Virgin and Child and layering brown, black, and gray in the figures over a vibrant background. This crossover between collage and printing techniques exemplifies the difficulty in categorizing Bearden's artistic career by medium, which would not do justice to his extensive influence on twentieth-century American, and particularly African American, art.

Calvin Burnett
American, born 1921
Acquired with funds provided by the Humana Foundation Endowment for American Art
Calvin Burnett was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied at the Massachusetts School of Art. After graduation he went to work in the Boston Navy Yard, and one month later he was drafted into service for World War II. He remained at the yard until the end of the war, cleaning tanks and ships. During these years, he continued to produce art, working all day and then going home and drawing both his fellow workers and civilian scenes. He initially developed a hard, rugged stroke to express the day's labor, but he slowly broke from this rigidity, experimenting with highlighting techniques and freer line.
Burnett's attempts to recreate images from memory -- recording an impression of an experience rather than an exact visual replica -- resulted in the slight abstraction of his scenes. He exaggerated details, concentrated outlines, and slightly distorted shapes, especially in his figures and their dress and poses. His interest in music is evident in String Trio Relaxing. A woman plays a violin, while two others lounge casually but listen intently. Bright colors vibrate with lyrical swiftness, and black contours delineate bustling shapes. The composition resonates with musical energy and human interaction.
Richard Hunt
American, born 1935
Art Purchase Fund
Richard Hunt is most well known for his public sculptures, which focus on linking natural and industrial environments. Some of his early work experimented with the assemblage of found machine parts and discarded metal into unified abstract sculptures. His ability to seamlessly integrate discordant parts and to harmonize contrasts gives his sculptures their communicative power: immensity merges with delicacy, jagged forms with smooth contours, and organic curves with atypical shapes. Hunt's expertise in welding techniques allowed him to use different metals creatively for their color and visual effect, producing additional shades by varying the heat and patina applied. Surpassing the previous achievements in the medium, he became one of America's leading metal sculptors.
In this untitled work, yellow and white forms dart over a dark background, transferring the movement and vitality of Hunt's sculptures to print. A revolving focal point links the complex machine-like shapes on the left with the simple white rectangle that stretches to the right. Lines touch three of the four edges, stationing the uncertain shape and identifying it as part of a larger, immense whole that extends beyond the frame.

Jacob Lawrence
American, 1917-2000
National Association for the Exchange of Industrial Resources
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 awarded blacks the right to vote, but discrimination persisted after this law was passed. Confrontation of the Bridge depicts a meeting between local law enforcement officers and demonstrators during a series of three marches that were staged from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery to protest voter registration prejudice. The initial march was stopped by police and townspeople after just a few blocks, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Several days of brutal physical violence ensued.
In Lawrence's image, a group of blacks halts on the right, held back from crossing the bridge by a ferocious dog, which lunges into the picture on the left. Frenzied dashes of color in the background convey the precariousness of the situation, and hard-edged, vibrant colors draw attention to the anguished faces of the crowd. A number of the figures grip the bridge aggressively, stunned but determined to prevail. The single dog restraining the crowd of people balances the composition but represents the inequality, oppression, and social injustice present in the town.
The third march, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., completed the route to Montgomery. For Lawrence, this sequence of events represented an important victory for African Americans in their struggle to obtain civil, social, and cultural equality. Five months after the marches, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, rescinding the policies that had been adapted for discrimination and imposing harsh regulations to prevent bias in future voting procedures.

Deborah Muirhead
American, born 1949
color intaglio and collograph from paperboard
Acquired with funds provided by the Humana Foundation Endowment for American Art
Deborah Muirhead investigates the imprecision, or even absence, of African American history. By presenting credible fictional narratives, she reveals the conflict between a veiled past and a present that has undeniably felt the effects of this hidden history. She is particularly interested in the individual stories and genealogies of enslaved persons. By including text in her images, she provides supposed specifics, the kinds of details required to prove the verity of a tale. The phrases themselves, incomplete thoughts, are suggestive and provocative, creating further ambiguity between the imaginary and the real.
This composition is divided into quadrants, each contributing to the construction of a history and linked by a muted color scheme: white, gray, ocher, and a few black outlines. The text in the upper left, which reads from left to right, hints at the memoir of the person shown in the upper right, slightly crouched and abstracted, clutching a bag. Below, two connected crescents on the left and patterns of foliage on the right provide a sense of place and environment. These visual clues tell a disjointed story, and the almost-palpable history remains translucent, masking a hidden, unknowable truth.
Martin Puryear
American, born 1941
etching and aquatint on wove paper
Acquired with funds provided by the Humana Foundation Endowment for American Art
After his college graduation, Martin Puryear traveled to Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1964 to 1966. There, he was exposed to the unique forms of African art and to the trade of furniture building. He spent the next two years in Sweden, where the arctic landscape instilled in him an affinity with nature, and he became skilled in the crafts of basket weaving and woodworking. After returning to the United States in 1968, he began creating suggestive, fluid sculptures with a heightened sensitivity to materials and their intimate relationship to form, demonstrating the virtues of craftsmanship he had learned through his travels. Puryear's dexterous assemblage of his materials -- whether wood, stone, metal, leather, or wire -- leaves traces of his rugged construction techniques, which often include bending and stretching. Known for their subtle intrusion into the viewer's space, his sculptures intimate unrest through contrasts: static but moving, pristine but flawed, and natural but constructed.
In this work on paper, an oval, basket-like form floats in a black environment. The flat background contrasts with the white curves, which weave around three focal points. Like Puryear's sculptures, the structure hovers, unhinged in space, achieving a solid appearance but an empty, delicate weight. Power and presence permeate his minimal forms.

Faith Ringgold
American, born 1930
lithograph on paper
Acquired with funds provided by the Humana Foundation Endowment for American Art
In college, Faith Ringgold was not permitted to major in art, which was still considered a man's profession. She instead completed a degree in education and taught in the New York public schools for twenty years. While teaching, she continued to pursue her desire to become an artist, though she faced incessant racial and gender barriers. She helped establish the United Black Artist's Committee (UBAC) to combat ethnic inequality within museums but soon became discouraged with the male gender bias of the African American art movement. The female members of the UBAC split to form the Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), and Ringgold focused on her struggles as both a woman and an African American. At the same time, she explored new media, moving from painting canvases to sewing cloth, building soft sculptures, quilting, and painting and printing on textiles.
Under a Blood Red Sky originated as part of Coming to Jones Road, a story Ringgold wrote about the Underground Railroad and the journey to freedom undertaken by many African slaves before and during the Civil War. She initially produced the image as one of eight story quilts, and later she reworked it as a print. Dabs of penetrating color abstract the landscape, as a forceful triangle of black figures cuts into the forest. The artist's voice is present in the vivid color and in the words written above and below the image, expressing African Americans' continuing struggle for equality.
Lorna Simpson
American, born 1960
Art Purchase Fund
In the 1970s, conceptual art often integrated text into images to shift the emphasis from the physical form of the work to its underlying idea. Following this approach, Lorna Simpson incorporates text into her photographs to dismantle stereotypes about race and gender. She challenges the objectivity of documentary photography, questioning accepted meanings and deconstructing the photo's face value. Her text seems to promise an explanation of the image, but the disconnected phrases demand further thought and interpretation.
Hit the Nail on the Head Many a Time is part of Details, a series of twenty-one intimate images of hands engaged in different activities: holding, reaching, hanging, and resting. The stillness of the photogravure medium richens each pose, freezing it in time. In this example, a seated figure lays its hands in its lap. The image provokes additional consideration as part of a detached narrative. Separated from the rest of the body, the hands provide limited information. The exclusion of the face leaves the person anonymous, denying an individual personality but emphasizing the distinctiveness of the hands. This fragmentation of the body, and of the text, disrupts stereotyping, begging questions that go beyond the initial reaction to the image.
SHADOWS IN HARLEM, 1965­66, printed 1994
Vincent Smith
American, 1929­2003
etching on Arches paper
1997 Purchase Fund
Vincent Smith often depicted scenes of New York City neighborhoods. Reminiscent of his travels to the South, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa, they read like a journey through an urban landscape. The viewer encounters numerous faces and shops, noting the different ethnic communities nestled inside a large city. Smith's neighborhood portraits document African American life within these thriving districts, hoping to link the African American experience to a broader, shared human understanding. The artist derived his determined line and controlled vitality from the prevailing expressionist styles of the 1960s, finding them the best way to depict the turbulent social and political changes of the decade.
In Shadows in Harlem, one large man's back is to the viewer as he tramps through the space, connecting the other disordered figures. People of varied sizes walk and carry on in their own worlds, giving internal energy to the compacted, dense composition. The unpredictable proportions of shops, streetlamps, and signs compose a patchwork of slender, vertically stretched forms. Geometric, abstracted shapes create a scene bustling with action and animated by a unified experience of life.

Renee Stout
American, born 1958
lithograph in black and red
Acquired with funds provided by the Walter R. Beardsley Endowment
Renee Stout investigates the human condition and the relationship of religion and genealogical roots to the discovery of the self. She does not limit herself to one media, exploring painting, mixed-media assemblages, photography, printmaking, and installation. This multiplicity extends to her imagery, which is pulled from various religions, most often depicting native African deities and their New World descendents -- Loa, the spirits in Haitian Vodou.
In Recurring Damballah Dream, two shadowy figures hover over a seated woman, whose face is hidden beneath her hair. The male figure on the right represents Damballah, the Loa associated with rain, wisdom, and fertility. The female deity on the left wears a flowered dress and stands for Damballah's counterpart, Aida Wouedo, the rainbow spirit. The two divinities are often portrayed as intertwined snakes, a convention that is referenced in the inscription. On the abdomen of the seated woman, a veve (a religious symbol for a Loa) depicting an M surrounded by a heart symbolizes Erzulie Freida, the goddess of love, lust, and luxury. The presence of the deities imbues the image with spiritual vision and magic. The contrast of dark and light invites the viewer to plunge into the depths of the mysteries inherent in trying to understand one's existence in the world.
DAY'S END, 1962
James Lesesne Wells
American, 1902­1993
Acquired with funds provided by the Humana Foundation Endowment for American Art
Born to a minister and a teacher, James Lesesne Wells's artistic legacy was heavily influenced by his parents' professions. Wells consistently incorporated religious imagery into his work, and after receiving a degree in art education he became a renowned arts educator for African Americans. In 1929, he began teaching at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC, where he would stay for almost thirty years, providing the core studio arts program.
Early in his career, Wells worked in both painting and printmaking. He soon chose to concentrate on prints, exploring lithography, linocut, woodcut, and wood engraving. A pioneer in printmaking, he helped elevate the art form, which was not properly appreciated at the time. He saw it as a medium that African Americans could adopt as their own, and he valued its capacity for communicating ideas and influencing society. Wells recognized the ability of prints to express the human condition. In Day's End, a woman sits in tired contemplation, resting her elbow on an armrest. Intricate perpendicular lines flatten the space, bringing the buildings and the night sky into the interior scene. The uncertain perspective and subtly abstract proportions express the woman's slight distress, as she is consumed by her thoughts.

Editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Gina Costa of the Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text from the exhibition brochure.

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