Published: November 8, 2011
Sixty-seven works by African American artists have recently been acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), from collector John Axelrod, an MFA honorary overseer and longtime supporter of the museum.
The purchase has enhanced the MFA’s American holdings, transforming it into one of the leading repositories for paintings and sculpture by African American artists. The museum’s collection will now include works by almost every major African American artist working during the past century and a half. Seven of the works are now displayed in the Art of the Americas Wing, in time for its one-year anniversary this month.
Assembled by Axelrod over the course of 15 years, the collection is regarded as one of the finest holdings of American art by African American artists. It features works that span the mid-Nineteenth through Twentieth Centuries by renowned artists, many of whom have been unrepresented at the MFA, and a grouping of 18 works by Brazilian artists of African descent. Included in the acquisition are 39 paintings, 10 drawings and 18 three-dimensional objects (sculpture, ceramics, glass and mixed-media assemblage).
The initial seven works from the collection to be displayed are on view on Level 3 of the wing. “Cocktails” by Archibald Motley Jr, the iconic painter of Chicago’s Bronzeville community, and untitled (1930) by Aaron Douglas are in the John Axelrod Gallery (1920s and 1930s). Five additional works are on view in the Melvin Blake and Frank Purnell Gallery: “Big Wind in Georgia,” about 1933, by Hale Woodruff; “Shotguns,” 1983‸6, by John Biggers; “Environment,” 1947, and “Still-Life: Past Revisited,” 1973, both by Eldzier Cortor; and “Greene Street,” 1940, by Beauford Delaney.
Also among the works by African American artists are paintings by Nineteenth Century landscapists Edward Bannister and Robert Scott Duncanson, as well as Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose rare depiction of Tangiers, “Street Scene, Tangiers,” about 1910, is included among the works the MFA acquired from the Axelrod collection. “Tangiers” joins Tanner’s “Interior of a Mosque,” 1897, already in the museum’s collection. Featured in the collection’s Twentieth Century holdings are works by artists associated with the 1920s and 1930s.
In addition to Douglas and Woodruff, these include W.H. Johnson and Loïs Maillou Jones, as well as sculptors Sargent Johnson, Augusta Savage, William Edmondson and James Richmond Barthé.
Demonstrating the range of styles of works by post-World War II-era African American artists is Norman Lewis, whose black and white painting “Every Atom Glow: Electrons in Luminous Vibration,” 1951) illustrates the Abstract Expressionist style. Works by Charles Alston, Bob Thompson, Romare Bearden, Charles White and Kerry James Marshall are also included in the group.
Additionally, the Axelrod collection’s selection of Twentieth Century works by Brazilian artists of African descent comprises paintings, carved wood sculptures, and a work on paper, reflecting a unique aspect of the global black diaspora.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is at 465 Huntington Avenue. For information, www.mfa.org or 617-267-9300.
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