Published: March 23, 2004
From April 2 to June 7, the Currier Museum of Art will host “African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum,” an exhibition featuring 61 paintings, sculptures and photographs.
The exhibition includes Richmond Barthé, Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks and Renée Stout, among others.
The artists reveal a complex mingling of influences and experiences – including historical events, political issues, spirituality, music and folklore, as well as personal vision. The Smithsonian American Art Museum began acquiring work by African American artists in the 1960s. This exhibition is a sampling of these works – not a comprehensive survey of them – selected from approximately 2,000 artworks by African Americans now in the museum’s collection.
American music inspired many artists in the exhibition. In Romare Bearden’s “Empress of the Blues,” 1974, swaying musicians back up the mesmerizing soloist Bessie Smith. Shifting planes of colored paper and magazine cutouts create staccato patterns and rhythms, creating their own visual music. Bearden saw legendary singer and songwriter Bessie Smith, who earned the title “Empress of the Blues,” perform in Harlem where he grew up.
William H. Johnson, who studied in New York City and Paris, changed from impressionism to a flat, consciously naïve style in the late 1930s, when he began to focus on African American subjects. In “Café” (about 1939-40), Johnson used modernist flat colorful forms in a humorous portrayal of a smartly dressed couple in a Harlem café.
In Jacob Lawrence’s “The Library” (1960), figures engrossed in reading are situated in his characteristically flattened space. Lawrence’s library view evokes his childhood experiences when he frequently visited the 135th Street Public Library in Harlem.
Sam Gilliam, during the late 1970s, began cutting and rearranging geometric shapes from thickly painted canvases. The shifting irregular patterns in these randomly patterned canvases resemble those found in African American “crazy quilts.” In “Open Cylinder” 1979, thrusting verticals covered with rectangles and arched forms suggest a pillar that has been shattered, its shards now resting side-by-side.
Portraits and documentary images have dominated the subject matter of modern black photographers, including James VanDerZee, Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks and Robert McNeill. NcNeill’s 1938 photograph “New Car” (South Richmond, Va.) from the project The Negro in Virginia, gives us a slice-of-life image. A native of Washington, D.C., McNeill created this photograph while working for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. This lighthearted scene of young men admiring a new car emphasizes shared moments of rare success at a time when economic distress was common for most.
Allan Rohan Crite tapped into the social milieu of his community. “Sunlight and Shadow,” 1941, is one of about two dozen paintings he created for the government’s art projects during the Depression, in which he documented the people and architecture in his Roxbury, Mass., neighborhood. The scene reminds us of the importance of extended families in African American communities.
Programs at the Currier include a gallery talk May 6 by Barry Gaither, founder and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury. He will examine how artists have portrayed their dual heritage in a positive light, counteracting the degrading caricatures once prevalent in popular culture.
On May 20, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, chief curator of the Peabody Essex Museum and formerly chief curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, will explore key themes in modern African American art and discuss how the first major public collection of this art was formed by a historically non-black institution.
Several artists will get the spotlight every Friday afternoon in April and May, when a film showcasing an artist represented in the exhibition will be shown in the auditorium. And on Sundays, April 4 and 18 and May 2 and 16, the Currier will offer special guided tours of the exhibition.
The Currier Museum of Art, 201 Myrtle Way, is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, from 11 am to 5 pm; Thursday, 11 am to 8 pm; Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm. For information, 603-669-6144 ext. 108 or visit the Currier at www.currier.org.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm