Sunday, March 19, 2000

Collection runs gamut of this genre, Driskell says

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        To learn about African-American art, there's no better teacher than David Driskell and no better classroom than the David C. Driskell Collection.

        To learn about the art, “I would begin with the name of Joshua Johnston,” Mr. Driskell says, “though I don't have any works by him in my collection because I can't afford it. (They would cost tens of thousands of dollars each.)

        Joshua Johnston was a Baltimore itinerant painter who painted in the 1790s and 1800s.

        “But I would begin, in my collection, with Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872) who painted in Cincinnati in the mid-19th century. I think it is primary that people understand the importance of this man's work because he painted beyond the context of race.”

        Mr. Duncanson painted in the tradition of the Hudson River School of Eastern landscape painters. “He felt that he had a mission to paint; that he was following in the footsteps of the great American wilderness painters who saw the beauty of nature as part of their calling,” Mr. Driskell says.

        Mr. Duncanson's murals in Cincinnati's Taft Museum of Art are among the most important works of 19th-century African-American art.

Racial identity
        The first section of the exhibition, “Strategic Subversions: Cultural Emancipations, Assimilation and African American Identity, (1880-1920)” features artists who worked in the current European and Euro-American manner such as Mr. Duncanson, Edward Mitchell Bannister and Henry O. Tanner (1859-1936). Mr. Tanner studied with Thomas Eakins and painted scenes of the rural South and North Africa.

        “Then into 20th century, you start with Meta Warrick Fuller, (1887-1968) an academically trained sculptor who went to Paris at the turn of the century to study with Rodin,” Mr. Driskell says.

        Mr. Driskell's mentor at Howard University, James V. Herring (1887-1969), is represented in the collection with a small, Impressionist watercolor.

        The second section of the exhibition “Emergence: The New Negro Movement and Definitions of Race” covers the period from 1920 to 1940.

        “Then there's Aaron Douglas (1899-1979), who heeded the call of the philosophers and scholars of the time to look to African art for inspiration,” launching the still prevalent concept of creating art based on African imagery rather than on European art.

        “That was at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, and that really opened up this concept of blackness, of racial identity; the return to Africa.” In Harlem many artists, including Jacob Lawrence (born 1917), were “moving the notion away from painting forms that did not reflect African-American history.

        “This is where you get the beginning of that idea of a mission or message-oriented art ... that we had to do something different from what Euro-American artists were doing because they were leaving us out of the picture. And when they pictured us, it was in derogatory form (and) stereotypical images,” Mr. Driskell says.

Key artists
        The third section, “The Black Academy: Teachers, Mentors and Institutional Patronage,” includes artists who were teachers and who inspired and encouraged younger generations.

        “So these artists really turned into themselves and started redefining the art. And after that, you have a whole spectrum of artists. It goes on and on with artists significantly making images that reflected the African-American experience. Some of them are still making art.”

        In the 1950s and '60s artists such as Charles White, Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett were actively involved in the press for civil rights, featured in the section titled “Radical Politics, Protest and Art.”

        Charles White (1918-1979), a master of the art of lithography, is one of the artists best known in the African-American community. His three works in the Driskell Collection reflect three phases of his art.

        “Awaiting His Return” from 1945 is a Cubist-inspired black and white lithograph of a woman at the end of World War II. His “Wanted Poster Series,” 1970, shows the faces of a mother and child against a background of posters for runaway slaves. “The Prophet,” 1975-76, adds color and a surreal setting to make his message more universal.

        Romare Bearden, (1914-1988) also represented by three works, is considered to be the most important American collage artist of the 20th century, and the artist best known in the mainstream art world. Bits of fabric and patterned papers are combined with photos cut from magazines to create scenes from African-American life.

        Elizabeth Catlett (born 1915), one of the first African-American feminists artist, uses wood, either in wood sculpture or in woodblock prints, to explore the struggles and dignities of the African-American woman. There is one sculpture and three prints by Ms. Catlett in the exhibition.

        The final section, “Diaspora Identities/Global Arts,” is the most contemporary and diverse part. It shows a wide variety of artistic approaches from the folk art of Clementine Hunter (1887-1988) to the pure abstraction of Sam Gilliam (born 1933). This work raises questions about the very definitions of African-American art. The diversity of the work illustrates the artists' refusal to be bound by fashion or dogma.

Collection frames rich culture
- Collection runs gamut of this genre, Driskell says
Works from permanent collection coincide with Driskell exhibit
Museum acquires sculpture by Elizabeth Cattlett

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