The Crocker Art Museum presents African-American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond from June 29 through September 21, 2014. The exhibition draws from the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection and includes 100 sculptures, paintings and photographs by African-American artists from the 1920s through the 1990s.
As the only West Coast venue, 48 artists are represented in the exhibit including Alma Thomas, Benny Andrews, Jacob Lawrence, Loïs Mailou Jones, Gordon Parks,Sam Gilliam and William H. Johnson, and more currently Roland L. Freeman to name a few.
The 20th century was a time of great change in America, with many social, cultural and political movements defining the period such as the sociocultural Harlem Renaissance, racial equality and civil rights movement. Rooted in African-American communities like Harlem, Baltimore and the Bronx, black artists explored not only their neighbors and community’s identity, but also their own through expressionism, abstraction, postmodernism and documentary realism. The African-American art integrated subject matter that was both universal and particular to the African-American experience – the struggle for equality, the power of music (mostly jazz), identity exploration, life and hardship in rural and urban America.
Although, black artists produced countless works during the 20th century, their work rarely made it into museums. For example, while American painter, Loïs Mailou Jones studied painting at the School of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Académie Julian in Paris, and also taught at Howard University in the 1930s, she submitted her work anonymously to ensure it would be exhibited.
According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s chief curator, Virginia Mecklenburg, Jones was certain that if the museum who accepted her work, “knew that it was painted by a black woman,” it most likely would not have been acknowledged.
Paintings in the exhibit deal with themes ranging from farm laborers in Georgia to homelessness, with artists influenced by Paul Gauguin, Edward Hopper, Edward Steichen and Pablo Picasso.
The exhibit explores “dynamic cubist” artist, Jacob Lawrence, who portrayed Harlem and was best known for his narrative abolitionist, war and Migration of the Negro series. Romare Bearden worked with Christian themes and the American sculptor, Melvin Edwards concentrated on African heritage. Visitors will survey Harlem photographer, James Van Der Zee, who documented African-American life of the 1920s in carefully posed portraiture, and photographer, Roy DeCarava, a civil rights crusader, who “looked at everyday Harlem from the inside.”
The Crocker Museum exhibit also examines celebrated 20th century photographer-filmmaker, Gordon Parks. His diverse body of work included prints of celebrities and politicians along with his most recognizable photographs, American Gothic, Emerging Man and his 1948 photo essay on Harlem Gangs for Life magazine.
“Each of the artists included in this exhibition made a compelling contribution to the artistic landscape of 20th century America,” explains Mecklenburg. She noted that the show lets visitors acquire a better understanding of the abundant change that took place in the 20th century through the “eyes of the artists” and that their works are critical to “understanding the complex American experience.”
The exhibition presents an extensive and comprehensive collection of visual diversity, from celebrated to less known artists. It explores reactions and emotions from hope and optimism to desolation, tension and spirituality. Though the show highlights a narrow time span, it was an exceptionally vibrant and compelling era of social and artistic progression that had an enduring influence on American art, a materiality that is revealed in the African-American art exhibition.
By Dawn Levesque