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This story by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 4, 1998. All rights reserved.
Black Art at the State Museum
Like jazz -- the quintessential African-American art form -- "Art by African-Americans" at the New Jersey State Museum is original and allusive, personal and global, surprising yet familiar. It is also rich and cross-cultural, syncopated and lilting, and often beautiful.
In "Art by African-Americans in the Collection of the New Jersey State Museum," 115 pieces from the museum's total of 170 holdings are on view through the end of this year. This exhibition dominates two floors of the building and makes a collector's item of the impressive catalog that memorializes it -- enhanced by an illustrated, 15-page "Chronology of Black America."
Providing another dimension of this ambitious project, a day-long symposium on Saturday, November 7, provides a means of exploring the complex historical, cultural, and emotional issues raised by the art. With funding from the New Jersey State Council for the Humanities, "Defining a Self -- Creating a Culture: Historical Framework of African-American Cultural Expression" will explore the religious, historical, and literary culture of African-America, together with its art history. Participants include academics, historians, and well-known area figures.
"Art is essential to the development of life, not an addendum or an appendage," says Reverend Willie J. Smith, columnist and editor with the Times of Trenton and a panelist for the symposium's morning session, "Defining a Self." He credits his own cultural awakening to his family doctor, who had visited Angola and returned with figurines that he introduced to school children. Now he credits the State Museum's for bringing "that richness of art and life" to New Jerseyans, allowing them to experience "art as a friend rather than a stranger."
Spanning two centuries of creativity, "Art by African-Americans" treats a range of subjects through paintings, sculpture, prints, and photographs, and includes a representative work by each of the 60 African-American artists in the museum's collection. (The only exception is Alma Thomas, whose work is on tour.) New Jersey's collection is believed to be the biggest of any state museum, and compares favorably with most private museums, too. Trenton resident Larry Hilton, a photographer and collector of African-American art, years ago helped spur legislation by Assemblyman John Watson to purchase art for the museum. The family commitment has been carried on by Watson's daughter, Bonnie Watson Coleman, who sponsored legislation to fund the exhibition catalog.
The exhibition's comprehensive sweep is simply exhilarating. The exhibition's first floor is composed of abstract works and 19th-century landscapes with spiritual overtones, while works that exemplify African-American cultural history can be seen on the second floor, says assistant curator Alison Weld, who assembled the show and edited the catalog.
The earliest piece is an 1802 portrait by Joshua Johnson of Baltimore, and the show revisits such treasured works as Jacob Lawrence's 1943 gouache "The Music Lesson." Art after 1950 is the collection's strongest suit. The show's contemporary artists include Willie Cole, originally of Somerville, whose prints were recently featured at New York's Museum of Modern Art; also the Kentucky-born Bob Thompson, a member of Allen Ginsberg's New York circle who died in 1966 at age 28, and whose work is now the subject of a Whitney Museum retrospective.
"Art by African-Americans" gives new, and true, meaning to what, in other contexts, could be considered art cliches. For instance, it is "rich." Consider "Cobalt Twirl," Sam Gilliam's huge, encrusted acrylic on canvas of 1977 that dominates its wall, and more. Superficially suggesting Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, it involves impasto swoops of black over greens, reds, yellow, orange, pink -- and yes, cobalt. In the lower half, pieces of string sub-divides a faint rectangle, adding to the textural interest.
Lavish in a different way is "The Chase, Second Version" (1969), a sleek and sizable expressionistic sculpture by Richard Hunt. With welded steel, Hunt has created a silver-tone suggestion of insects or, perhaps, birds. Seeming eyes, and wings or other appendages might be there; the piece is semi-abstract with interesting figurative references. The sculptor's description of his work as "drawing in space" is apt.
The exhibition is "colorful." Exult in Alvin Loving's "Untitled" (1973), a jagged starburst in mixed media, that looks from a distance like painted scrap metal. Under a bright mix of matte and glossy paints in wild colors and patterns, it began life as humble corrugated paper. The exhibition's single installation is Lorenzo Pace's "In the Spirit of West African Senegalese Dance with Mary Alice Pace." Framed by two quilts made by his mother, a central panel includes elements of a ceremonial seduction dance the sculptor once witnessed in Africa -- or, possibly, the symbolic trappings of erotic love sheltered by maternal love's warmth and comfort. Almost abstract in its tranquil economy, Horace Pippin's 1946 oil, "The Hoe Cake," glows with dark shades lit by selective spots of red.
Art by African-Americans is "allusive" and "cross-cultural." Emma Amos's wall-length piece, "The Subway Series," suggests a kind of time line, with key icons of European art transmuted into the artist's own coinage. Her figure of Michelangelo's Adam, for instance, now wears a football uniform, and the figures in the background include chariot drivers appropriated from ancient Greek vases. Amos, who is a member of the faculty of Rutgers' Mason Gross School of the Arts, frames her unstretched canvases in Kente cloth, symbolic of her own heritage.
And Wendell Brooks, longtime faculty member at the College of New Jersey, shows a silhouetted man and woman in a happy, uninhibited dance in front of patterned iconic figures, letters, and numerals in his intaglio and stencil, "His Desire" (1995). Athletes of all sorts are discernible in the ground, once again pointing to athleticism as an avenue up and out for African Americans. Romare Bearden's paper collages convey universal themes, as in "Memories" and "Mississippi Monday," which shows a yellow sky, a green river, and two people washing laundry.
Appealing serigraphs from Rex Goreleigh's "Tobacco Series Portfolio" (1973) show that crop being planted, tended, protected, and harvested in prints that prefigure today's stylized Caribbean vignettes. A Princeton-area artist and art teacher who died in 1986, Goreleigh is also represented in this exhibition by his endearing 1953 oil double portrait, "Twins." Bob Thompson's 1964 "Perseus and Andromeda" translates the myth into his own terms in oil on canvas: an unbound Andromeda, a hero who brandishes a golden-bird-shaped shield, and both in flat, Fauve-like colors.
Ben Jones' vividly-painted plaster "Black Face and Arm Unit" (1971) consists of 12 African masks, many with scarification motifs, and 12 arms, mounted in two rows. The result is idealized and striking. Of this fragile work -- imagine storing it safely -- curator Weld says her (no-longer) secret dream is to find a philanthropist willing to subsidize its casting in metal.
"A vernacular Calder" is how curator Weld sees self-taught artist Lonny Holly's hanging works. His profiles are made of everyday materials; they sometimes include pieces of cloth or other natural elements; and they suggest a lot. Most of the first floor's Holly corner is taken up with his assemblages, including one made on nearby Calhoun Street: a bucket and mop are among the artifacts that hang from an ancient ironing board, together with a hose and a yellow slicker, a bottle of Thunderbird wine, a toaster, a bicycle wheel. For the artist, these are both found objects and meaningful ones, serving to connect his experiences and remind him of his past.
Works in this exhibition are also "instructive." For sheer inspiration, see Charles Wilbert White's 1947 ink-on-paper portrait of Frederick Douglass, with wonderful cross-hatchings and textures. Douglass, the escaped slave turned abolitionist, is shown in heroic mode, breaking the bonds of 11 other men, some seeming to be 20th-century figures. Selma Hortense Burke's bronze bust, "Portrait of Mary (McCleod) Bethune" (1970), suggests a stolidly strong woman, who in fact founded a college -- Bethune-Cookman College is the only black institution founded by a black woman that is still extant. Thomas Malloy, a veteran Trenton artist recently celebrated in a retrospective at Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum, is represented by "Smokestack Industry," a 1981 watercolor that captures the dynamism of the factory, shown here emitting billows of productive smoke.
The second floor photographs, both by and of noted photographers, open numerous windows onto African-American culture. They include Anthony Barboza's portrait of Romare Bearden, whose collages on wood appear downstairs, and of Gordon Parks, whose heroic 1966 photo of Muhammad Ali hangs nearby. An animated wall of photographs includes images of Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Pee Wee Russell, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Nancy Wilson -- still jamming after all these years.
-- Pat Summers
At 10 a.m., "Defining a Self," panel presentation with Sterling Bland, professor of English, Rutgers University; Larry Greene, historian, Seton Hall University; and Reverend Willie J. Smith. Discussants are historian Clement Price of Rutgers and Giles Wright, New Jersey Historical Commission.
Afternoon session opens with "Creating a Culture," with Tritobia Benjamin, dean of Fine Arts, Howard University; Ronne Hartfield, director the Chicago Art Institute's education department; and Sharon Patton, Oberlin College Art Museum director. Moderator is Alison Weld, New Jersey State Museum. Audience discussion from 3 to 4 p.m.
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