Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 23, 2009
Celeste-Marie Bernier African American Visual Arts: From Slavery to the Present Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. 320 pp.; 16 color ills. Paper $24.95 (9780807859339)

In the introduction to African American Visual Arts: From Slavery to the Present, Celeste-Marie Bernier positions her study in relation to a widely recognized problem within African American art history and criticism:

In my view, far too many critics celebrate African American artists solely for their ability to survive political disenfranchisement, racist brutality and cultural annihilation, rather than for the ground-breaking formal qualities and aesthetic properties of their art. Traditionally in African American art criticism, artistic issues have been discounted in favour of their sociological, biographical and historical implications. Similarly, attempts by scholars to define a black visual arts canon or a key set of aesthetic principles have led to over-generalized and reductive readings, which eschew the complexities of the tradition. (4)

This statement directs the reader toward the author’s methodological concerns as well as toward a set of assumptions about African American art that underscore her study.

Bernier observes, correctly, that there has been far too much emphasis on the sociological meaning of art made by black Americans at the expense of serious inquiry into their formal artistic practices. One hears this lament frequently in the literature on African American art from historians and critics alike. Bernier finds support for her project in a wide range of authors who have spoken with eloquence and conviction on this matter, including, among others, James Smalls, Michelle Wallace, and bell hooks. This book is thus characterized as an object-based inquiry that will “encourage viewers to read against the grain, not only of their own assumptions but also of much contemporary scholarship” (2). Bernier further distinguishes her critical study as one that places particular emphasis on what the artists themselves said about their works and their aesthetic intent, and for this she draws heavily on a range of primary sources, both published and unpublished, from interviews to letters and essays. In this aspect she aligns herself with the approach taken by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson in A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (New York: Pantheon, 1993), and shares with them a “determination to examine artists’ thematic concerns and aesthetic issues in light of their personal statements and ‘individual histories’” (quoted in Bernier, 3).

Also embedded in this statement is Bernier’s acceptance of the premise that an African American visual arts tradition does exist and can be examined as a discrete phenomenon. In considering her own contribution to mapping this tradition, Bernier acknowledges cautions raised by notable historians such as David Driskell and Richard Powell about creating a separate category for black artists that might essentialize race or effectively isolate black artists from mainstream practice along racial lines. But she rationalizes this singular focus on the grounds that black artists clearly influenced one another and that “their works betray a shared commitment to the search for a new visual language within which to represent personal and public narratives and histories related to African American life” (10). In terms of specific themes that have remained consistent elements in what she identifies here as a black visual arts tradition are a continuing interest across generations in, among other things, history, memory, improvisation, narrative, and resistance.

African American Visual Arts unfolds as a series of case studies organized into thematic chapters that are also loosely chronological. Each section includes a brief introduction to the artists under consideration and raises questions about extant critical commentary on their works. This general discussion is followed by the analysis of two individual works for each artist, supplemented by digressions on other artists and on the overall problematic of writing about African American art. Bernier is consistent in terms of the approach described in the introduction and the issues she wishes to examine. The productive interaction in these artists’ careers between the struggle to come to terms with black experience and their intense interest in aesthetic principles remains a theme throughout. Bernier’s observations are rich and nuanced and, even when not wholly original, enliven an understanding of these objects within the parameters she has set. She draws frequent comparisons between artists across generations and media, reinforcing her thesis that varied and innovative ways of addressing race, representation, identity, and the fight for agency have broadened the scope, range, subject matter, and style of African American art. In this sense she delivers on her promise to encourage close readings and appreciation of aesthetic complexity; as such this book is a welcome addition to the critical literature on African American art.

Some of Bernier’s choices are predictable and others surprising. Chapter 1, entitled “Beginnings of the Visual Arts Tradition,” is the most playful in terms of the artists selected and their implied connections. She considers in sequence Dave the Potter, photographer James Ball, quiltmaker Harriet Powers, sculptor Edmonia Lewis, and painter Henry O. Tanner. This grouping makes for strange bedfellows and some novel associations. Chapter 2 is a more conventional discussion of the Harlem Renaissance era that focuses on Aaron Douglas, Archibald Motley, and Charles Alston. The Harlem Renaissance chapter rehearses well-known central themes, with attention given to the alternate positions of Alain Locke, W. E. B. DuBois, and James Porter, and to the heavy emphasis placed on race pride and the overturning of stereotypes during this time. One senses the author’s impatience with some of the standard Harlem Renaissance tropes such as the romantic idealization of Africa and the straining toward racial uplift that characterized a good deal of this work. Not surprisingly Douglas’s Aspects of Negro Life (1934) is addressed in some detail; but the section on Motley includes a welcome look at his late painting, The First One Hundred Years (1963–1972), and the Alstons she examines are works that extend Harlem Renaissance themes into paintings from the postwar era.

Chapter 3, organized around the themes of “Struggle, Survival and Early Abstraction,” considers the stylized figurative paintings of William Edmonson, Horace Pippin, and Jacob Lawrence, who are grouped together on the basis of their mutual impulse to reject literal realism. This is followed by a discussion, in chapter 4, of history, narrative, populism, and social activism in Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, and Gordon Parks. Two final chapters deal respectively with the emergence of new visual languages in the works of Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, and Betty Sayre, and with the “Transgressive Visual Poetics” of David Hammons, Howardina Pindell, and Kara Walker. The bibliography is very good and usefully separated into archival sources, public and private galleries and museums (all with their web addresses), audio-visual materials (including film titles and producers), and general literature.

Bernier’s interest in establishing the aesthetic ambition of these artists is admirable, and she effectively demonstrates the often experimental relationship between subject, form, and content that characterizes their works. But her frequent references to the shortcomings of other historians and critics whom, in her opinion, routinely underestimate these complexities seem at times ill placed. In part this results from taking remarks out of context which are then used to support her arguments either through negation or agreement. She also spoils her case by occasionally exaggerating or simplifying the positions assigned to the authors with whom she takes issue. Her assertion that “scholars of African American Art repeatedly overlook how, for the majority of artists, the desire to represent issues related to a range of black experiences does not preclude formal experimentation,” strikes me as overstated, especially given the growing number of historians and critics for whom this dynamic is a central concern (6). And one wonders about the presumed need to point out that the “determination to push aesthetic boundaries while examining cultural, historical, and political issues is not mutually exclusive” (6). (Recent exhibition catalogues on Bearden and Lawrence, for example, stress the compatibility of social engagement and aesthetics in the artists’ careers.)

The reliance on artist’s statements to establish key ideas and approaches serves Bernier well with the notable exception of the chapter on Lewis, Bearden, and Saar. Here one regrets the absence of a broader art-historical context that would have aligned these artists more closely with their non-black peers. The priorities she conveys through the artists’ words were widely shared by an entire generation preoccupied with aesthetic issues, artistic experimentation, and the determination to establish themselves as artists rather than social commentators, claims made on behalf of these three African American artists. The discussion of Lewis seems especially problematic in this regard. She describes Fantasy (1946) as a canvas that “relishes in abstract play to animate a dreamscape of unruly and contradictory emotions and capture psychological landscapes which exist beyond language and can only be released via abstract play,” concluding that a viewing of the painting results in a “highly subjective experience with no guidelines for interpretation” (169). Such statements seem as if they could easily be applied to any number of his contemporaries irrespective of race.

Notwithstanding the extensive research that has gone into the production of this book, and despite its rather expansive title, Bernier makes no claims for African American Visual Arts: From Slavery to the Present as a comprehensive history. She argues instead for an enlarged understanding of a singular tradition that can be charted through the handful of innovative works discussed. Because the artists themselves are positioned in relation to one another, as opposed to their time or non-black peers, and because Bernier’s readings consistently circle back to aesthetic innovation in the service of communicating race and racial experience, the insularity of African American artists is reinforced even as greater understanding of their work is fostered. While Bernier admits to the potential pitfalls of strictly race-based interpretations, and to an extent lays blame for critical oversimplification at their feet, what is never seriously considered here is the possibility that the very act of reifying the notion of a distinctive African American visual arts tradition might be intrinsically problematic. A great deal of scholarly literature on African American artists, which has grown in tandem with interest in the work of contemporary black artists, encourages a healthy skepticism toward critical approaches that centralize race as an over-arching thematic in appraising and explicating their works. In other words, as a study dedicated to the consideration of African American artists with the stated intention to bring greater complexity to the discourse, Bernier’s account must also be measured against emerging interpretive paradigms that do not so much transcend race but call its semiotic dominance into question.

African American Visual Arts is an informative and interesting book. Yet despite the author’s desire to avoid a narrow, conventional understanding of her material by foregrounding the aesthetic complexity of the works she examines, the study is ultimately held captive by what Darby English describes as a chronic condition within the history and criticism of African American art: “while limiting our attention to what these artists have to say about blackness will surely ‘keep the conversation going,’ it will also prevent the conversation from going anywhere particularly new” (Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 14).

Mary Ann Calo
Batza Professor of Art and Art History, Colgate University

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