Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 18, 2016
Audrey Lewis, ed. Horace Pippin: The Way I See It Exh. cat. New York: Scala Arts Publishers, 2015. 208 pp.; 120 ills. Cloth $55.00 (9781857599411)
Exhibition schedule: Brandywine River Museum of Art, Chadds Ford, PA, April 25–July 19, 2015

In conjunction with the first exhibition project in over twenty years to provide an in-depth examination of the work of painter Horace Pippin, this catalogue’s six contributing essayists focus their texts to contrast with the platitudes that have defined Pippin’s work since the beginning of his public exhibition history in the late 1930s. These standard interpretations stubbornly persisted without critical scrutiny and “with the artist’s complicity” (53), in the words of Anne Monahan, former curator and exhibition coordinator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, originating institution for the earlier (and much referenced) 1994 exhibition I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin. They may be categorized by two somewhat conflicting positions: first, that Pippin was a self-taught folk artist who painted charming memory scenes and evocative war reminiscences; second, that he should be counted among those in the vanguard of early modernism, ingeniously inserting abstracted forms and bold colors into deceptively simple representational narratives.

This finely illustrated and beautifully produced book begins with a foreword by artist Kerry James Marshall, who, while confessing underlying satisfaction that a self-taught African American painter would so quickly rise to meteoric heights within the art world, questions whether that success was grounded in the very racial inequality that Pippin (sometimes covertly) portrayed and challenged. Would Pippin’s paintings, early on characterized as the work of an “important Negro artist,” have received similar renown if he had been white? Does celebrating him as a harbinger of American abstraction overstate his importance, when the mainstream art world had been moving in that direction for decades before Pippin ever picked up a brush? Marshall’s provocative text questions these stock assessments from the viewpoint not only of an African American, but of a painter, uneasily reevaluating possible socio-cultural subtexts to explain Pippin’s popularity.

Judith Dolkart, who examines the relationship between Pippin and the extravagant, capricious collector Albert C. Barnes, looks at the racial question through a different but complementary lens. Chronicling Barnes’s purchase and exhibition of four of Pippin’s paintings, she recounts that the collector—more widely known for his collections of European art—articulated that his prodigious collections of African work inspired him to find an African American artist of equivalent quality and to undertake efforts to advance the social and educational development of African Americans. Barnes believed that beauty, rhythm, and honesty were innate “artistic proclivities” (24) of African American artists, a commonly shared belief at this time of increasing frustration by cultural elites and members of the working class alike with the industrialized world and what it had wrought (certainly the barbarity of the first World War was blamed by many on its enhanced weapon technology, which, when coupled with traditional military strategies, caused inconceivable carnage). As Western anthropologists theorized about the “Otherness” of the “primitives” of foreign lands, parallel nostalgic reconsiderations of artistic productions from what were perceived as simpler and more expressive times in the United States focused on works by historically marginalized self-taught, Native American, and African American artists as more “authentic,” and thus of significant and increasing interest to white audiences. Described by Michel de Certeau as “rusticophilia,” this interest, originally ethnographically based, spread to the art world’s elite as well, manifested in four such exhibitions at New York’s Museum of Modern Art during the mid-1930s (American Folk Art: The Art of the Common Man in America, 1750–1900, 1932–33; Westchester Folk Art, 1934; and American Folk Art and Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America, both 1938). While Dolkart does not specifically address some of the issues raised in Marshall’s foreword, one wonders whether Barnes would have selected Pippin—the only African American artist represented in his collection—if he had not, indeed, been African American, self-taught, and with a narrative backstory (growing up in poverty, sustaining a war injury, etc.) that made him a compellingly fit subject to present to white audiences in support of Barnes’s goals to help break down racial prejudice and further African American progress.

This discomforting question needles because while the exquisitely reproduced plates and well-chosen details of Pippin’s paintings may convince the reader of his artistry, remarkably little time is spent by any of the essayists on the formal and, indeed, the aesthetic aspects of the art itself. Rather, across the board, the emphasis is on making connections between Pippin’s narrative paintings on the one hand and personal, national, and international social, cultural, and political histories on the other. Jacqueline Francis, Audrey Lewis, Monahan, and Edward Puchner all deconstruct specific incidents, events, and movements in an attempt to ascertain the relative weights of history, memory, and constructed representation in Pippin’s work, thereby seeking to debunk its popular characterization as naive memory painting.

Lewis, the exhibition’s curator, focuses on the Cabin in the Cotton series, painted in the later years of the artist’s life. A superficial glance over the gleaming rows of cotton bolls, the blue skies, and the billowing clouds might suggest—if not memory paintings, since Pippin did not visit the South and the cotton belt until 1925—personal interpretations of what might be termed ethnographic visualizations of this imagined scene. Such a cursory response might well have been in Pippin’s interest—given his target audience of white curators and collectors—but a closer examination reveals unpleasant clues documenting racial oppression and inequality. Two of these paintings were commissioned by Vogue magazine in 1944, which planned to choose an oversize image as a backdrop for a photo shoot of (white) models dressed in summery cotton dresses. When Pippin found that his war injury prevented him from working at so large a scale, the original plan was abandoned and one of the paintings—Old King Cotton (1944)—was simply reproduced in Vogue’s July issue. Perhaps misled into thinking they were being provided a glimpse into a cultural scene to which they typically lacked access, viewers of the image might have missed the racial insult of the finely dressed white woman posed against a cheerless clapboard cabin while two black workers attend to their labors, suggesting the oblivion with which consumers disregarded the sweat and strain that provided them with their finery.

Francis’s essay first concentrates on Pippin’s Lady of the Lake (1936), digging deeply into other similar representations of this image from the time—notably, that of Maxfield Parrish—but without drawing any specific connections between the two artists, or, indeed, between Pippin and any of the contemporary depictions she so extensively explores and illustrates. She next discusses Amish Letter Writer (1940) along with the lynching of Zachariah Walker, but, again, without explicitly identifying any links. While backed up by impressive research and thorough notes, her text leads the reader to the rather obvious conclusion that Pippin, like all artists to some extent, was affected by the visual images circulating around him.

Monahan, concentrating on Pippin’s John Brown Going to His Hanging (1942) and The Barracks (1945), focuses her well-researched and thoughtfully analyzed text on the intersections between history and personal representation as memoir. Carefully comparing contemporaneous illustrations and historical accounts of the various episodes that led to abolitionist John Brown’s “self-sacrifice” (42) with the details in Pippin’s somber work, she notes discrepancies in the latter’s historical veracity that appear to have resulted from the artist’s claim that his mother had been in attendance as Brown was driven to his death, a claim that seems to be contradicted by contemporaneous reports. In taking some license with history, Pippin is able to register his own interpretation of these events, an interpretation perhaps personified in the grimacing figure of the lone African American woman in the canvas, generally understood to be the artist’s mother. The brightness of her dress and the fact that she alone, of all the figures in the crowd, faces the viewer rather than the procession makes her a focal point of the composition. Pippin’s own personal association is thus conjoined with this national moment.

Similarly, in The Barracks, Monahan examines both the oil study and the final canvas to correlate Pippin’s own experiences and preoccupations with the documented historical narrative. Pippin recounted that in order to describe his war experiences in World War I he turned to painting after he found himself unable to adequately express himself with written reminiscences, so one would expect his images to be straightforward renditions of the conflict. Yet he eschews the battles, instead depicting a family-like group of soldiers, each engaged in a personal task (not unlike some of Pippin’s noted interior domestic scenes), while imparting a sense of the brotherhood necessary for strangers to be motivated to die for each other. While depicting this undercurrent of camaraderie, Pippin’s ingenuous details underscore the unequal treatment of African American soldiers at war and predicted their inability to throw off their status as second-class citizens upon their return, an assessment he envisages that at the end of World War II will parallel his own experiences in the First World War.

Puchner coalesces the varied socio-political emphases of Pippin’s works with his well-written concentration on the painting Mr. Prejudice (1943). With the central figure attacking a monumental wooden V-for-Victory that recalls Christ’s cross, the work positions the protagonist as seeking to demolish the “Double-V” campaign run by the African American press beginning in 1942. Intending to vanquish the enemy abroad as well as racial inequality and oppression at home, this campaign collaborated with African American churches involved in the Social Gospel movement, seeking to inspire parishioners to address inequality through action and engagement. Puchner clearly draws the links between Pippin’s convictions and his unswerving efforts in support of social justice: “Joining the sacred and the secular under the direction of a divine inspiration, he utilized his faith to respond to violence through art, weighing white Christianity against the evidence of its failure—in America in general and in the military in particular” (70).

This exhibition catalogue is a welcome addition to the scholarship on Pippin, yet it should not be used in isolation from other texts. While readers may be generally familiar with the artist, a succinct biography would have been a helpful addition for those unacquainted with the broad outlines of his life and works. The essayists assume a level of historical knowledge that might not be held by all readers: a two- or three-sentence synopsis of John Brown’s efforts and travails, for example, would not detract from the narrative and would promote a deeper comprehension of Pippin’s aims. The order of the essays is also somewhat awkward; with most of the essayists specifically contemplating one or two paintings, perhaps Lewis’s more expansive comments should have been positioned after Marshall’s foreword. And, again, while it is clearly worthwhile to deconstruct the details of the historical events Pippin portrayed in order to discredit the facile characterization of his work as memory paintings, an exhibition catalogue produced by an art museum, it would seem, should be more than a cultural study, and should focus more than just in passing on the bold and sometimes even daring imagery expressed through Pippin’s striking approach to texture, pattern, form, and color.

Jo Farb Hernández
Professor and Director, Natalie and James Thompson Art Gallery, San José State University, and Director, SPACES—Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments