Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 14, 2017
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw and Richard J. Powell Represent: 200 Years of African American Art in the Philadelphia Museum of Art Exh. cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2014. 224 pp. Cloth $42.00 (9780876332498)
Exhibition schedule: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, January 10–April 5, 2015

Represent: 200 Years of African American Art in the Philadelphia Museum of Art is that institution’s first survey of their collection of art by Americans of African descent. Each of the essays in the catalogue provides critical justifications for treating art and craftsmanship produced by African Americans as separate from a larger body of American art, while also noting the tenuousness of doing so. In the catalogue’s foreword, Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) Director and Chief Executive Officer Timothy Rub describes the historical exclusion of black artists within broader institutional art structures, and the unevenness of the PMA in acquiring work by African American artists. The museum established a more consistent approach to developing their black art collection in 2001 by forming an African American Collections Committee. Represent allows an assessment of these undeniably rich materials that span from the colonial period to the present day.

Richard J. Powell’s introductory essay considers how to examine a varied body of art by black practitioners while avoiding the pitfalls of racial essentialism. Subsequent essays by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw provide the historical contextualization necessary to understand the diverse body of work under consideration. The individually authored catalogue entries reinforce this important contextualization, providing key works with close readings that elaborate the intricacies of their making and meaning. The catalogue as a whole showcases the PMA’s rich collection of art and craftsmanship made by African American artists, and because of its material, formal, and conceptual range, makes no reductive claims on what African American art can, should, or will be, but rather underscores the depth to which black artists have contributed to American visual and material culture.

In his essay “Walking on Water: Embodiment, Abstraction, and Black Visuality,” Powell pairs the terms “embodiment” and “abstraction” as a means of contemplating the complex relationship between race (understood as an elusive term) and artistic production. Powell writes, “As one considers artistic conceptions of racial identities, embodiment stresses the artistic act of visibly capturing a racial quintessence, whereas abstraction enables an artist to avoid racial specificities and corporeal materializations altogether, ostensibly through artistic designs and forms that differ from the embodying kind” (1; emphasis in original). Powell further concedes that embodiment and abstraction may coexist within a single work. He provides a framework for approaching race in art, preventing an easy correlation between the race of the artist and the visual materials she or he creates. In pairing this concept with an illustration of African Fantasy (ca. 1925) by white German artist Winold Reiss, Powell does not limit his meditation on blackness to African American artists, but rather he illuminates the ways in which black art and cultural production have enjoyed a long history with many and varied interpreters.

While Powell provides a philosophical space from which to ponder the collection, Shaw considers the rich history that engendered these works. In her first chapter, “The Art of Everyday Life,” Shaw presents a long history of African American artistic production beyond the “fine arts.” Attention to colonial and antebellum black art has been a vital and ongoing project and importantly broadens conceptions of art history and the place of African Americans within it. The PMA’s range of objects and Shaw’s careful attention to them recalls artist and art historian James A. Porter’s 1937 essay “The Negro Artist and Racial Bias.” Porter castigated Harlem Renaissance scholar Alain Locke for, among other things, his lack of attention to the long and important history of black art and craftsmanship in the United States. Seeking to remedy this oversight in the early chapters of Modern Negro Art (1943), Porter laid a foundation for further study, which has since been taken up by multiple scholars in the fields of art history and material culture. Shaw’s chapter illuminates how craftsmanship fits decisively and convincingly within a larger book dedicated to African American art. The enslaved and free African American silversmiths, clock makers, quilters, and potters created and innovated traditions in American material culture that speak to their profound spirit of enterprise and creativity. The chapter also addresses more recent work in textiles, fashion design, and hat–making, ranging from the quilt makers of Gee’s Bend to the dissident humor of Patrick Kelly’s clothing designs.

In her second chapter, Shaw examines the work of artists positioned “outside the door” (the chapter’s title) of most fine-arts institutions because of their designation as self-taught or one of the many other problematic monikers used to describe artists without formal academic training. In defining and also complicating the various terms applied to non-academic art, Shaw furthers Powell’s introductory discussion of the elusiveness of artistic and identity categories. Using fundamental early twentieth-century polemical essays by Van Wyck Brooks, George Schuyler, Langston Hughes, and Holger Cahill, among others, Shaw locates an enduring interest in American folk culture. She also emphasizes the communities in which folk artists worked rather than their “discovery” by prominent buyers, artists, and curators. Shaw writes, “Although [Charles] Shannon is typically credited with having ‘discovered’ [Bill] Traylor, it is doubtful that he was the first person to marvel at the man’s rich visual repertoire” (59). Shaw underscores the importance of neighborhood conversation and observation and the inevitable space between local/community and institutional validation. Vital African American folk artists in this chapter include Traylor, Clementine Hunter, William Edmondson, and Horace Pippin alongside academically trained artists who embrace a folk aesthetic such as William H. Johnson and Jacob Lawrence.

Shaw’s chapter “Imagining Modernity” focuses on formally trained artists, first indicating the long history of exclusion of African Americans from fine arts institutions as students and exhibitors, but also the increasing artistic freedom and desire for exploration seen in the first half of the twentieth century. Attention to Henry Ossawa Tanner includes his Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1897) and Annunciation (1898), works that showcase his sensitivity to African American representation, as well as his foremost position as a painter of modern Christian art. Shaw examines Harlem Renaissance and Works Progress Administration-era art in the PMA’s collection by artists including Aaron Douglas, Sargent Johnson, Dox Thrash, and William H. Johnson, alongside the succeeding political art of figures such as Charles White, John Woodrow Wilson, and Elizabeth Catlett. This section includes a wide range of approaches to representing black Americans, alongside attention to architectural spaces. These spaces sometimes imply a black presence, as in Roy DeCarava’s enigmatic Hallway (1953), and other times convey a European setting through modernist delivery, as in Johnson’s Winter in Kerteminde (ca. 1930–34) and Allan Freelon’s pastel chapel, Our Lady of Good Voyage (before 1935). Vital explorations of abstraction include Douglas’s Birds in Flight (1927) and Romare Bearden’s Untitled (The Bull Charging a Matador) (1945–46). Multiple works in the collection exhibit the strengths of an artist outside of the style or theme for which she or he is typically credited; rather than Douglas’s Afro-Deco style, for example, the catalogue includes his early cubist experimentation with form and color in Birds in Flight and his attention to modernist portraiture in Portrait of Langston Hughes (ca. 1926).

In her final essay, “The Conceptual Turn,” Shaw furthers, and ultimately leaves open, the relevance of the category “African American art.” She writes that by the pluralistic twenty-first century, art categorized by the race of its maker may seem “increasingly regressive” (145). Shaw notes, however, that the political and social progress made by African Americans has not resulted in “representational parity in the visual arts in the areas of scholarship and exhibition access” (145). She contends that we must continue to understand the restrictions that black artists face, while evaluating their art using multiple methods. Artists that thwart or complicate definitions of African American art are not new, Shaw notes. Art by abstractionists including Barbara Chase-Riboud, Richard Hunt, Martin Puryear, and Sam Gilliam have posed true conceptual and formal challenges for art critics who want to read the artist’s “blackness” into his or her work. Pairing work of black abstractionists alongside directly political artists from groups such as AfriCobra, Shaw details the complex artistic, political, and social issues facing black artists of the civil rights and Black Power eras, making clear that even within these politically volatile periods artists of African descent engaged a profoundly broad field of subjects and techniques. Shaw leaves the reader with an uncertain but appropriate question as to how long the category “African American art” can continue to exist. As a whole, Represent brings together an impressive collection of African American art in a manner that shows its inherent and inevitable complexity. The text represents a landmark for advancing the study of African American art, within and well beyond the PMA’s collection.

Phoebe Wolfskill
Associate Professor, Department of American Studies and African American and African Diaspora Studies, Indiana University