Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 29, 2018
Lisa Farrington African-American Art: A Visual and Cultural History New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 480 pp.; 230 ills. Hardcover $69.95 (9780199995394)

Lisa Farrington’s African-American Art: A Visual and Cultural History is invaluable for those teaching surveys of African American art as well as any reader interested in the subject. Staple publications in this area include Sharon Patton’s African-American Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) and Richard J. Powell’s Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997; reproduced in its second edition as Black Art: A Cultural History [New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002]), rich sources now fifteen to twenty years old and in need of augmentation, particularly in light of the amazing spectrum of African American art that has stimulated scholarly and public attention since these earlier publications. The book includes nearly 40 percent female artists, which undoubtedly stems from the important research informing Farrington’s earlier publication Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) and suggests her relevance to this project. Encompassing art and material culture of multiple media, including architecture and photography, from the Colonial period through the present day, Farrington’s volume provides an extensive visual, cultural, and historical study of African American artistic production.

In her first chapter, Farrington outlines fundamentals for evaluating a work of art; she defines primary and secondary source materials and explains themes such as iconography, formalism, biography, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and contextual analysis. This section provides important art-historical terms for students, as the study of African American art inevitably involves attention to identity politics and the historical and ongoing phenomena of race and racism, yet the subject also requires that students grasp fundamental methods for considering art and visual culture. The author underscores the book’s pedagogical task by concluding each chapter with a summary, definitions of key terms, and discussion questions. Written in clear and engaging language, Farrington’s subsequent chapters combine period contextualization with examinations of individual artists and key works.

Farrington highlights Colonial-era and Federal-period architecture and design in chapters 2 and 3, exploring the larger context in which Africans found themselves in North America. She begins with the history of the Middle Passage, delves into the artistic knowledge Africans brought with them, and then describes the possibilities for artistic production by enslaved and free laborers. These chapters investigate architectural structures, musical instruments, earthenware, metalwork, woodwork, and other forms of craftsmanship. When she reaches the nineteenth century, nameable artists appear, including Dave the Potter, the quilter Harriet Powers, and the dress designer Elizabeth Keckley, who fashioned clothing for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on nineteenth-century Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and Impressionism. Farrington begins with an extended discussion of Edmonia Lewis, the context in which she fashioned her sculpture, and the many challenges she faced as a female artist of African and Native American descent. Two-dimensional media are also considered, including paintings by Jules Lion, Joshua Johnson, and Patrick Reason, and works by several printmakers, illustrators, and early photographers. In view of the fact that many of these artists are likely unknown to some readers, Farrington’s elaboration of their work and careful contextualization of the period is significant. The author’s attention to landscape painters Robert S. Duncanson and Edward Mitchell Bannister includes careful reflection on the literature and artistic concerns of the periods in which they worked. Importantly, the discussion exhibits Bannister’s versatility, beginning with his relationship to the Barbizon school but also explores his evolution toward Impressionism, which is beautifully illustrated by two very different compositions—Tree Landscape (1877), with a moody, subdued palette, and Apple Trees in a Meadow (1890), a light impasto. In turning to Henry Ossawa Tanner, Farrington discusses his well-known genre scene The Thankful Poor (1894) as well as his religious work The Three Marys (1910), positioning the latter piece not as a break from his earlier genre scenes but rather as emblematic of Tanner’s enduring compassion for the humble human figure. The chapter’s attention to photographers, including James Presley Ball and Augustus Washington, proves the fundamental place of black photographers since the medium’s inception.

Chapters 6 and 7 address the Harlem Renaissance and Social Realist art of the 1920s through the 1940s and are broadly organized by medium. Farrington introduces the reader to major artists of the period and the discourse of the “New Negro” surrounding it. While chapter 6 provides a wonderful introduction to the major concerns and figures of the renaissance, the discussion of artists and patronage at times demands more careful nuance and detail than is provided. Farrington references the Survey Graphic magazine issue about Harlem as the fundamental resource of the period, rather than the volume The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke (in which Locke’s oft-reproduced article “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts” can be found). A considerable extension of that magazine issue, the book would seem to be a more in-depth and notable publication to characterize the period. The author also raises the conundrum of black artists’ dependence on white patronage, writing of a “problematic tug of war between the races” (118). As Harlem Renaissance scholars Mary Ann Calo, George Hutchinson, and others have explored, however, black and white associations and friendships were more multifaceted than often assumed. Farrington further writes that Palmer Hayden’s work “was shaped by the expectations of the Harmon Foundation” (130), referring to a philanthropic organization from which he received patronage. This diminishes not only Hayden’s artistic agency but also the formal and thematic complexity of his body of work. Furthermore, black and white tensions overlapped with frictions between Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois and younger artists including Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, Zora Neale Hurston, and Aaron Douglas, who dismissed their elders’ conservatism in pursuit of greater artistic freedom. Minor corrections need to be made regarding details of the career of Archibald Motley Jr., and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto is cited as being published in 1949 (it was 1848), a typo bound to confuse students unacquainted with Marx and Marxist theory. Chapter 7, importantly, positions New Negro artists as foundational to the government-funded art and community centers that developed in Harlem and Chicago during the Great Depression. This discussion creates a natural segue into notable printmakers, including Margaret Burroughs and Dox Thrash.

Chapter 8 considers mid-twentieth-century African American artistic production, evaluating work by Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and an array of Social Realists, Surrealists, self-taught artists, and abstractionists. Chapters 9, broadly labeled “Abstract Expressionism,” and 10, “Pop and Agitprop: The Black Arts Movement,” carefully position black artists dedicated to form and those versed in politics, respectively. Chapter 11 follows with an overview of black feminist art and takes into account the frustrations black women faced in attempting to negotiate the Black Power movement, which was perceived by some as being governed by the interests of black men, and the feminist movement, which was dominated by white, middle-class women. Farrington details the major artists involved and the important organizations and collaborations formed. While attention to an artist like Faith Ringgold would be expected in this chapter—particularly as Farrington is a foundational scholar of Ringgold’s work—the author also digs deeply into phenomenal yet understudied artists such as Kay Brown, Dindga McCannon, and the muralist Vanita Green.

Chapter 12 takes up the broad theme of postmodernism, discussing Postminimal artists such as Martin Puryear and Conceptual and intermedia art by figures including Howardena Pindell and Adrian Piper, and also details assemblage art and postmodern photography. This and subsequent chapters, through the end of the book, illuminate work created from the 1980s to the present—which is generally more difficult to categorize in terms of medium. Chapter 13 explores Neoexpressionism (broadly defined), new abstraction, and architecture, evaluating artists ranging from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Thornton Dial Sr. Chapter 14 concludes with “post-black” art and the new millennium, considering artists such as Mickalene Thomas, Nick Cave, and Shinique Smith.

Labels—of art movements, of an artist’s identity, and so forth—often incite a certain level of consternation, a concern addressed by the author. Farrington digs into the difficulties of racial labeling and its historical and evolving constructions, and defends her decision to use “African American” among other terms throughout the book. Why art history requires a separate history of African American art, a question Powell takes up in Black Art, goes unanswered here but is worth contemplating. Farrington concludes the book with this rich statement: “Twenty-first-century African-American artists place no limits on either their formal or their iconographic sources, which are as varied and complex as the artists themselves” (396). This sentence serves as a wonderful reflection on individuality and artistic expression but also complicates the justification for a book dedicated solely to African American art. In what ways does this category continue to have meaning? A more extended contemplation of the various challenges black artists have faced, historically and through the present, would be worth expanding throughout the entire text. For example, how did the mid-twentieth-century “modern man” discourse exclude Abstract Expressionists such as Hale Woodruff and Norman Lewis from the canon, and what work has been done to revise this? Creating a separate category of African American art is, of course, mindful not only of artists facing obstacles within a racist society but also of celebrating blackness as a cultural identity. But how do we do that without essentializing race? How do we articulate black identity as a fundamental and culturally formidable factor in producing art and living life? Finally, why focus specifically on black art of the United States rather than the larger African diaspora? All these questions are embedded in this carefully researched and written book, but more direct attention to them (perhaps in place of the lists of degrees and accomplishments that end the discussion of each artist) would be helpful to students and scholars alike. In spite of these minor drawbacks, as a whole the volume provides a thorough and highly informative survey of African American art. 

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