Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 22, 2021
Rebecca VanDiver Designing a New Tradition: Loïs Mailou Jones and the Aesthetics of Blackness University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2020. 256 pp.; 51 color ills.; 37 b/w ills. Cloth $59.95 (9780271086040)

Rebecca VanDiver’s intersectional monograph on the iconic artist Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998) is a remarkable step forward in the expanding art historical canon. She situates Jones’s stylistically eclectic work (impressionistic landscapes, realistic portraits, cubistic still lifes, and political allegories) in the aesthetic and cultural concerns of the Harlem Renaissance, modernism, Négritude, abstraction, feminism, and Pan-Africanism. Her central thesis is that Jones, by producing innovative African and Afrodiasporic-themed paintings, collages, and illustrations throughout her career, designed a new composite tradition that both reflects her medial position in multiple worlds and expresses the “increasingly fragmented nature of black identity and diasporic experiences” (16). VanDiver provides a close reading of Jones’s art by examining the roles that gender, race, and class played in the painter’s career. Jones’s diverse subjects and styles coincided with “larger discursive shifts in cultural conceptions of blackness and associated definitions of what constitutes black art.” Nevertheless, Jones “established her own position . . . she did not automatically fall in line with or subscribe to the definition du jour” (7).

In the introduction, “Claiming Middle Ground,” VanDiver succinctly outlines Jones’s singular position in the early twentieth-century international art world. She begins by examining a pivotal gray-wash watercolor, Under the Influence of the Masters (1939, published on the front page of the Negro History Bulletin), in which an androgynous artist (resembling Jones) holding paintbrushes and palettes stands facing the viewer. Behind the figure fan out names of canonical Western artists (e.g., Michelangelo, Picasso, Cézanne, Corot, Cassatt). At her feet are spread African art references, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs and cave drawings. Flanking the central panel are the names of key African American artists in four frieze sections. Thus, the artist places herself within four artistic traditions—European, American, African, and African American. A year later, Jones produced an oil self-portrait with the same short hairstyle as the anonymous painter in the watercolor, in a similar smock and collared shirt, suggesting she also had depicted herself in the earlier work. In the first piece, Jones documented her influences and centered herself in a potential genealogy of African American art, literally and figuratively highlighting race and identity in art, the role of African art, and the marginalization of female artists of color.

Born into an upper-middle-class family in Boston, Jones was the first Black graduate of the school at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1927. After working briefly as a textile artist, Jones taught art in Sedalia, North Carolina, for two years, then joined the art department at Howard University in 1930, teaching there until 1977. Frequently summering on Martha’s Vineyard, Jones also explored Europe (beginning with her 1937–38 sabbatical in Paris), the Caribbean (after her marriage to Haitian graphic designer Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël in 1953), and eleven West African countries (during four trips in 1970, 1972, 1976, and 1977). Despite a prolific and lengthy career, Jones never had significant private gallery representation due to racial and gender discrimination. Nevertheless, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter presented Jones with the Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts when she was seventy-five. Such national acknowledgment was pivotal. After her retrospective in 1990 appeared in seventeen venues, Jones served as visiting professor at Harvard and Radcliffe, and in 1993 the Clintons hung one of her seascapes in the White House.

VanDiver expands significantly on the sole extant monograph on Jones, Tritobia Hayes Benjamin’s The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones (Pomegranate, 1994), and the retrospective, Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color (Mint Museum, 2009–10), by grounding the artist’s work in theories of diasporic art history by Kobena Mercer and Krista Thompson and the internationalization of Black modernity by literary scholars Paul Gilroy and Brent Hayes Edwards. The author charts Jones’s increasingly diasporic praxis in style and subject matter by coining two terms. She argues that beginning in the 1940s, Jones demonstrated “blackness in triplicate” by depicting triads that could be of geographic locales, chronological eras, Black bodies, and/or material objects that speak “to the navigation and/or negotiation of traditions and cultural spheres that Jones encountered throughout her career” (13). VanDiver claims that Jones, from the late 1950s onward, used the aesthetic intervention of “diasporic grammar” in her art to “draw from newly acquired visual languages and mix and deploy such forms in ways that retain vestiges of their original use,” responding to “the combinatory nature of black culture” (13). One way Jones manifested this visually was by manipulating the symbolic grammar of Haitian Vodou in collage so that the material would be legible to multiple audiences with various levels of cultural comprehension. Initially assembling collages of cut paper, paint, and other materials, Jones later developed a painted collage aesthetic. VanDiver explores these concepts using the biological and ecological language of roots, ties, and links in four chronological chapters.

The first chapter, “Seeking Success: School, Society, and Career Aspirations,” examines Jones’s Black bourgeois milieu, drive to succeed, and social and professional adaptability. VanDiver offers new insights into Jones’s few early African American subjects in watercolor as expressive of the psychological and physical distance that the northern artist felt from the rural Black culture she encountered down South. Original, as well, are detailed discussions of Jones’s heretofore unexamined illustration work, as in the Saturday Evening Quill Club’s annual and Opportunity magazine, and some of her textile designs.

In “Routes to Roots: From Black Washington to Black Paris,” VanDiver declares that Jones’s sabbatical in Paris was “fundamental to her identity and exploration of transatlantic blackness” (15). She provides a nuanced reading of Jones’s best-known painting, Les Fétiches (1938), stating that it stakes Jones’s claim to European and African artistic traditions. Rather than the culmination of the artist’s Parisian sojourn, it “marks a major aesthetic transformation and engagement with African art that occurred at the midpoint of her stay” (81). Interacting with Postimpressionist artist Émile Bernard and Afrodiasporic intellectuals the Nardals (Martinican sisters who published the cultural journal La revue du monde noir), Jones rendered visible multiple Black identities in portraits of the late 1930s and 1940s, including Jeanne, Martiniquaise (1938), whom VanDiver recognizes as Jane Nardal. After studying abroad, Jones produced the above-mentioned Self-Portrait (1940).

Chapter 3, “Diasporic Directions: Haiti, Collage, and Composite Aesthetics,” concerns Jones’s move from representational forms to increasing abstraction, a high-keyed color palette, and a study of Vodou symbolism. Here, VanDiver adroitly examines new ground by connecting Jones’s mixed-media collage to conceptions of diasporic identity, offering another route for an African American artist to reach the roots of African culture.

To navigate the changing political climate at Howard University in the 1960s and 1970s, Jones developed a research project on Black visual art in African, Haitian, African American, and global contexts. While not overtly political herself, Jones compiled an extensive photographic file of contemporary art to address the rising student demands for a Black-centered curriculum. VanDiver analyzes such efforts in the last chapter, “In and Out: Africa and the Academy.” She explains that in her art, Jones eschewed a seamless reconciliation of Africa or an innate kinship with African peoples and aesthetic traditions. Instead, Jones turned to pastiche and collage to reflect both the multilayered nature of her own experiences and that of Blackness itself.

In “Conclusion: Composite Naming Practices and Art Histories,” VanDiver states that Jones’s midcareer addition of a tréma accent to her first name, transforming it from Lois to Loïs, resonates with the artist’s own composite identity and her ongoing self-reinvention. She analyzes the use of the diacritical mark in terms of Jones’s design sensibility, interest in French culture, marriage to Pierre-Noël, and self-naming practices within twentieth-century African American art history.

One of VanDiver’s central concepts, “blackness in triplicate,” is intriguing but not entirely convincing. Linguistically the term seems misleading, as “triplicate” as a noun means one of three identical items, yet none of the six works that VanDiver cites as demonstrating Jones’s strategy depicts three exact images (and these are spread out in the artist’s oeuvre—1947, 1953, 1971, 1972, 1983, 1996). For instance, the cover for the Centennial and Victory Exposition pamphlet (ca. 1947) features one female and two male faces. While all are generically “African,” two are the “traditional” type and one, in a military-inspired uniform and pith helmet, “suggests ties to colonialism” (101). In Héritage Egyptien (1953), three women seem to represent various cultures broadly—“Egypt, Africa, and the black United States” (106); these are not identical. In Moon Masque (1971), two similar (but not exactly the same) silhouetted faces flank a Kwele face mask. Perhaps a more accurate term would be “blackness tripled” or the phrase VanDiver uses in her conclusion, “the composite aesthetics of blackness.”

Thankfully, this book is amply illustrated with more color reproductions than black-and-white ones—a must for the study of Jones’s saturated palette—and often with full-page or half-page images. The study also includes reproductions of a dozen works whose locations are unknown; perhaps they will now come to light. On the whole, VanDiver has considerably advanced understanding of Jones’s career by contextualizing the artist and her work in light of larger cultural issues and international art movements. Her book will be the standard source on Jones for years to come.

Theresa Leininger-Miller
Professor, Art History, University of Cincinnati