Good things come in small packages, especially in commercial galleries these days. With enough money and freedom, commercial galleries can curate areas in art history that museums tend to overlook or dismiss. African American artists, in particular, seem to be underrepresented in museums, although three (Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker and Martin Puryear) have mounted impressive solo exhibitions in major museums across the country this past year. Still, African American Art: Two Hundred Years at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery offered a rare opportunity to study several superstars in one venue, and Jacob Lawrence: Moving Forward, 1936-1999 at DC Moore Gallery complemented the Rosenfeld show with forty works by one of the greatest artists in American history. Above all, the modest number of works in these compact spaces encourages sustained and more active looking.
The survey of African American artists at Michael Rosenfeld brought together a select smorgasbord of familiar names such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Betye Saar and Elizabeth Catlett, as well as lesser-known ones: Eldzier Cortor and Charles Ethan Porter. A wonderful catalogue provides background information with essays by art historians Jonathan P. Binstock, curator of Contemporary art at the Corcoran Gallery, and Lowery Stokes Sims, former president of the Studio Museum of Harlem and former curator of Modern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The oldest work on view, Girl Wearing a Bonnet by Joshua Johnson dates to ca. 1810 and displays the early American preference for the stock three-quarter portrait. Johnson, a slave who became free, was the first famous African American portraitist. Edward Mitchell Bannister was represented by two works: Harvest (1884) and The Oxen Wagon (1885). Influenced by the French Barbizon School, Bannister lived most of his life in Providence, Rhode Island, where today his name graces the art gallery of Rhode Island College. Robert Scott Duncanson pursed his career in Europe. His Vale of Kasmir (1870) is more stunning in person than in reproduction, showing off his softer tones in comparison to Bannister's more verdant countrysides.
Henry Ossawa Tanner studied with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1880 to 1885, and opened a short-lived studio in Philadelphia in 1886. He moved to Paris in 1891, where he studied with Jean Joseph Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens. Although he returned to Philadelphia in 1893, he did not stay. Disheartened by racial discrimination, Tanner moved back Paris in 1895. In the Rosenfeld show, Tanner's The Birthplace of Joan of Arc at Domrémy-la-Puccelle (1918) and Sodom and Gomorrah (ca. 1920-4) demonstrated his careful study of light, influenced by Impressionism.
Among the figurative sculptures, we found Richmond Barthé's Head of a Boy (ca. 1940), Elizabeth Catlett's Untitled (Miranda) (ca. 1960), Edmonia Lewis' famous The Old Indian Arrowmaker and his Daughter (1867) and Augusta Savage's equally well-known Gamin (ca. 1930). Savage's pupils Norman Lewis and Jacob Lawrence were also included in this show.
Norman Lewis' work belongs to the abstract contingent. His radiant yellow Carnivale del Sol (1962) and inscribed brown structures in Tenement II (1950) joined with Charles H. Alston's Cubist-inspired Untitled (African Theme) (ca. 1952) and Untitled (1961) as well as Alma Thomas' small rectangular marks of pitch perfect pink in Early Cherry Blossoms (1973) and a deep-water blue in Milky Way (1972).
Only two works reminded us of Jacob Lawrence's significant place in African American art history: Bus (1941) and Makeup (aka Dressing Room) (1952). These were equaled in number by those of another outstanding artist, Romare Bearden, who weighed in with his inimitable collages A Very Blue Fish Day on Mobile Bay (1971) and Of the Blues: One Night Stand (1974). However, the concurrent solo exhibition entitled Jacob Lawrence: Moving Forward, 1936-1999 at DC Moore Gallery (within walking distance from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery), served as a wonderful extension to African American Art: Two Hundred Years.
Of DC Moore Gallery's six Jacob Lawrence exhibitions in recent memory, this show seemed the most eclectic. That is, rather than highlight a series such as Lawrence's Toussaint L'Ouverture Series, which tells the story of this slave-turned-leader in the 1795 Haitian revolution against France, we were instead treated to subjects ranging from train stations to city life to Hiroshima.
In the city, we see the bone-tired Woman (1938) collapsed on her comfy yellow easy chair, facing the toys and briefcase that tug at her over-stretched energy. In history, Harriet and the Promised Land: No. 9—Walking By Night, Sleeping By Day (1967; from the series about the courageous Underground Railroad and abolitionist activist Harriet Tubman), Lawrence's thrilling colors and shapes demonstrate a thorough understanding of Picasso's Synthetic Cubism and Matisse's cutouts, extending these techniques into the realm of expressionism.
The exhibition catalogue for Moving Forward... includes excellent essays by art historians David C. Driskell (who is also an artist) and Patricia Hills, a professor at Boston University. In the latter, Hills wrote: "Through the decades Lawrence consistently kept the faith in his life and art that existence is a struggle but that bad times can be overcome through people joining together, encouraging each other, and being willing to sacrifice individual desires for the greater good." With his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight (born in Barbados, 1913-2005), whose work is also represented by DC Moore Gallery, Lawrence's work exemplifies the best in our American spirit as well as extremely moving interpretations of courageous moments in world history.
Commercial gallery shows of this caliber and scholarly attention deserve awards for their quality and quantity. Long live these hard-working venues that educate the public with their much-needed efforts.
"African American Art: Two Hundred Years" was on view at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery January 10-March 15, 2008.
"Jacob Lawrence: Moving Forward" was on view at DC Moore Gallery February 13-March 22, 2008.