Exhibition Review: “Represent: 200 Years of African-American Art” at the PMA

12 Jan


Moe Booker. Present Futures, 2006. Mixed media and encaustic on wood panel. Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Henry Ossawa Turner. The Annunciation, 1898. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Lorna Simpson. C-Ration, 1991. Gelatin silver print. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Description of the Exhibition from the PMA website:

Represent: 200 Years of African American Art highlights selections from the Museum’s exceptional holdings of African American art and celebrates the publication of a catalogue examining the breadth of these noteworthy collections. With work by renowned artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Horace Pippin, Jacob Lawrence, and Carrie Mae Weems, the exhibition showcases a range of subjects, styles, mediums, and traditions. Since the Museum’s acquisition of Tanner’s painting The Annunciation in 1899, its collections of African American art have grown significantly, especially during the last three decades.

From compelling stories to innovative methods, Represent explores the evolving ways in which African American artists have expressed personal, political, and racial identity. It begins with rare examples of fine and decorative arts made in the 1800s by free and enslaved individuals such as a large storage jar by the accomplished potter David Drake. As access to artistic training and opportunities increased, the relationship between creative expression and identity grew more complex and nuanced. In the early twentieth century, artists like William Henry Johnson and Elizabeth Catlett embraced modernism by representing personal experiences or scenes of daily life in vibrant colors and dynamic compositions.

In the exhibition, abstract paintings and sculpture from the 1960s through the 1980s by Barbara Chase-Riboud, Martin Puryear, and others show a desire to balance cultural and artistic identities, challenging the idea that work by African Americans should be viewed in primarily racial terms. By contrast, many artists working in the 1990s and since, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson among them, have used pictures and text to examine the past and make pointed statements about race. Represent culminates by stepping outside historical narrative to present an array of portraits by several generations of artists, from those active over a century ago to those making work today.

My Review:

The artworks above show the range in the PMA’s collection of African-American art, a small portion of which is on display in the Honickman and Berman galleries from January 10th to April 5th, 2015 as an exhibition titled “Represent: 200 Years of African-American Art.” I say small because the wall text that opens the exhibition reveals that the PMA has about 750 works made by over 200 African-American artists in its collection, and I would estimate that less than 50 of these works are actually included in the exhibition. The fact that the PMA chose to have such a small percentage of their African-American artwork on display when this is the first and only time they have had such an exhibit was my first disappointment with the exhibit. This is not to say that this review will be negative overall, but I do have some other questions about the logistical or organizational choices of the exhibit.

The next aspect of the exhibition that surprised me was its location. Right now, there are no other major special exhibitions occurring at the museum. But it appeared that the museum’s special exhibitions galleries, which are located in an optimal location near the West entrance of the museum to the left of the Grand Staircase, are under construction for their upcoming February exhibition of art from the Japanese Kano school. “Represent” is located in galleries that are on the lower floor in a corner of the museum—directly across from the museum store and down the hall from the museum’s restaurant. I am not one to overanalyze certain observations, and I certainly understand the logistical issues with planning where an exhibit will be located. But for their very first and only African-American art exhibit to be so small, and placed in a far, seldom-travelled section of the museum, it felt to me like the PMA did not seize the opportunity to make this an important and significant exhibit in their building. It makes me wonder whether they have a lot of African-American work in their collection that is not museum-worthy, or whether it so happened that this exhibit would open close to the opening date of the Kano school exhibit and so they had to decide which exhibit would be sacrificed to the lesser gallery. Whatever the case may be for why the exhibit was as small as it was and in the location it was, I do think it lost some of the power it had the potential to wield given its size and placement.

As this introduction alludes, I think the exhibition contained some excellent works, two of which I posted above. It is divided, although not clearly, into four sections, which are both thematic and chronological. The first is called “Early America,” which includes the art made by African-Americans in the colonial era of the United States, during which they were, for the most part, enslaved. These artisans/artists were usually trained by their slaveholders in various media, and what they created was based on these slaveholders’ orders. In this section we saw mostly craftwork, including furniture, silverware, and pottery, including a giant storage jar (it was about waist-high) that was actually signed by the slave, David Drake, who made it, who gave himself the nickname “Dave the Potter.” These pieces, as we would expect, did not allow for their makers’ individual artistic expression to come out, but they are educational in what the slaves were trained to make and reveals that they could become highly skilled craftspeople.

The next section is titled “Imagining Modernity,” which advances in time to the early 1900’s, at which time slavery was abolished and African-Americans had more access to education, but still faced racial prejudice. Many artists, such as Henry Ossawa Tanner, went to Paris to work in order to avoid racism in the United States. Tanner’s contribution to the exhibition is his “The Annunciation,” which the PMA purchased the year after he made it, making it the first African-American artwork to enter the PMA’s collection as well as the second acquisition by the PMA of a contemporary artist’s work. Tanner is one of the most masterful artists on display in this exhibition, and his painting transcends context to achieve timeless, universal appeal. To compare this to another depiction of the Annunciation, the very famous 1333 panel by Simone Martini which has been in every art history textbook I’ve ever read, I think Tanner’s version is much better, especially from a Christian standpoint. Since we only have the Bible to get an idea of what Mary was feeling when she found out she would be the mother of Jesus, I think Tanner did a much better job of capturing the moment as described in the text: the fear, bravery, and responsibility that Mary possessed registers in the figure of Mary’s face in the painting so well. The painting is large, but it feels incredibly intimate, with warm, ambient lighting coming solely from the angel Gabriel’s inherent light, and curtains closing off the space between the back of the composition and the front. It truly is a fantastic work, and it is no wonder they included it in the exhibition.

The next section of the exhibition is titled “Abstract Approaches,” and describes a phase of African-American art in the mid-1900’s when African-Americans had more freedom than previous generations. With this newfound freedom, some artists chose not to focus on their black identity and moved towards abstraction. Somewhat confusingly, as the last section of the exhibit states that it covers art of the 2000’s, this section contains a vibrant 2006 painting by Moe Booker titled “Present Futures.” Made of mixed media and encaustic painted on wood panel, this wildly colorful painting is reminiscent of jazz, Kandinsky, and, to me, the symphony “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin. Like the Tanner, this one has nothing to do with the artist’s race, this painting reminds us African-American artists did not always focus on race in their subject matter, as I find art history textbooks typically portray them.

The last section of the exhibit, titled “Past Made Present,” alludes to the re-reading of race issues and the past’s racist depictions/interpretations of African-Americans through humanizing portraiture and emotional, unsettling paintings and sculpture. “C-Ration,” a 1991 gelatin silver print by Lorna Simpson, is an example of a work in the exhibition that combines these two characterizations. Organizationally I think this section of the exhibition suffers a bit, because on one wall there is a cluster of about 20 to 25 artworks which are mostly portraits; their similarity ends there, however. They are all by different artists of different time periods, and they are all clustered so close together in the way that less significant works, such as sketches or studies, are usually grouped in an exhibition. I think several of the works in this cluster were strong enough to deserve their own space on the wall, but I think this was an unfortunate product of the lack of space in these particular galleries.

Overall, I suppose this exhibit was good because it left me wanting to see more of the museum’s African-American collection, but I think it left something to be desired a bit too much. I loved the diversity of the artists’ work, which ranged from beautiful to upsetting. This made me wonder, especially in the context of a race which sadly has been plagued by trouble, what the role of art should be. Is its primary, or best, purpose to be a beautiful image which adds aesthetic greatness to our human fabric? Or does beauty not matter at all, with art’s function instead being a means to make people think, to shake them from their everyday blindness to real issues? This exhibit allows us to see artists answer that question in myriad ways.

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