Elizabeth Catlett April 15, 1915 - April 2, 2012 Socially Conscious Black Artist

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Catlett, a sculptor and printmaker who is widely considered one of the most important African-American artists of the 20th century despite having lived most of her life in Mexico, has died. She was 96.

Ms. Catlett, whose sculptures became symbols of the civil rights movement, died Monday at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, said her eldest son, Francisco.

Her imposing blend of art and social consciousness mirrored that of German painter Max Beckmann, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and other artists of the mid-20th century who used art to critique power structures.

From the start of her career, Ms. Catlett "was part of a broad political milieu" that encompassed artists of many ethnicities who were committed to social justice, Melanie Anne Herzog, who wrote the 2000 biography "Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico," told The Los Angeles Times in 2005.

Ms. Catlett's decision to focus on her ethnic identity, and its association with slavery and class struggles, was bold and unconventional in the 1930s and '40s, when African-Americans were expected "to assimilate themselves into a more Eurocentric ethic," art curator Lowery Stokes Sims said in a 1993 National Public Radio interview.

Confident that art could foster social change, Ms. Catlett confronted the most disturbing injustices against African- Americans, including lynchings and beatings. One of her best-known sculptures, "Target" (1970), was created after police shot a Black Panther; it shows a black man's head framed by a rifle sight.

But she also made far more hopeful statements with lithographs and sculptures of Harriet Tubman, a slave who led others to freedom, and Sojourner Truth, a slave turned abolitionist. Ms. Catlett often returned to the enduring theme of mother and child, and her 1946 series of prints called "The Negro Woman" reflected the heroic dignity she saw in her subjects.

"I wanted to show the history and strength of all kinds of black women," Ms. Catlett told the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times in 1992. "Working women, country women, urban women, great women in the history of the United States."

Ms. Catlett's early work was grounded in a figurative style that gave way to Cubism as she moved on to semi-abstract sculptures, which she came to prefer after studying the form as a graduate student in the late 1930s.

The American South and African-American history remained prominent in her sculptures. …