African-American Art That Blossomed in Postwar Paris Expatriate Blacks Found Respect and Success Overseas

By Nicole Gaouette, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 1996 | Go to article overview

African-American Art That Blossomed in Postwar Paris Expatriate Blacks Found Respect and Success Overseas


Nicole Gaouette, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


I met a lot of people in Paris, I even encountered myself.

- James Baldwin

Oscar Wilde once wrote that good Americans go to Paris when they die. But for seven African-American artists who went to study and live there after World War II, the City of Light meant a new beginning - socially, professionally, and artistically.

Paris had long held allure for African-American artists who found an acceptance there that eluded them in America. Entertainers like Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday, musicians like Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker, and writers like James Baldwin found a second home in Paris and a second lease on their creativity.

For the seven artists featured in an exhibit at the Studio Museum of Harlem, postwar Paris meant freedom from the claustrophobia of McCarthyism and new possibilities. Very few American art schools accepted blacks, and it was difficult to integrate into the mainstream art world. Segregation still existed in some states.

"Paris first offered hope, and then ultimately a validation of their training and vision that was elusive in America," says museum director Kinshasha Holman Conwill. To celebrate the work of these artists and explore their relationship to Paris, the New York-based museum has created "Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945-1965," an exhibition that will travel to four other American cities.

The exhibit, the first to explore in-depth the lure of postwar Paris for African-American artists, profiles the work of Edward Clark, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Harold Cousins, Beauford Delaney, Herbert Gentry, Lois Mailou Jones, and Larry Potter. While they made their way to Paris separately over those 20 years, the city offered all of them critical attention, visibility, and an artistic and racial freedom unavailable at home.

"I didn't go to Paris to escape racism," says Clark, a compact man with salt-and-pepper hair and a faint New Orleans twang. "But I got there and discovered racism wasn't a factor. If I'd stayed in Chicago, it would have been a factor and it might have hindered my art."

Clark, whose work was initially figurative, now works on a large scale to create dynamic abstract canvases dominated by broad strokes of luminous color, evoking landscapes or seascapes. After studying in Chicago, he left for Paris in 1952 to study art under the GI bill, which also brought Gentry and Cousins to Paris as well.

While many in the group knew each other - Clark has work by Gentry hanging in his New York studio - they moved in diverse circles that included Europeans, Africans, and other Americans, white and black. The influences on their art were equally diverse.

"So often with African-American artists, critics talk about them as {a} monolithic {group}, but that's just not the case," says Valerie Mercer, the museum's curator of collections. "Our show reveals their diverse and varied influences."

Delaney, who arrived in Paris in 1953 and died there in 1979, is perhaps the best known of the group. …

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