African Americans and American Art History

By Cutler, Jody B. | Art Journal, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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African Americans and American Art History

Cutler, Jody B., Art Journal

Richard J. Powell and Jock Reynolds. To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Exh. cat. Andover: Phillips Academy and New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1999: distr. MIT Press, 240 pp., ills. $60, $35 paper.

Juanita M. Holland, ed. Narratives of African American Art and Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection. Exh. cat. College Park: The Art Gallery and the Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland and Pomegranate Communications, Inc., X998. 192 pp., ills. $So, $35 Paper.

Exhibition schedule: The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, November 20, 1999-February 12, 2000; High Museum of Art, June 2o-September 10, 2000; The Newark Museum, October 25, 2000February 25, 2001.

Adrienne L. Childs. Echoes: The Art of David Driskell. College Park: The Art Gallery, University of Maryland, 1998.

The infiltration of black voices into the traditionally white field of art history over the past quarter century has been influential in the emergence of "revisionist" scholarship now pervasive in the expanding "mainstream."' Two recently organized exhibition and catalogue projects bring to the fore the work of several prolific black art historians and curators, while focusing on both better and less known art and art-- collecting activities by black Americans, along with a few white Americans, in relation to this American heritage.

Richard J. Powell, Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Duke University (widely known by the time of his influential 1997 book, Black Art and Culture in the Twentieth Century) , has co-curated To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, with Jock Reynolds, Director of the Yale University Art Gallery. The exhibition includes over two hundred diverse works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the collections of six "HBCUs" (as in the catalogue), through which a social history largely unfamiliar to the contemporary art world is exposed-namely, the breadth of art activity nurtured by educational institutions perpetuated by black Americans. The catalogue includes a principal, critical essay by Powell on the material in the exhibition and a report on the genesis and fruition of the intensely collaborative project by Reynolds. Good color reproductions of artworks and reference photographs are incorporated into these essays and several supplemental texts, as well as the extensively annotated checklist.

The participating HBCUs, selected from a larger group with art collections, are Clark Atlanta University, Fisk University, Hampton University, Howard University, North Carolina Central University,and Tuskegee University.Historically, the art departments at these well-known schools-- fostered collegial and pedagogical relationships across generations of black artists and scholars which bolstered institutional collecting and exhibition programs. The development of each collection and campus exhibition space reveals a web of consequential associations. For example, in 1949, Georgia O'Keeffe donated a collection of modernist art from the estate of Alfred Stieglitz to Fisk, which had been housing African and Native American art by 1876. She did so at the prompting of Carl Van Vechten, the renowned photographer of American black society during the 192os and 1930s, for whom the main campus gallery is named. Successive Fisk Art Department chairs Aaron Douglas and David C. Driskell also are central figures in this history.

Reynolds traces the origin of the project to affirmative action initiatives among associates at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. A consortium comprised of the WACC, host museums, independent scholars, and HBCU representatives was formed, which then organized student conservation internships to study and treat works from the collections in need of physical attention, in the context of a large-scale exhibition.

The professional conservators discuss several of the restored works in separate entries, including Charles White's mural-- sized narrative painting, Progress of the American Negro (1939-40): the Bay Area expressionist James Weeks's Jazz Musician (1960); the visionary Old Coffee Drinker by John Biggers (1945); and Edmonia Lewis's famous marble sculpture, The Old Arrow Maker and His Daughter (1872).

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