Elizabeth Catlett: Pulling against the Grain

Article excerpt

There is a commanding frankness about Elizabeth Catlett's prints and sculptures, a certainty that emanates from the artist, recurring on her characters' faces and distinguishing her own. One perceives sheer determination in the outstretched arm of her 1975 linocut "Harriet," depicting the leader of the Underground Railroad, and a steely surety in the gaze of "Pauline," the 1983 drawing in silver. Perhaps the most striking testament of Catlett's drive, however, is in her voice, a sultry baritone delivered in a deliberate, measured cadence. She wants, it seems, for listeners not to miss a word - to learn from her discoveries and mistakes, as so many of her students have through the years.

"You know there are people who say first I'm an artist and then I'm black?" she asked one wintry day in 1989, following the opening in Washington, D.C., of the photographic exhibition "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America," which honored her, among others, and her art. "First I'm black and then I'm an artist," she continued, "because I got kicked in the teeth as a black and as a woman long before I got discriminated against as an artist."

Catlett, 74, admits that her protests are many. "My biggest peeve is discrimination and racism and sexism, this whole idea of things and money being everything, sacrificing people for power and money and so forth," she says. Her passion reverberates across the surfaces of her message-oriented works, which speak as forthrightly as the artist herself about oppression and conviction and the limitations imposed on blacks, Mexicans, American Indians and women.

There is at once jubilance and a resounding sorrow in her etchings and sculpted forms, images deeply ingrained in modernist approaches. Her works, which personify what art historian David Driskell describes as "inventive primitivism," merge West African perspectives with cubism, a compilation evoked from one who knows the artistic ropes and uses them to relate firsthand the trauma and bliss of a life of struggle.

A vulnerability beyond simple candor imbues Catlett's artwork, whether it depicts historical figures, familial scenes, or the plight of the underclasses. Take her 1992 color lithograph "To Marry," which juxtaposes the kiss of a couple marrying with the horror of a lynched black victim. In it and in the 1970 sculpted bronze "Target," depicting a black man's stalwart face positioned before a bull's-eye, one can sense Catlett's caring, her morality, and her urgent fear for her people.

There is also love, pure and simple, on the faces of her mother-and-child busts, for which she received her eartiest acclaim, and a carefree playfulness captured in the overlapping gradated colors of the repeated image of a child in the 1975 linocut "Boys."

As profound as the density of Catlett's imagery is the vividness of her palette, an assembly of gutsy colorations a step beyond the predictable. Not content with mere blues, reds and oranges, Catlett unleashes rustic teals, cayennes and siennas, all of which emerge, like sky and light through the leaves of a forest, in her color lithographs and serigraphs. The intensity of their hues likely was influenced by her husband, Mexican painter and printmaker Francisco Mora, "who paints with very strong color," Catlett says, adding that in years past, "I used to work in black and white mostly."

Born in Washington, D.C., Catlett moved to Mexico in 1946. Through a fellowship, she became involved with the Taller de Grafica Popular (People's Graphic Arts Workshop), a populist printmaking workshop. In the collective, she and 30 Mexican artists championed the rights of unions and student organizations and helped further the government's literacy campaign through leaflets, posters and illustrated books. She and Mora remained members through the mid-1960s, an involvement that spurred their need to serve others through their art.

In 1958 Catlett was hired as a professor of sculpture - the first female professor hired - at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. …