Elizabeth Catlett: The Power of Form

Article excerpt

Elizabeth Catlett is one of the most respected and infuential American-born black women artists of the twentieth century. Throughout her career, which has spanned more than five decades, she has asserted that her art is to be of service to people. This comes through not only in her ability to apply Modernist principles to popular, easily recognizable imagery and to convey elemental emotions through form, but in her ongoing commitment to social and political causes dear to her heart.

In terms of subject matter, Catlett's work on paper and in three dimensions has continually revolved around certain themes: social injustice, the concern for the human condition, historical figures, women, and the relationship between mother and child. In terms of style (a term she dislikes), her sculpture draws on African and pre-Columbian traditions as well as aspects of twentieth-century Modernism as seen in the work of Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi, and Ossip Zadkine (the latter with whom she studied).

A large exhibition of her works on paper went on tour in 1993. Now a sixty-piece retrospective of her sculpture is touring the United States and Mexico. Organized by Lucinda Gedeon, director of the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, State University of New York (where it appeared February 8-June 7), Elizabeth Catlett Sculpture: A Fifty-Year Retrospective will travel to the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, Texas, October 23-December 10; the Baltimore Museum of Art, January 27-April 11, 1999; the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, May 20-August 1, 1999; and the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, September 13-November 12, 1999.

Catlett was born in Washington, D.C., in April 1915. She got her BS from Howard University School of Art in 1935 and went on to graduate work at State University of Iowa (University of Iowa), where she studied painting with Grant Wood. He encouraged his students to depict subjects they knew directly.

In 1941 Catlett married artist Charles White. They moved to New York, where she taught at the progressive and controversial George Washington Carver School in Harlem. In 1946 she moved to Mexico City, became affiliated with the printmaking collective Taller de Grafica Popular (many of whose members belonged to the Mexican Communist Party), and divorced White. …