African American Works on Paper

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, October 2003 | Go to article overview

African American Works on Paper


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


African American artists who flourished for the most part since the 1930s are featured in this fine traveling exhibition. The collection of Wes and Missy Cochran of LaGrange, Ga., highlights 75 works on paper by 64 influential artists who explore an array of social themes and artistic issues within a variety of stylistic expression, ranging from the realistic to the abstract, and from historical to poetic.

The collection encompasses the widest range of media and techniques exploring the multiple uses for paper as a support material. Thus, there are unique drawings, paintings and multimedia works, along with examples of traditional print media such as relief, etching, lithography and silkscreen.

Amazingly, all the works on paper were acquired by the Cochrans over just a two-year period, from 1988 to 1990. To obtain these wonderful examples, the Cochrans traveled throughout the country talking to artists, researching the history and production of African American art, visiting galleries and studios, and meeting with collectors and scholars.

A PERSONAL VISION The result of their efforts is not a true historical survey of African American art of the 20th century or an erudite thesis on the African American experience, but, rather the personal and passionate vision of an enthralled collector. Fortunately for the public, this collection was not acquired solely tier the enjoyment of the collector, but was destined from its inception to be shared with others through exhibitions such as this one.

From the beginning the Cochrans anticipated a public and educational role for this collection, and they offered it for display to institutions large and small across the country. As an exhibition, it clearly illustrates the diversity and artistic quality of black creative efforts throughout most of the decades of the 20th century. The art of this time period was informed and influenced by the Harlem Renaissance, the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, the Federal Works Progress Administration, and the Civil Rights Movement, among others.

MODERN AFRICAN AMERICAN ART In the early 20th century, two major art theorists surfaced: philosopher Alain Locke, and painter and art historian, James Porter. These two men set the agenda for much of modern African American art. Porter encouraged black artists to erase the distinctions of race in pursuit of personal expression.

In contrast, Locke advocated the deliberate search for and retrieval of elements of black culture that would reflect their African origin. Some of the themes and images encouraged were African American heritage and history; racial consciousness and pride; the effects of social and political injustice: the importance of music and religion; and the daily life of African Americans.

By regarding African arts as a part of their legacy and through incorporating its forms with their own experiences, 20th-century African American artists created new styles of expression which would add yet another dimension to their cultural identity.

THE ARTISTS Romare Bearden (1914-1989) studied at the Art Students League in New York and the Sorbonne in Paris before setting up his own studio in New York City in 1956. He was well acquainted with modern styles and known for his use of cubism and the collage technique.

In his writings, Bearden notes the influence of African art on mainstream European and American artists and cautions his black colleagues not to imitate white people's art to the exclusion of representing the African American experience, He thought it important that the African artists would abstract or distort forms to achieve a greater expressive impact and regarded this practice as one of the cardinal principles of modern art.

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was a product of New York City schools, including the Harlem Art Workshop. From early in his career, he took the life of black people in America as his subject matter in painted and printed forms. …

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