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African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum


From April 2 to June 7, 2004 the Currier Museum of Art hosts African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, an exhibition featuring 61 paintings, sculptures and photographs from the museum's collection. Twentieth-century masters in the exhibition include Richmond Barthé, Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks and Renée Stout, among others. The artists featured in this exhibition demonstrate their command of mainstream artistic traditions while exploring their dual cultural heritage. (right: Romare Bearden, Empress of the Blues, 1974, acrylic, pencil, and printed paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Purchase in part through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment)

"As the Currier has begun collecting in this important area, we have been looking for a strong, comprehensive exhibition of African American masters. We are very proud to be a part of this national tour," says Currier director Susan Strickler, adding, "The Currier will unveil many of the works it has acquired in an accompanying exhibition."

"The Smithsonian American Art Museum was at the forefront of collecting, studying and preserving works by African American artists," said Elizabeth Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "We're proud to have such a rich collection that represents several hundred artists, and we're delighted to share a selection of the very finest artworks with communities across the United States."

No single style or approach can define African American art. The artists in African American Masters reveal a complex mingling of influences and experiences -- including historical events, political issues, spirituality, music and folklore, as well as personal vision. The Smithsonian American Art Museum began acquiring work by African American artists in the 1960s. This exhibition is a sampling of these works -- not a comprehensive survey of them -- selected from approximately 2000 artworks by African Americans now in the museum's collection.

African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of five exhibitions featuring the museum's collections that are touring the nation through 2005.


The art and the artists

American music inspired many artists in the exhibition. In Romare Bearden's Empress of the Blues (1974), swaying musicians back up the mesmerizing soloist Bessie Smith. Shifting planes of colored paper and magazine cutouts create staccato patterns and rhythms, creating their own visual music. Bearden saw legendary singer and songwriter Bessie Smith, who earned the title "Empress of the Blues," perform in Harlem where he grew up.

William H. Johnson, who studied in New York City and Paris, changed from impressionism to a flat, consciously naïve style in the late 1930s, when he began to focus on African American subjects. In Café (about 1939-40), Johnson used modernist flat colorful forms in a humorous portrayal of a smartly dressed couple in a Harlem café. (right: Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fétiches, 1938, oil on linen, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Purchase made possible by Mrs. N. H. Green, Dr. R. Harlan, and Francis Musgrave)

In Jacob Lawrence's The Library (1960), figures engrossed in reading are situated in his characteristically flattened space. Lawrence's library view evokes his childhood experiences when he frequently visited the 135th Street Public Library in Harlem. Sam Gilliam, during the late 1970s, began cutting and rearranging geometric shapes form thickly painted canvases. The shifting irregular patterns in these randomly patterned canvases resemble those found in African American "crazy quilts." In Open Cylinder (1979), thrusting verticals covered with rectangles and arched forms suggest a pillar that has been shattered, its shards now resting side-by-side.

Portraits and documentary images have dominated the subject matter of modern black photographers, including James VanDerZee, Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks and Robert McNeill. NcNeill's 1938 photograph New Car (South Richmond, Virginia) from the project The Negro in Virginia, gives us a slice-of-life image. A native of Washington, D.C., McNeill created this photograph while working for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. This lighthearted scene of young men admiring a new car emphasizes shared moments of rare success at a time when economic distress was common for most.

Allan Rohan Crite tapped into the social milieu of his community. Sunlight and Shadow (1941) is one of about two dozen paintings he created for the government's art projects during the Depression, in which he documented the people and architecture in his Roxbury, Massachusetts neighborhood. The scene reminds us of the importance of extended families in African American communities.


Programs at the Currier

There is a wide range of programs and events planned at the Currier during the exhibition African American Masters. A gallery talk May 6 by Barry Gaither, founder and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury, Massachusetts, examines how artists have portrayed their dual heritage in a positive light, counteracting the degrading caricatures once prevalent in popular culture. On May 20, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, chief curator of the Peabody Essex Museum and formerly chief curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, explores key themes in modern African American art and discusses how the first major public collection of this art was formed by a historically non-black institution.

Several artists will get the spotlight every Friday afternoon in April and May, when a film showcasing an artist represented in the exhibition will be shown in the auditorium. And on Sundays, April 4 and 18 and May 2 and 16, the Currier offers special guided tours of the exhibition.

Music and poetry were great sources of inspiration for African American artists, and that relationship will be celebrated with several performances this spring. On Sunday, April 4, Virginia Eskin, pianist, plays works by African Americans composers, including spirituals, ragtime and jazz selections. The Dream Keepers -- Rawn Spearman, Anthony Mele and Bruce Ronkin, will weave together the poetry of Langston Hughes, music of the era and images from the exhibition on April 15. On Sunday, May 16, the Jubilee Trio (Marion Dry, Robert Honeysucker and Leslie Amper) performs vocal music that promotes social justice and celebrates community, and on Thursday, May 27, the Upfront Jazz Trio performs music of the twentieth century, including the era of the Harlem Renaissance. (right: Augusta Savage, Gamin, about 1929, painted plaster, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Benjamin and Olya Margolin)

Younger visitors to African American Masters will enjoy several programs designed just for them, especially during school vacation week. On Wednesday, April 28, percussionist Michael Wingfield leads a drumming workshop for ages 13-18 before his own all-ages performance, which traces African American music from the rhythms of Africa to jazz, blues, hip-hop and rap.

On Thursday, April 29, the Currier's popular Words and Pictures program for ages 6-12 features books by African American authors. On Friday, April 30, artist-in-residence Richard Haynes will create one of his vibrantly colored images as well as answer questions about his unique technique, and family and teen gallery walks in the exhibition top off the week.


About the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the nation's museum dedicated exclusively to the art and artists of the United States. The museum's collections trace the country's story in art spanning three centuries, and its in-depth resources offer opportunities to understand that story better. While the museum renovates its historic building in Washington, D.C., it is sharing many of its finest treasures with museums and audiences nationwide.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the first federal art collection, begun in 1829 with gifts from private collections and art organizations established in the nation's capital before the founding of the Smithsonian in 1846. The museum has grown steadily to become a center for the study, enjoyment and preservation of America's cultural heritage. Today, it houses the world's most important American art collection, with approximately 39,000 artworks in all media.


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