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Monday, November 5, 2012

Neglected Black Artists

The Progress of the American Negro, 1939-40, Charles White
For decades, African-American art has been the most neglected area of American Art. This neglect comes from two directions, one cultural, the other having to do with conservancy. It's no secret that African-American artists have traditionally been shut out of the mainstream of American art. There wasn't even a black mainstream as there was in baseball or music. African-American painting was largely done for self and family, and even in recent times, as the spotlight has grudgingly turned to the work of these long-neglected artists, the second factor often raised its ugly head. How can one appreciate the work of these artists if their work has been neglected to the point that they are unpresentable--often so caked with grime as to be practically unviewable? Signatures are indecipherable, and the content very nearly as obscure.

Lynching, 1936, Nat Werner
Jock Reynolds, direct of the Yale University Art Gallery, also wondered why there were so few minorities in the field of art conservation. With the backing of sponsors such as AT&T and The Ford Motor Company, he set out to remedy both areas of neglect. Working with students from several traditionally black schools he began working to teach them modern conservancy techniques while resurrecting the badly neglected work of dozens of African-American painters and sculptors. The work of such artists as muralist, Charles White, came to light as a huge, cracked and creased 1940 canvas was unrolled, cleaned, and displayed for the first time in over fifty years (top). Often, the work was not "pretty," even after it was cleaned. Such is the case with John Biggers' Old Coffee Drinker from 1945 or the 1936 wood sculpture of Nat Werner which graphically depicts the broken body of a lynched black man, neck broken, with a noose around it (left).

Conserved and preserved 

The result of the conservancy effort was the 1999 Harlem Studio Museum show, "To Conserve a Legacy", a 200-piece exhibit drawing from six historically black American educational institutions, art work, many of which had never been publicly exhibited before. There was the photography of Frances Benjamin Johnston (bottom), the first female press photographer, as well as work drawn from the collections of Booker T. Washington, Joseph Albers, Georgia O'Keefe, and her husband Alfred Stieglitz, all of whom collected early black artists. Some artists had been totally unknown, such as Thomas Waterman Wood, whose painting of a black freedman butler came to light only after cleaning revealed his signature. The show also included the work of somewhat better-known African-American artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Henry Tanner, and Horace Pippin.
Frances Benjamin Johnson Self-portrait, 1896

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