Critics’ Picks

View of “Elizabeth Catlett: Wake Up in Glory,” 2017–18.

New York

Elizabeth Catlett

Burning in Water | New York
317 10th Ave.
November 28 - February 3

The Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor once said that “everyone must be mixed in their own way.” That idea, according to the philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne, in his book African Art as Philosophy (2011), was central to Senghor’s belief that African art was the expression of an aesthetic, a philosophy, an entire cosmology, and that it would only have meaning if it were open to the world and had access to freedom. The art of Elizabeth Catlett seems to take up that line of thinking and push it further, producing it anew.

For this show, titled “Wake Up in Glory,” twelve of Catlett’s sculptures and two of her prints are gracefully arranged in a long and improbably narrow storefront. The works—in wood, bronze, and marble—cover more than sixty years of the artist’s fascinating life. Born in 1915 in Washington, DC, Catlett studied at Howard University after the Carnegie Institute of Technology rescinded her scholarship upon learning that she was black. She was also the first African American student to earn an MFA from the University of Iowa. In 1946, she moved to Mexico, where she married her second husband, raised three sons, and joined an influential artists’ collective. She renounced her US citizenship, only to have it restored in 2002, a decade before she died. In her vast oeuvre, Catlett combined elements of West African and pre-Colombian art with European modernism and the graphic clarity of political posters condemning racial injustice.

The sculptures here are wholly indicative of Catlett’s breadth, ranging from the powerfully figurative, such as Political Prisoner, 1971, a bronze of a woman standing with her hands tied behind her, leaning back as if to scream, to the mesmerizingly abstract Magic Mask, 1970–80, a smooth, oblong, anthropomorphic piece with five large circles carved through the wood.