Critics’ Picks

Mary Ann Carroll, Untitled (Wetland Scene), no date, oil on canvas board, 16 x 20".

Mary Ann Carroll, Untitled (Wetland Scene), no date, oil on canvas board, 16 x 20".

New York

“Highwaymen”

Charles Moffett
511 Canal Street #200
July 13–August 13, 2021

Beginning in the 1950s, a group of young Black men, faced with the prospect of toiling in Florida’s citrus groves, instead learned to paint the windswept palms, motley waters, and singular radiance of the Sunshine State. Unable to show in the South’s segregated galleries, these artists, soon joined by one woman, peddled their work door-to-door or from their cars on the then-new interstate roads, themselves shaped by systemic racism. Today more than two hundred thousand landscapes are credited to this informal school of self-taught painters, who forged a tradition of American regionalism that, ubiquitous but long underrecognized, helped define Florida’s image in the twentieth century.

The eleven pictures painted on board in this small, standout survey reveal the collaborative ethos of the so-called Highwaymen, officially comprising twenty-six artists who were active up until the 1980s. Under the aegis of the virtuosic Fort Pierce, Florida, landscapist A. E. Backus, who was white, and his enterprising mentee, Alfred Hair, the artists developed their own nimble approach, painting alla prima from their intimate knowledge of the terrain. Hair devised a kind of assembly line where as many as twenty pieces might be completed at once; often, the artists would touch up one another’s pictures, most of which are untitled and undated. Brazenly formulaic but fringed with fantasy, these paintings parade a wonderfully unprecious attitude about living with, and making one’s living from, art.

This group may have worked quickly, but their art rewards long looking, from Mary Ann Carroll’s rapturous rendering of Florida’s light, to the delicate contemplations of brothers Sam and Harold Newton, to Rodney Demps’s serene and searing Untitled (Rainbow Sky), no date, which channels the Romantic sublime in its electric, nearly abstract sunset over the Atlantic. It’s as fresh as an ocean breeze and perhaps as fleeting. For the Highwaymen sold a vision of Florida that recedes further and further from view as the rising tides, in league with rampant development and Disneyfication, threaten to reduce their idylls to only a memory of a memory.