Los Angeles

“Dimensions of Black”

La Jolla Museum

“Dimensions of Black” is a curious. sprawling exhibition documenting the work of black artists both contemporary and historical. It was organized in a major group effort by Jehanne Teilhet, an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of California, San Diego, and a large number of students, black and white, from the University. Teilhet and her students raised about $40,000.00 for the exhibition from private and foundation sources, selected the work, assisted in the installation, and wrote much of the catalog (which at this writing has yet to be published).

The general premise of the exhibition was to show as wide a range of works of art created by blacks as possible, diversity of historical period and point of view being desired and sought after. As a result the exhibition is as sprawling in premise as it is in its installation, and is difficult to analyze from a qualitative standpoint. The show divides itself into four parts. The first is a visual survey of objects from the tribal areas of Africa which furnished most of the black slaves to white America, among them the Ibo, Ashanti, Benin and Dogon. The quality of these objects is good and the installation pleasantly unpretentious, although the erratic spaces of the La Jolla Museum do not permit all of this work to be installed in one area. The second part—paintings and objects—documents historic black art on this continent, and it becomes immediately obvious that the African heritage was quickly expunged from Africans brought here. Only several small objects serve as any sort of record of “slave art.” One of them, a face mask used for recalcitrant or runaway slaves, is a handsomely decorated object made for a base use. Historical black painting, that is painting in the Western tradition, is much more in evidence, and is of relatively high level. Joshua Johnston, a painter living in the mid-South during the early 19th century, is represented by two handsome portraits of “families of quality,” white of course, painted during the first decade of the 19th century. Edward Bannister, working in the latter part of the 19th century, was a first-rate landscape painter, and his Approaching Storm of 1875, painted in a soft-edged, full-bodied manner would seem to have anticipated George Inness’ late style by almost fifteen years. Other historical figures who worked more recently are also included, Henry O. Tanner and Horace Pippin among them, although Pippin suffers from being represented by a second-rate painting.

The period between the world wars is rather thinly represented, although Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration of the Negro of 1940–41, is one of his best works. It is a series of sixty small scale panels, seemingly painted as a set of book illustrations, to document the migration of black workers from the rural South to the urban North during and after the First World War. These small paintings combine visual unpretentiousness with the social bite of Shahn’s Sacco and Vanzetti series, painted at about the same time. Lawrence as social documentarian and commentator is infinitely superior to Lawrence as painter of pretty pictures of black life, the level to which his more recent work has deteriorated. Another handsome work of the period between the wars is a sculpture by Sargent Johnson, a blocky poly-chromed figure of a woman protecting two young children—who are incised into her ample skirts like art-deco intaglio reliefs, the piece Forever Free combining strong feelings with fashionable forms.

Every “current trend” is to be seen in the most recent work. Sam Gilliam has a large canvas which has been stained in the approved Washington color-painter manner, then bunched, draped and strung between two walls, curving across a corner of the gallery. The flowing forms and staining give the work a floating, almost porous quality which is rudely and regrettably shattered by a massive splatter of bright red enamel which drips over a sizable portion of the canvas, and at the risk of being too programmatic, one might read this color gash as “blood,” especially within the context of the exhibition. Fred Eversly, a Los Angeles sculptor, has two poured plastic sculptures in the form of hollow cylinders which have been sliced open at various angles. Small in scale, they combine precision of form with pale and delicate internal color. Raymond Saunders exhibits a suite of 28 mixed media drawings made with rubber stamp impressions, crayons and colored pencils which combine suggestions of Saul Steinberg within a more richly textured surface.

One portion of the exhibition is devoted to the influence of black art on white artists, and a number of earlier 20th-century works are included, with several paintings or prints each by Kirchner, Pechstein and Schmidt-Rottluff, as well as two early Matisse bronzes and a superb Picasso painting of 1907, La Grande Femme Danseuse. I felt however that this section was extraneous, if handsome. The influences of black art on 20th-century art history are perhaps better known than black art itself, and this space in the small La Jolla Museum might have been used to greater advantage to show more of the contemporary work by black artists.

Thomas H. Garver