“Directions In Afro-American Art”

The exhibition “Directions in Afro-American Art” occurred this fall at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. The artists were chosen by a committee of four black artists: Romare Bearden, Jeff Donaldson, Phyllis Thompson and Rosalind Jeffries who also wrote the catalogue essay. The format was sensible; 28 artists were selected and represented by an average of four works each. Each of the four committee members was represented by one work. So were Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Charles White and Hale A. Woodruff, who along with Bearden, are cited in the catalogue as “pioneers of 20-century Afro-American Art.”

In his foreword to the catalogue, the museum’s director, Thomas Leavitt, sets forth four directions in Afro-American Art, suggested by Bearden, which are represented by these 28 artists: 1) art of social protest; 2) rediscovery of African and Caribbean heritage; 3) depiction of black experience in America; 4) black consciousness in the mainstream of modern art. The work selected visibly fits into one or more of these categories, although the exhibition is not installed by groups. For the most part these categories are designations of subject matter, and the show substantiates—as it should—that black subject matter does exist. But a lot of this subject matter is naive and clichéd. There are at least ten versions of the African mask, either in painting or sculpture, and they invariably remain signs, emblems of the past without their original formal power. Little is said about the formal directions of the work, and it is these and their implications which are most revealing. In her rhetoric-laden catalogue essay, Jeffries stresses that

Blacks are different in that they tend to be even more personalized whether abstract or naturalistic, figurative or non-figurative. The self must be included, and as a part of reality, not impersonally.

I’m not sure what this means, but what it apparently means is hardly borne out by the work.

Formally, little in this exhibition seems personal or black or interesting. Most of the work occupies one of three formal categories which I would roughly call 1) diluted, commercialized Surrealism; 2) commercial poster design; 3) academic figuration or abstraction. (The preponderance of African masks occupies the last category.) A stupefying combination of these three modes is standard and suggests that they are, in fact, continuous. But together or separately these modes of depiction are among the most rigid and institutionalized artistic conventions around. I have not seen so much tight, neat art since the “Extraordinary Realities” exhibition of funky contemporary surrealism at the Whitney last year. Here, as there, there is a depressingly high incidence of closed, finished surface, hot, often psychedelic colors, and tiny, compulsive details. Execution is obviously what many people think counts. One popular device is a tight, bright mosaic figuration which reaches an extreme in the work of Wadsworth Jarrell, whose portraits of Angela Davis and Malcolm X are made of tiny magenta and yellow letters which also spell out various political slogans. Nelson Stevens, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Alfred J. Smith, Jr. and Jeff Donaldson are also involved with variations of this method. This technique approaches credibility only in the work of James Phillips, Charles R. Searles and Ben Jones, who are among the few artists whose work is powerful in a way that is also black. The other exception is of course Bearden, who is not exceptional, but looks good by comparison. A number of artists work in current modes; their work occupies the catalogue’s fourth category and avoids all of mine. The work of Marie Johnson, Franklin White, Ellsworth Ausby, Kwai Seitu Asantey, Fred Eversley, Raymond Sanders and Phyllis Thompson is nothing spectacular; it is largely derivative and undeveloped, but the sources are contemporary rather than academic or commercial.

The last 11 artists mentioned are the only exceptions to uniform grimness. The rest of the work has little to do with being “personalized,” to return to Jeffries’ word. Most of it conforms predictably to general impersonal ideas about being black and about being an artist. It is made on establishment terms—rigidly accepting and misconstruing tired conventions.

Roberta Smith