Arts & Theater

Review: ‘African American Art’ a revelation at the Crocker

If you haven’t already seen “African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond” at the Crocker Art Museum, be sure to put a visit to the show on your calendar. Up through Sept. 21, this vibrant show of 100 works by 43 artists is a revelation, and the Crocker is its only venue on the West Coast.

For me, one of the best things about this uniformly strong show is the number of artists included whose names were not familiar to me. While Harlem Renaissance artists Jacob Lawrence, Lois Mailou Jones and Romare Bearden are well known, there are more artists in the show, who, despite their accomplishments, have been largely overlooked by mainstream art history.

Take, for example, Alma Thomas, who was “discovered” in 1972 by New York critics and the staff of the Whitney Museum when she was in her 80s.

She taught for 45 years at a junior high school in Washington, D.C., and was a lifelong student of art, taking classes at Howard and Columbia universities and evening and weekend classes at American University. Her lifetime of teaching and learning culminated in a solo show at Howard University in April 1966.

Her painting “Light Blue Nursery,” done in 1968, is one of the highlights of the show. In it small blocks of irregular shapes in primary colors activate a bright white surface in rows that suggest associations with a formal garden. It’s a play of abstract perceptual and optical interaction drawn from her experience of the natural world. Though she became recognized by the New York establishment in the 1970s, her name is not widely known today.

Or consider Bob Thompson, who painted figurative works based on mythical and allegorical subjects as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were painting Pop imagery. He made an impression in New York and Paris where he was remembered by a fellow artist for his remarkable self-possession and intolerance of notions of inferiority. In the 1960s he had successful shows in Chicago and Manhattan before going to Italy to study the frescoes of Piero della Francesca.

Hospitalized for gall bladder surgery, Thompson died in Rome from a combination of pulmonary edema and an overdose of drugs at age 28.

His painting “Enchanted Rider,” from 1961, depicts a woman astride a winged horse that tramples a devilish figure. While some have compared it to paintings of St. George slaying the dragon, it calls up Henri Rousseau’s hellish painting of war as a young girl astride a horse. Whatever the source, it is a powerful image by an artist, who, again, is largely unknown to general audiences.

The show at the Crocker is divided in half, with paintings and sculptures occupying one gallery and photographs filling the Works on Paper gallery, both on the museum’s second floor.

In addition to Harlem Renaissance artists, the show includes several artists from the SPIRAL group, founded by Bearden and Hale Woodruff, who came together at the time of the March on Washington in 1963. Among these are a vibrant geometric abstraction that could have been done today by Felrath Hines, whose work was recently featured in a show of SPIRAL artists at Evolve the Gallery in Oak Park.

Other works that stand out are Frederick Brown’s “John Henry,” Benny Andrew’s “Portrait of Black Madonna,” William H. Johnson’s primitivist rural scenes and Jacob Lawrence’s “Bar and Grill,” in which black customers are separated from whites by a wall.

There are also a number of works by living artists, including post-modernist Renee Stout, whose assemblage “The Colonels Cabinet” is both haunting and humorous, Sam Gilliam’s bold and colorful shaped canvas “The Petition,” and Thornton Dial Sr.’s ferocious mixed-media piece done in enamel with unbraided rope and metal grills embedded in a fierce scene that makes one think of Jean Michel-Basquiat.

The photography section of the show is a rich and compelling assemblage of powerful images by the likes of Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, Roland Freeman, Tony Gleaton and Robert McNeill, among others. They offer a haunting and beautiful record of the black experience in America.

Parks’ “Harlem – Gang Warfare” and “Ali Jumping Rope” are classic images, as are Gleaton’s “Hijo de Yemaya/A Son of Yemaya” and DeCarava’s “Graduation, New York,” an image of a young woman in a beautiful white gown in the shadows of a mean street.

The catalog of the exhibition, beautifully illustrated and wonderfully informative, is a must for any serious student of American art.

The museum has planned an extensive series of programs in conjunction with the exhibit, including live performances by the Celebration Arts theater company and special film screenings by CineSoul in August and a conversation between photographers Tony Gleaton and Earlie Hudnall Jr. in September.