Photo Essay - African American Artists during the Twentieth Century

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Palace of Justice, Tangier (c.1912-1913)Henry Ossawa Tanner, Palace of Justice, Tangiers (c.1912–1913). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) was the first painter of African American descent to gain widespread fame in both the United States and Europe. His work was displayed numerous times at the academic Paris Salons of the late 1800s and early 1900s where it won awards and was purchased by the French state. During the 1910s Tanner traveled throughout North Africa, spending time in Algeria and Morocco painting contemporary Bedouins and Muslims in local architectural settings. Many of his paintings from this period, with their close attention to issues of light and color, demonstrate Tanner's interest in Impressionism and other painterly methods of visual abstraction. While the subject matter of Palace of Justice, Tangiers at first appears to be the architectural setting in the background; the true content of the composition may actually lie in the figures in the right foreground. Here we see a man guiding a woman on horseback, recalling the biblical scene of the flight into Egypt, in which Joseph leads Mary and the baby Jesus to safety. This biblical theme would have been a natural for Tanner whose father was an archbishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Sargent Claude Johnson, Mask of a Girl (1926).Sargent Claude Johnson, Mask of a Girl (1926). Courtesy of the Newark Museum / Art Resource, NY

One of the few artists who worked primarily on the West Coast and yet is firmly associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Sargent Claude Johnson (1887–1967) frequently used African art for inspiration. Following the death of both of his parents at a tender age, Johnson's aunt, the Washington, D.C.-based sculptor May Howard Jackson, taught him an appreciation of African American culture and creativity that continued when he moved to San Francisco in 1915 to pursue a career as a professional artist. During the 1920s and 30s Johnson, who was sympathetic to philosopher Alain Locke's mandate for Negro artists to use African art as an aesthetic model, produced a number of hammered copper masks of varying degrees of abstraction. The wide eyes and full lips of Mask of a Girl demonstrates the artist's interest in celebrating African American physical beauty as does his choice of copper for its rich brown color.

Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers (1934).Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers (1934). Courtesy of Schomburg Center / Art Resource, NY

Aaron Douglas's Song of the Towers was created for the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) in 1934 under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. As one section of a four-part mural titled Aspects of Negro Life, which focused on the history of people of African descent in the United States from enslavement through the Great Migration, Song of the Towers celebrates the fluorescence of jazz and the increasing urbanism of African Americans during the first third of the twentieth century. In the composition, the figure of a saxophonist stands atop a great cog, recalling the machinery of the industrialized North, while playing his horn with one hand. The shoulder pads of his suit indicate his contemporary clothing while the silhouette of the Statue of Liberty can be made out in the far background, between the high rise buildings that flank the musician, firmly placing him in New York City.

Lois Mallou Jones, Les Fetiches (1938).Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fetiches (1938). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

By the late 1930s when Boston born and bred Lois Jones (1905–1998) was studying painting in Paris, African art had become a staple source material for many European artists within the avant garde. Similar to her French and German colleagues who found great elegance and beauty in the various works of tribal art that found their way north through the colonial occupation of much of West Africa, Jones was also drawn to the highly developed simplicity of form and the powerfully evocative character of African dance masks and wooden figures. In Les Fetiches Jones has retained the structure of the masks and animated them by arranging a selection of such objects as if they are floating in space before the viewer, like phantoms in a dream. Rather than abstracting their forms into unrecognizable shapes, she presents her subject matter as discreet material objects.

Jacob Lawrence, "The railroad stations were at times so crowded with people leaving that special guards had to be called in to keep order": Panel 12 from The Migration Series (1940–1941; text and title revised by the artist, 1993). Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

One of the lasting impacts of the Harlem Renaissance was a marked increase in the opportunities for arts education and training that became available to African Americans in the 1930s. Using government funds made available through the Works Progress Administration, art centers began to support and teach young artists to be professional painters and sculptors. Jacob Lawrence studied art at the Harlem Art Workshop with Charles Alston and Augusta Savage. His Migration Series, a set of sixty panel paintings, was completed when Lawrence was only 23 years old. Today it remains one of the most important interpretive visual documents of the greatest mass relocation of African Americans since the end of the slave trade between the United States and Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Eldzier Cortor, Southern Gate (1942-1943).Eldzier Cortor, Southern Gate (1942–1943). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

The black female nude was rarely a favored subject of African American artists working during the early twentieth century. This aversion was in reaction to a dominant European American culture that thrived on negative representations of black women in the popular print media and entertainments like blackface minstrelsy—a culture that saw ideal beauty located only in the bodies of white women. Such representations, coupled with the historical legacy of the sexual exploitation of black women under slavery, prompted many African American artists who were concerned with racial uplift or who were associated with the New Negro movement to create depictions of black women who were morally dignified, which also meant fully clothed. Much of the work of Eldzier Cortor, refutes these notions by visualizing the unclothed, black female body as both beautiful and monumental, standing triumphant on the ruins of history. In Southern Gate, for example, we see a nude woman standing before a crumbling post that is topped by a Grecian urn. While dark clouds occlude the sky behind her, a warm light pours across the left side of her body, she wears flowers in her hair, and a small bird perches on her shoulder as if to signal a new day is dawning.

Beauford Delaney, Can Fire in the Park (1946).Beauford Delaney, Can Fire in the Park (1946). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

The city of New York provided rich subject matter for African American artists working in the middle of the twentieth century. Artists who came to the area during and after the period of the Harlem Renaissance found a vibrant community of artists working both uptown in Harlem and downtown in the East Village. When Beauford Delaney settled in New York in the late 1930s he quickly became a part of the interracial bohemian lifestyle that was characteristic of other New York School artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem deKooning. He and his younger brother Joseph Delaney, who would also become a well-known painter, often chose gritty urban subjects like that seen in Can Fire in the Park—themes that recognized the economic difficulties faced by some in post-World War II America using an expressionistic visual language of bright colors and vibrant line.

Bob Thompson, Enchanted Rider (c. 1962-1963).Bob Thompson, Enchanted Rider (c. 1962–1963). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

If it can be said that traditional African art was a prominent source for many black artists working during the middle of the last century, it must also be noted that the history of European art provided these artists with another great tradition to draw upon as well. The work of Bob Thompson, a largely self-taught painter and musician working in New York and Europe during the1960s, demonstrates a focused interest in the art of the Italian Renaissance, in particular the work of Massaccio and Piero della Francesca, as well as later European artists like Poussin, Goya, and El Greco. In addition to adapting themes and compositional strategies from these earlier artists, works by Thompson also communicate a personal visual vocabulary of significant signs and symbols. In Enchanted Rider, for example, the form of a large red bird with its wings spread wide dominates the background of the painting, shadowing the figure of a man astride a winged horse. Thompson often included the form of the red bird in his paintings, leading some viewers to speculate that it is a symbol of the artist himself.

John T. Biggers, Shotgun, Third Ward #1 (1966). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

Since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina it is hard to look upon John Biggers's painting Shotgun, Third Ward #1 without experiencing some feelings of painful empathy or nostalgia for a New Orleans community that has suffered much from criminally inept and insufficient government efforts at relief and recovery following the disaster. At the center of Biggers's scene is a church that has been gutted by fire, its burnt and exposed beams visible as black lines against a bright red sky. Half-naked children play in the street in front of it while their parents gather to watch them and gossip among themselves. The church is flanked by shotgun row houses, simple geometrically constructed dwellings made up of one or two rooms, whose facades feature little more than a door, a window, and a peaked roof with a covered porch, each house as solid and monumental as the black folks who stand before them.

Romare Bearden, Patchwork Quilt. (1970). Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

During the early 1960s Romare Bearden began to shift his artistic practice from one that was focused on painting and illustration to accommodate an increasing interest in working with collage. Characterized by the cutting, repositioning, and pasting of various materials including photographs from magazines, colored paper, and fabric in specific arrangements on a material support in order to create new compositions, collage is a method of artistic abstraction that was formally developed in the early twentieth century by artists like Matisse and Picasso. Bearden was one of the first African American artists to work primarily in collage and to utilize the method to examine aspects of black life and culture. He accomplished this while concurrently using the visual language of avant garde abstraction and a recognizable African American aesthetic. This black aesthetic is witnessed in the arrangement of fabric that gives Patchwork Quilt its title. Here, the small swatches of printed cotton fabric are placed in a seemingly random pattern above the figure of a prone woman, recalling African American quilting traditions developed under slavery, which continued following emancipation and Reconstruction.

Sam Gilliam, Open Cyllinder (1979).Sam Gilliam, Open Cylinder (1979). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

Sam Gilliam's art has frequently defied traditional notions of what paintings ought to do and how they ought to look. Rather than tying himself to a square canvas, early in the 1970s Gilliam chose to explore the borders and boundaries of painting by using uniquely cut canvases like the one found in Open Cylinder, or by eschewing stretcher bars entirely and draping his painted canvases from alternative supports. These strategies have made Gilliam one of the most dynamic and innovative painters of his generation and helped to signal a revival in painting and abstraction at a moment when the art world was beginning to turn away from older media and modes in favor of newer technologies and trends.

Frederick Brown, Stagger Lee (1983).Frederick Brown, Stagger Lee (1983). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

The murderous nineteenth-century criminal Stagger Lee, variously known as Stagolee, Stack Lee, or by his Christian name Lee Shelton, quickly became a legendary figure within African American popular and vernacular culture. A mythical figure that incorporates ideas of outsized male sexual potency, Stagger Lee was the original well-dressed hustler who would "shoot a man just to see him die." After he murdered a man for taking his hat, his exploits became well known as a topic for blues songs. In Frederick Brown's painting Stagger Lee we see many figures overlapping each other, some men, some women, and while it is hard to tell exactly which one represents Lee, the many crosses that litter the lower register of the composition point to the trail of death that the actual Lee Shelton left his wake.

Martin Puryear, Old Mole (1985).Martin Puryear, Old Mole (1985). Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Martin Puryear's sculpture has a clean, Minimalist look to it while still being visibly handmade, a feature that Minimalist work of the 1970s and 1980s lacks or avoids. A very large work like Old Mole, for example, which is made up of layers and layers of interlaced bent wood, both reveals its materials while defying our assumptions about how they should perform physically. In this way, the slats of cedar become like string or strips of fabric: wrapping endlessly around a form that is hidden deep within. Unlike many artists of his generation who were often scrutinized as examples of African American creative accomplishment, for much of his career Puryear consistently avoided both the spotlight and attempts to essentialize his work within a racial context, opting to let his work speak for itself. During this period he also avoided titles and themes that would evoke specific African American associations. It was not until the late 1990s that overt references to black history began to creep into his work.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Crown) (1988). Courtesy of Banque d'Images, ADAGP / Art Resource, NY

Despite having died nearly twenty years ago, Jean-Michel Basquiat remains one of the most important and influential figures in contemporary art today. Along with his colleague and mentor Andy Warhol, Basquiat left one of the most enduring bodies of work created in the late twentieth century. Further, his early demise has inspired a number of high-profile retrospectives, gossipy biographies, and a feature film starring Jeffrey Wright. But it is the unique painting style, multivalent themes, and haunting imagery that is found in his works, rather than the tragedy of his early death from drugs and alcohol, that make the best case for his importance within African American art history. In Untitled from 1988, a red crown, a recurrent motif in Basquiat's work that that been said to signify ideas of royalty and dispossession, is surrounded by a yellow circle marked by letters, some of which have been blacked out. We can pick out the remnants of words that might be superman, nation, and domino, within a larger composition that holds other seemingly incoherent phrases and difficult-to-decipher forms. The overall composition reveals itself as both overtly schizophrenic and highly thought out. Untitled is an ingenious combination of a secret textual discourse coupled with the delicately balanced key elements of the crown and circle at the center of the canvas and the relatively equal use of brown and red paint on either side of the picture.