In 1966, IBM donated Sargent Johnson’s sculpture “Mask” to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, then called the National Collection of Fine Arts, marking the museum’s first receipt of a gift of African American artwork.
Today, the institution says it has the largest collection of African American art in the world, some 2,000 works by 200 artists, and a portion of those holdings are on view in “African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond.”
Johnson’s “Mask” marks the beginning of this 100-work exhibition. The copper bust of a girl’s head from the early 1930s, rendered in the style of African sculpture, also speaks to the history of Harlem. It was crafted when conversations about the foundations of black art were being held in New York and being circulated by figures such as Howard University professor Alain Locke, who influenced Johnson by calling for a reclamation of African heritage.
That is a powerful legacy, but it is only a moment in the cacophony of history stitched together for the exhibition — a wide mix of voices from artists who emerged from different cities and traditions. The exhibition seems not to build a grand narrative but to indulge the museum’s desire to bring these works out of storage, even if the result is disjointed and without a clear message. What the exhibition produces is a look at the heart of this museum, through its history of acquisitions.
The collection began with the help of groups that made sure works by African American artists were landing in museums — such as IBM, which was actively collecting work by black artists, starting in the 1940s. The Harmon Foundation, an organization established in 1922 to support African American arts, donated works in 1967, including Claude Clark’s “Resting.” The 1944 painting, with its expressive outlines and heavy paint, depicts a worker at rest, evoking Clark’s beginnings as the son of a Georgian tenant farmer but also the influence of artists such as Henri Matisse and Maurice Prendergast, whom he studied while taking classes in 1939 at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
By the 1980s, the museum was acquiring works by black artists proactively instead of relying on gifts. Many of these works are being exhibited at the museum for the first time, such as photographs by Roy DeCarava, who grew up during the Harlem Renaissance, was mentored by photography great and Museum of Modern Art curator Edward Steichen, and in 1952 became the first African American photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. His photographs, of a girl in a graduation dress on a desolate New York street and of John Coltrane entranced in a performance, are thoughtful studies of Harlem, both intimate and vast.
Many African American heavyweights came into the collection in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Gordon Parks and his 1948 images of Harlem gangs from his first assignment for Life magazine, and Beauford Delaney’s “Can Fire in the Park,” painted in the 1940s when the Tennessee native was embedded in New York’s cultural energy, forming friendships with James Baldwin and Henry Miller and rubbing shoulders with Stuart Davis and Georgia O’Keeffe. The work, which recalls Delaney’s first day in New York in 1929, when he was robbed and ended up sleeping on a park bench, shows a group of men illuminated by the light of a trash-can fire. It is painted with thick globs of color, lyrically applied.
In the 1990s, the museum brought in 1962’s “Evening Rendezvous” by Norman Lewis, a painting that at first appears to be a series of abstracted vertical strokes but then reveals white, hooded Ku Klux Klan figures rallying around a fiery display. Lewis’s approach — abstract, yet entrenched in social issues — emerged from both his involvement in Harlem and interactions with the Abstract Expressionists, including Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.
Many Washington artists also entered the collection at this time. There are James A. Porter, who painted in a style reminiscent of Matisse and wrote “Modern Negro Art,” a major study of African American art history, in 1943, and contemporary artist Renee Stout, whose “The Colonel’s Cabinet” from the early 1990s fashions the fictional history of an explorer through a cabinet of curiosities filled with everything from voodoo dolls and chicken feet to a portrait of Frederick Douglass.
Such highlights, like the exhibition, scratch only the surface of this American heritage, but they do allow for the exploration of a Smithsonian collection. The exhibition reveals the museum’s contributions to Washington’s cultural trust, a legacy that should greatly expand with the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2015. And it offers an opportunity to share the stories of these works as they travel to five museums across the country after their Washington debut.
O’Steen is a freelance writer.
“is on view through Sept. 3 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW. 202-633-1000. americanart.si.edu.