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An Alumni Reunion On the Hilltop

Howard University's Art Department Celebrates Eight Decades With a Show of Graduates' Works

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page C05

Color School phenom Morris Louis taught here. So did radical artist Frank E. Smith. Painting legend Jacob Lawrence installed a pair of epic murals.

Where? At Howard University, of course. The site of one of America's most influential art departments, the school boasts an alumni and faculty roster packed with star power. Graduates influenced art locally and internationally: District printmaker extraordinaire Lou Stovall studied here, as did scholar and artist David Driskell, and recently deceased painter and sculptor Gwendolyn Knight, and the renowned sculptor Elizabeth Catlett.

The Howard University exhibition includes "For All My Fathers" by Scott Baker. (Scott Baker)

Now, Howard celebrates its alumni and the almost 80 years since the opening of the school's Gallery of Art with "A Proud Continuum: Eight Decades of Art at Howard University," on view in Childers Hall. The largest alumni show in university history, the exhibition includes 122 works by prominent graduates, many of whom returned to the school to teach.

From its beginnings, the place mattered. General Oliver Otis Howard, commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau and the school's trustee and namesake, initiated a modest collection of photographs and sculptures in 1870. Though the art department didn't get its legs until the 1920s, it began with a gallop. First to receive an art diploma: Alma Thomas, the 1924 graduate who would become a force in Washington Color School painting.

The Gallery of Art opened four years after Thomas's departure. The site of countless significant shows through the years, the gallery collected important works, too.

Though ambitious in scale, "A Proud Continuum" wasn't curated with an eye toward the school's rich history. With the exception of a group of pictures by those who've died (Thomas, Lois Mailou Jones and others), which are housed in a university conference room adjacent to the gallery (you'll have to ask an attendant to let you in), the works on view now were culled from a call for entries among alumni. Most submitted very recent works, even those who graduated decades ago. Some of those are very engaging; a number are not.

The show leaves me wishing to see what those same artists were creating in their student days, because what happened at Howard over the past 80 years really mattered. The six essays in the show's exemplary catalogue underscore the challenges and tensions within the black art community. Questions surfaced again and again about how blacks should position their work in a white-dominated art world. Early Howard educators wanted students to emulate European traditions. By the 1970s, black power had all but shed the deference to white precedents. The Howard students were angry and energized, and what they produced had impact.

"A Proud Continuum" does include one excellent example of this kind of radical art. Scott Baker's "For All My Fathers" is a tough work about the artist's ambivalence toward his country; he takes as his subject black radical George Jackson. The piece was made in 1976.

To follow the history of the university's art department is to follow the black experience, the history of its expression and the conflicts and quarrels within the creative community. It's such rich territory. I hope future Howard shows will explore it, too.

New Digs for Adamson Gallery

David and Laurie Adamson inaugurated their brand-new 14th Street NW gallery last Saturday night with a show of large-scale pigment prints by photographer Victor Schrager and a small selection of prints by Washington legend William Christenberry. Longtime owners of a Seventh Street one-stop inkjet print shop and gallery, the Adamsons migrated north to the same building that already houses the G Fine Art and Hemphill galleries.

Adamson's move marks a significant change in the shop's strategy. Gallery and printing facilities now occupy separate sites: the 2,000-square-foot gallery on 14th and, farther downtown, a print facility in the Blagden Alley building once home to Signal 66.

The idea of a move had been percolating for years. Concerned that the artists coming to work in his print shop -- majors all, among them Chuck Close and Donald Sultan -- lacked privacy from the functioning public gallery space, Adamson decided that a separation of work and exhibition areas was essential.

"In the moment when the work is being created they were sort of vulnerable," Adamson says of the artists. "I wanted to quell that fear and give everybody a private space."

Adamson also figures that the gallery's distance from the practical aspects of artmaking ensures that the art on view retains a certain mystique.

Schrager's still lifes (of books) retain an inscrutable air. Using a very shallow line of focus, he produces images that blur. Rich color and the books' architectural qualities are emphasized. Stripped of text on their spines or covers, the books border on becoming abstract objects, though their pages and rich bindings remain visible.

Some remind me of leather-bound journals from the days when people took Montblanc to paper in daily diaries; others are cloth-bound volumes clearly born on high-end presses. The feeling is one of nostalgia and privilege. Yet while Schrager's compositions and palette are quite lovely -- who doesn't love big, saturated color pictures? -- the work feels slightly insubstantial.

The gallery's rear hosts four rich pigment-print landscapes by Christenberry. Outtakes from a Nature Conservancy project commissioned for 2001's "In Response to Place: Photographs From the Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, these never-before-seen Alabama landscapes are printed large scale -- some 4 1/2 feet across -- and in striking detail. They're really quite lovely.

A Proud Continuum: Eight Decades of Art at Howard University at Howard's Gallery of Art, 2455 Sixth St. NW, Monday-Friday 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon-4 p.m., 202-238-2330, through May 29.

Victor Schrager and William Christenberry at Adamson Gallery, 1515 14th St. NW, Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday noon-5 p.m., 202-232-0707, through May 14.

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