Artists have long been among the greatest admirers of African sculpture, particularly since Klec, Modigliani, Picasso and the German Expressionists absorbed transfromed and re-introduced their simplifying abstract forms into the lexicon of modern art.
One such artist, well-known American sculptor Chaim Gross, was first drawn to African art 40 years ago, and his collection of African sculpture is now one of the most important in the United States. About 150 of the thousands of items in it have just gone on view at the Museum of African Art here, where Gross is a founding trustee.
Entitled "The Sculptor's Eye," this selection of figures and masks represents more than 40 of the 200 principal sculpture-producing peoples of West Africa. As a collector, Gross did not seek comprehensiveness, but rather objects of strong evocative power. This exhibit shows that he often succeeded.
There is at the entrance of the exhibition, for example, the beautiful and dramatic Dogon helmet-mask in the form of crocodile, used to drive away souls of animals killed in the hunt, lest they take vengence. Whether you know the lore or not, the piece is spellbinding as expressive abstract art. So are several others, particularly a group of helmet-masks from the Cameroon grasslands, many depicting spendidly fearsome animals, as well as graceful, long-necked birds.
Gross, known for his exhuberant sculptures of happy mothers and children (last seen here three years ago in his 70th birthday show at the National Collection of Fine Arts), is not your typical rich American collector. Arriving in New York in 1921 at the age of 17, a refugee from Galicia, he began his carrer in art in the heart of the Depression. By 1939, however, when one of his sculptures was acquired by the museum of Modern Art. Gross and his wife were already collecting African pieces, which were then available for $2 and $3.
Gross' work never had an African look, but his affinity for the African carver is easy to understand. It was Gross, along with Zorach and a few others, who revived the art of direct carving in America at a time when most sculpture consisted of making a model in day and leaving the rest to a stone-cutter or wood-carver. What Gross and the African carves shared was a process of cutting away at a solid block of wood to find the expressive, simplified forms within.
But Gross had the eye of a 20-century modernist, and he must have marveled, as we do now, at the kinship between African sculpture and cubist and post-cubist art. It is impossible not to think of Picasso when looking at these carved wooden figures from the Central Sudan, or of Modigliani when viewing the wooden reliquary-head from the Kota People of Gaboni or Braque when contemplating the Senufo flying birds awarded young men in farming competitions.
Fortunately, this exhibition is on the same floor as the museum's permanent gallery, which juxtaposes modern artists' works with their African sources, reminding us that it was the Aftican artists who came first. It was surely through artists like Picasso and Modigliani, however, that many of us - and Gross - took our first steps toward appreciating the formal beauty of African sculpture as pure art.
Not to be missed are the glass cases with 250 of Gross' vast collection of "goldweights," tiny brass objects used for weighing gold when it was the medium of exchange. Made and used by the Ashanti people of Ghana, these weights are often tiny sculptures, some of them exquisitely rendered. One must look to such works in metal, or to pottery to see older Afriacan art. Since wood is short-live in Africa most extant carvings are less than a century old.
This exhibition is making its final stop on a national tour organized by the Museum of African Art, which also produced the exemplary catalog.