Several years back, a row involving Betye Saar and Kara Walker exposed a significant rift in black art. In 1997, Walker, then 27, received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant for her cut-paper silhouettes depicting stylized scenes of exploitation and sexual coercion on antebellum plantations. They're tough to look at, but Walker meant them to be ironic -- an altogether fashionable stance in contemporary art.
Saar took offense. She had been a radical, too, earlier in her career, appropriating Aunt Jemima and similar imagery in her mixed-media works. But Saar, confronted with the silhouettes, accused Walker of irresponsibly trafficking in negative stereotypes. She encouraged the MacArthur people to rescind Walker's award. Saar, now in her seventies, has called on young artists to affirm and empower blacks in their work. Somewhere, it seemed, Saar had lost track of irony.
Here in Washington, a pair of exhibitions showcasing selections from African American art collections -- one owned primarily by influential artist, curator and University of Maryland professor David Driskell, the other works from the Corcoran Gallery's permanent holdings -- illustrate the issues in the Saar-Walker debate. Can an artist work within the prevailing trends of the day -- as Walker does, with satire and irony and co-opting of offensive stereotypes -- even if it offends those who don't get it? Or should artists forgo art world vogue to celebrate and uplift black identity?
In one corner stands "Black Is a Color" at the Corcoran, a gutsy selection of post-1960 works. In the other is "Selections From the David C. Driskell Collection," a more conservative survey of black art since the late 19th century, at the University of Maryland Art Gallery in College Park.
In recent decades, Driskell has leaned toward positive representations of blacks or safe abstraction. The Corcoran has embraced several contemporary artists' more challenging output.
Judging from the Driskell selections on view at the University of Maryland, it's almost as if cutting-edge, controversial artists like Walker don't exist. From the looks of things here, Driskell appears to have allied himself with the Saar camp. While no enemy of Walker or similar artists, Driskell here avoids showing anything particularly strong.
Despite -- or, more likely, because of -- this moderation, Driskell's influence is great. He was adviser to Bill Clinton on White House art purchases and oversees Bill Cosby's collection, one of the largest compilations of African American art in the world.
With regard to the classics, Driskell's choices prove unassailable. Two essential Jacob Lawrence silk-screens hang here, including "Toussaint L'Ouverture Series," a stunning print from the late 1930s. Driskell also owns works by Henry O. Tanner, one of the most influential and well-regarded African American realists. Driskell's Augusta Savage bronzes are powerful, even if their style is not much different from what academy-trained artists produced at the time.
But as his collection edges toward the present, Driskell walks the middle of the road. He likes uplifting representations of blackness, such as a '70s-era Walter Williams woodcut of children amid flowers and butterflies that veers dangerously toward treacle. From the 1980s and '90s, when racial and sexual identities were at the forefront of contemporary art, Driskell selected abstractions or up-with-people narrative works. Sam Gilliam is here. So is Michael Harris's feel-good African-inspired lithograph "Mothers in the Presence of Myth." Only the title of Mary Lovelace O'Neal's 1993 multicolored work, "Racism Is Like Rain, Either It's Raining or It's Gathering Somewhere," indicates the artist holds political views.
Although hardly radical, the Corcoran's post-1960 selections come off as adventurous by comparison. Curator Susan Badder hung works by Saar and Walker in the same room, some 50 paces apart. Saar's demure mixed-media piece "Dat Ol' Black Magic" incorporates her aunt's antique scarf and an illustration of a black man probably pinched from product packaging or a magazine spread. (Note to Betye: Remember when you worked the ironic angle, too?)
Contrast that with Walker's tough, lyrical cutout "Roots, Links, Inc.," with its unflinching references to sodomy and bondage. Despite her rough themes, Walker keeps the eye roving across her lyrical compositions. She is one of the most important artists of her generation. Like other artists her age, Walker works within contemporary trends. Similar tendencies appear in the work of Adrian Piper, who at the Corcoran employs a blank credit application as a jumping-off point for commentary on the inequalities of wealth in "Forget It." Glen Ligon's 1996 "Self Portraits," a pair of pictures of the artist's head in profile and rear view, mirrors the ubiquitous mug shot. Conscious of racial typecasting, these artists send stereotypes right back at us.
Look back a few decades and today's backlash begins to sound familiar. Walker and company have proven themselves savvy art-world operators, creating within a larger system that rewards them for work that's both fashionable and singular. It's a situation not unlike that of the 1960s. Then, the Black Power movement came along just as the art world was obsessed with abstraction. Black artists who made color field paintings or assemblages were, to many, traitors. Raymond Saunders, for one, took heat for works such as 1970's "Red Star," with its Jasper Johns mix of symbols and numerals. (The piece hangs in the Corcoran show.) Around that time, Saunders defended his penchant for abstraction by asserting that "racial hang-ups are extraneous to art." That remains a relevant argument today.
Black Is a Color, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW, Wednesday-Monday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday to 9 p.m., 202-639-1700, to April 7.
Selections From the David C. Driskell Collection, at the Art Gallery, University of Maryland, 1202 Art-Sociology Building, College Park, Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Thursday to 7 p.m., 301-405-2763, to March 22.