He is a black man and an artist and a kind of ghost. He is neither here in our world nor in the world of paintings, but somewhere in between.
His name is John N. Robinson. He was born in 1912 on Holy Hill in Georgetown, and has lived here all his life. The face in his self-portrait is poignant, insubstantial. We see him yet see through him. He is caught there in the glass, surrounded by his pictures, surrounded by his dreams.
In the early 1940s, when he painted the reflection in his shining studio mirror, Washington was still a segregated town -- but a segregated town with the tentative beginnings of an integrated art scene. Robinson's self-portrait is one memorable picture in a memorable exhibit now at the Washington Project for the Arts, 404 Seventh St. NW.
"Art in Washington and Its Afro-American Presence: 1940-1970" brings that vanished local art scene -- with all its flaws and passions, heartfelt good intentions and internecine battles -- back into the light.
It is a show long overdue. And its timing is exquisite. By remarkable coincidence, five other exhibitions -- all of them concerned with the roles that blacks have played in America's art history -- are simultaneously on view in this city and its suburbs. Some deal with the art of the 19th century. Others touch the present. Yet these six shows group in memory, positioning themselves like disconnected parts of some single grand mosaic. John Robinson's self-portrait is one small piece of the pattern. How did he come to improvise on mirror tricks invented centuries before by the masters of Dutch still life? For what audience was he painting? And what is that anxiety that hovers round his art?
"Art in Washington and Its Afro-American Presence" was organized by Keith Morrison, a professor at the University of Maryland. Morrison, Jamaican-born, is a painter and writer and a researcher of high skill. A dozen complex questions all raised by his fine catalogue swirl around his show. How much has the art of France, that bought by Duncan Phillips, influenced the paintings made by blacks in Washington? What interacting forces have forced the imagery of Africa now into the foreground, now into the background, of pictures made by those at Howard University? How black, if black at all, is art made here by blacks?
Morrison's exhibit is divided, roughly, into three. Its first part includes smallish, gold-framed pictures, rather French in spirit, made at Howard in the early years. The second portion focuses on the affinities between the tribal art of Africa and European modernism, and relies on those examples shown here to countless high school tours at Warren Robbins' Museum of African Art. The third part, on the ground floor, includes abstract pictures by Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas, Kenneth Young, Morris Louis, Ken Noland, Howard Mehring, Gene Davis and other painters who either taught or studied in the ambience of Howard.
Morrison's exhibit is not particularly good-looking. But then neither were the little local art shows of the '40s and the '50s that it strives to resurrect.
Some were held at Howard, some at the nearby -- and black-owned -- Barnett-Aden Gallery. They were intentionally progressive, modernist exhibits. Picasso and Matisse, Milton Avery and Charles Demuth, and such local color painters as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring and Tom Downing were among the artists shown there -- at a time when their exhibits here were few and far betweeen. These were integrated shows. The country's best black artists -- Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Sargent Johnson, Archibald Motley, Hale Woodruff and a host of others -- gladly showed there, too.
Wealthy Duncan Phillips, and Marjorie, his wife (who also showed her art there), and gallery directors, and even Eleanor Roosevelt herself would show up to drink tea at the exhibition openings. The artists were invited, too, as was the faculty of Howard. The city's richest people met the relatively poor there, and black people met white. Wholly different worlds came together in those galleries. They were truly integrated, truly public places when there were not many others in this stiffly southern town.
That sense of worlds colliding was not only evoked by the delicate, polite, tea-sipping confrontations of well-meaning blacks and whites. Consider John V. Robinson, a poor kid and an orphan. The world in which he lived, and that of Duncan Phillips, were still light years apart.
Robinson was 17 when a series of fortuities saved him from his crummy job -- he was scuffling for pennies dusting cars in the Key Bridge garage -- and forever changed his life: a white chauffeur saw his sketchbook and the chauffeur took the book and showed it to his sister, who passed it on until it reached Prof. James V. Herring. Herring, Phillips' friend, called young Robinson to Howard University and into the world of art.
It was Herring (1897-1969), melodramatic and flamboyant (he wore diamonds at his tie and cuffs, and affected suits of snowy white) who, with his comparably resplendent house mate and companion, the young Alonzo Aden (1906-1961), the first curator at Howard, ran the Barnett-Aden Gallery. They opened it in 1930 in their tidy house on Randolph Place NW.
Robinson had stumbled into a remarkable art network. Though centered in this city, that network reached from Harlem south to Haiti, from the Phillips Collections' galleries to the ateliers of Paris. And it somehow managed to extend through all the layered classes of this segregated city, from pockets of culture in the Negro slums of Georgetown to pockets of culture in the mansions of the rich.
A spirit of good will burned brightly in that network's galleries. At a time when the Corcoran refused to show pictures made by blacks, Duncan Phillips purchased art by Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin. And he took Manhattan buying trips with his friend James Herring.
Morrison describes himself as an "integrationist," and, from first to last, his is an integrated show.
Morrison's exhibit concerns itself with two sorts of history, the history of art -- and that of racial integration. The modernist, progressive Washington art network he has managed to recover was unusual at least in this: There were many whites among its influential players. But its prime movers were black.
The six Afro-American exhibits currently on view in town overlap in strange ways. In each of them one feels what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the "two-ness" of the black experience. The viewer who encounters a Calder printed by Lou Stovall, or a Washington color painting by Alma Thomas, or a Joshua Johnson portrait of some Baltimore sea captain, will have no way of guessing that these artists are black.
"The picture on the wall as an end in itself," writes Morrison, "is not an African idea." One feels that truth strongly throughout these exhibitions. Black artists in a white world, often serving a white audience, often have allied themselves to traditions born in Europe. And yet, at the same time, they have also felt a need to declare their allegiance to the larger black community. The blackness of black art is not constantly apparent.
Sometimes it flows strongly. When Edmonia Lewis carves a just-freed slave, when Henry Ossawa Tanner makes a portrait of a Christ who might be black, when Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley or Charles White seizes on a black subject, or when Jeff Donaldson of Afri-Cobra -- the 1960s "African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists" -- shows a black man in a T-shirt armed as if for war, you feel before their works of art a passionate refusal of accommodation. The battle thus implied was being fought at Howard with bitterness and passion half a century ago.
The poets and the painters of the Harlem Renaissance considered it their duty to acknowledge their negritude and Africa's traditions. When Alain Locke (1896-1954), the black poet and esthetician, came to Howard to chair the philosophy department, he gently but insistently urged similar concerns. It was Locke, the author of "The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts," who urged young Lois Jones to turn away from School of Paris painting and to introduce black subjects into her small pictures. The African masks one sees in her "Les Fetiches" of 1938, in the current exhibition at the University of Maryland, shows she followed his advice.
But Howard's James V. Porter, though he later changed his mind, thought that advice pernicious. "Dr. Locke's recent pamphlet, 'Negro Art, Past and Present,' which is intended to bolster his already wide reputation as a champion of Africanness in Negro Art," wrote Porter in 1936, "is one of the greatest dangers to Negro artists to arise in recent years." Porter's friend James Herring wholeheartedly agreed. "Our policy," he wrote, "has been to leave discovery of racial . . . artists to our chauvinistic friends."
This was not a friendly disagreement. Herring, whose father was Jewish, was sufficiently light skinned to ride in the white sections of the trains, and he much enjoyed the privilege. Morrison reports that at Locke's funeral, Herring, dressed entirely in white, glared into the coffin and then announced in a stage whisper, "I told him I would see him buried."
When Donaldson and his Afri-Cobra colleagues revitalized Howard's art department in the early 1970s, that ideological struggle flared up again.
Herring's integrationist motives, and those of Alonzo Aden, were not entirely altruistic. Both men were in some sense snobs. They thought themselves artistocrats. "We were never slaves," said Aden of his family. One gathers from this show that both bound themselves to art in part because it brought them access to a world otherwise closed to blacks.
Morrison argues, perhaps overenthusiastically, that both Howard and the Barnett-Aden Gallery -- by showing Matisse and Picasso, Avery, Demuth and the German Expressionists -- played crucial roles in drawing Washington's attention to the new modern art. Be that as it may, the importance of both galleries seemed to decline radically with the demise of Jim Crow. Being recognized as a "Negro of the better sort" by one's allegiance to high art seemed to matter less and less as segregation faded.
Morrison's exhibit stops in 1970. His cutoff date is telling. Blacks may now be welcome in galleries and museums. Bigotry may be fading. But those first-rate artists here who stress their blackness in their work -- Jeff Donaldson, Ed Love and Frank Smith are names that come to mind -- have found few white buyers. Or black.
The important contributions of black artists to music, dance and language, have been acknowledged widely. But the roles that blacks have played in art have been too little studied. One senses this throughout the six shows now on view.
They are curiously connected. One notices, for instance, that a kind of energetic, half-musical improvisation seems to link Henry Tanner's paintings to the eerie drawings of self-taught Bill Traylor and to Sam Gilliam's abstractions.
A willingness to reach beyond the art realms of the wealthy similarly ties Afri-Cobra's posters to the inexpensive silk-screens of Lou Stovall and Lloyd McNeill, and past them to the street graffiti now ubiquitous in New York.
A deep concern with imagery that one might describe as tribal, or at least non-European, may bind the masks and fetishes of the Harlem Renaissance to the statues of Ed Love and to Martin Puryear's sculptures.
A yearning for -- and deep distrust of -- the agreed-on values of academic art are not only apparent in Lewis' marbles and Meta Fuller's bronzes; they also are sensed clearly in the late examples here of wholly abstract art.
It is fashionable today to see America as colorblind and racism as dead. But the old fight to find some common ground between integration and integrity -- that fight one feels so clearly in John Robinson's self-portrait -- is a battle not yet over. These six shows seen together have done this town a service. There is much that we can learn from their works of art.