The recent openings of two exhibitions, "Black Folk Art in America'' at the Corcoran Gallery 1221, have gone a long way toward filling a vacuum that has existed in the fine arts.
Opinion has been considerably divided among blacks over the folk-art show, which features 360 works by some 20 self-taught artists. Some blacks came away with a view that didn't quite echo the high praise from critics, while others left the show visibly in awe.
Part of the mild disturbance that some blacks felt resulted from the gallery's attempt to attract black viewers. Days before the opening, mailings arrived at schools and at the homes of many black Washingtonians announcing that the Corcoran, which previously had brought Washington the art of Senegal and the Treasures of Ancient Nigeria, was now presenting an exhibition of black folk art.
Some people felt the brochure was a put-down, an assumption that blacks were interested only in black exhibitions. Curator and show coorganizer Jane Livingston said she "hated" any such implication. Clearly, the brochure didn't reach any new heights in sensitivity. But it would be a mistake for people to let this little transgression keep them from seeing the show or joining the gallery and gaining a voice in its affairs. MM any black viewers felt the show M rightly placed folk art in historical perspective, for this work has too often unfairly and patronizingly been labeled "primitive art." Livingston and coorganizer Jon Beardsley say flatly that the work of these natural masters put much "New Wave" art to shame. Bill Traylor's self-portrait and William Edmondson's stone angel are two stunning works that come to mind.
Although black American folk art had gained increasing museum attention before this show, it still has been overlooked by many a sophisticated eye, and to some blacks at least, remains misunderstood. A few blacks have even absorbed some of the patronizing attitudes of the wider society, and associate the work with crafts, rather than "high art."
I think elitism about folk art is flat-out wrong. This is a wonderful show. It is "high art" and more--embodying a spirit that often transcends the learned and practiced imitations presented by contemporary artists.
The talk among some black circles, though, has more to do with the politics of art than with the merits of the exhibition. Some have asked, "Why a show of self-taught artists when there are so many struggling contemporary artists who can't get a museum or gallery exhibition?"
I'm sympathetic to the problems that contemporary artists have breaking into America's galleries and museums. With their big money and market pressures, these institutions shut out all but a handful of white artists and a few mostly mainstream black artists. But the answer is to press for more opportunity, not to indict exhibitions that add to the wealth of contemporary art by turning the spotlight on the contributions of formerly little-known black folk-art masters.
Meanwhile, the hard fact has been that blacks have not always invested in their own artists or shown them the kind of appreciation they deserve. In recent years, however, blacks have joined the broader trend toward setting up alternative spaces outside the traditional museum nexus, and Washington has the nation's largest number of black galleries.
That is the importance of the other show, "Six Black Giants." It opened partly with an eye toward demonstrating the investment potential of more classically trained black artists who are of the same generation as the folk artists, and it is a provocative study in contrasts. The works range from the color-field canvases of Alma Thomas to the African and Haitian period of Lois Jones to the prints of James Wells.
Overall, in a week that sees also a bevy of local tributes to Langston Hughes--one of America's greatest poets and a contemporary of the artists in both shows--on what would have been his 80th birthday, it is wonderful to see such enthusiasm and even disagreement about culture. For such is the stuff of dreams, and it hints at a much-needed creative flowering that can help us through the harshest political and economic times.