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African American art

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Term designating art made by Americans of African descent. Compounding the record of neglect that has marked other aspects of American history, the work of black artists has often been excluded from historical accounts. Nevertheless, African-American artists and artisans have been active since colonial days. Until the early twentieth century, African Americans generally worked within and contributed to prevalent styles and themes of their day, despite sensibilities sometimes partially at odds with white culture. Black artists of the nineteenth century include portrait painter Joshua Johnson and landscape painters Edward M. Bannister and Robert S. Duncanson, as well as sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose career spanned the turn of the century, ranks as the first African-American artist to secure an international reputation. Important social changes around the time of World War I led to a new consciousness of racial identity and, soon, racial pride. In the arts, the Harlem Renaissance flowered, and for a few years black art interested white as well as black audiences. Black life became for the first time a major subject for the visual arts, and strenuous debate first broke out over the issue of a separate black aesthetic. Alain Locke served as the leading theorist of the Harlem Renaissance, while Aaron Douglas played a pivotal role in defining the dimensions of its visual art and James Van Der Zee provided the principal photographic record. Other major artists who emerged during the 1920s and 1930s include Richmond Barthé, Romare Bearden, Selma Burke, Beauford Delaney, Palmer Hayden, W. H. Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley, Augusta Savage, and Hale Woodruff. Employing both African and modern European stylistic devices in interpreting black life, Malvin Gray Johnson (1896–1934) showed great promise as a painter before his early death. San Francisco–based sculptor Sargent Johnson (1887–1967) combined Mexican, Asian, and African influences in work that frequently addressed African-American themes. He drew inspiration at an early age from his aunt, the portrait sculptor May Howard Jackson (1877–1931). Painter and sculptor Charles Alston (1907–77) worked in both figurative and abstract styles while he also pursued an important career as a teacher for the federal art projects in Harlem, at the Art Students League (the first black instructor, he taught there for more than twenty years), and as a full professor at City College of New York. James Lesesne Wells (1902–93) produced powerful prints, primarily woodcuts and other reliefs.

Support for Harlem Renaissance artists diminished during the Depression, and World War II largely extinguished the movement. Nevertheless, during the postwar years, a number of important African Americans came to prominence. They included Elizabeth Catlett, Hughie Lee-Smith, Alma Thomas, and James Weeks. Painter and printmaker Eldzier Cortor (1916– ), who brought a romantic sensibility to his depiction of black life, is known for paintings of idealized women, often shown in settings that suggest their circumscribed environments. Norman Lewis (1909–79) left behind his early figurative approach to become the only prominent African-American painter among the first generation of abstract expressionists. During the civil rights era, black art regained a level of visibility it has not since experienced. The question of a distinctive black sensibility again flared, especially within the Spiral group, which flourished for about two years after its founding in 1963 in Bearden's studio. Other members included Alston, Lewis, Woodruff, and Emma Amos (1938– ), known for expressionist paintings and prints on political and feminist themes. Briefly, Spiral operated a gallery, but that enterprise as well as the group itself foundered on implacable issues surrounding the black artist's identity within a white-dominated society. Charles White (1918–79), among the finest draftsmen of his generation in the United States, reached the height of his powers in images related to the 1960s civil rights struggle, which he conceptualized as part of a universalized hunger for freedom and dignity. As idealistic agitation for civil rights evolved into a black power movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, blacks and whites alike lost interest in sustaining the recently opened dialogue. In recent years, however, more blacks have participated on an individual basis in mainstream art. Robert Colescott, Faith Ringgold, silhouette artist Kara Walker (1969– ) and photographer Carrie Mae Weems (1953– ) have located their African-American heritage at the center of their creative identities, while Sam Gilliam and abstract painter and collage artist Al Loving (1935–2005) number among those who have not. Many outstanding artists remain committed to their African-American heritage within an American sensibility that engages both white and black audiences. Among these, sculptor and printmaker Melvin Edwards (1937– ) is known for abstract welded sculptures, particularly more than two hundred Lynch Fragments, a series initially inspired by the civil rights movement and continued intermittently since 1963. In these wall-mounted pieces, he combines metal objects such as tools, chains, and industrial cast-offs into powerfully composed, abstract metaphors for oppression, resistance, and endurance. Born in Houston, Edwards attended Los Angeles City College and the Los Angeles Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) before earning a BFA at the University of Southern California. Beginning in 1972, he taught for many years at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. As a printmaker, he has worked with etching, lithography, and other processes to address through images as well as abstraction his ongoing exploration of psychological and social identity.


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