Art: Black images of terror,dignity,life
'Spiritual Strivings," the new show of works on paper by African American artists at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, doesn't sound as if it will be violent. But it opens with an assault, an image of urban terror that will stay with you even as you survey the more uplifting works that follow.
That work, Street Scene, a 1937 gouache by the great Jacob Lawrence, shows a monstrous yet oddly comical character wearing a Ku Klux Klan-like hood, a light blue shirt and shorts, wielding a cudgel, apparently attacking a black man who is lying on the ground. Also in the scene are a white woman with a baby, an ineffectual white man who might be a policeman, and three other figures. The black faces are painted so dark as to be almost featureless; they are invisible men. The white faces are exaggeratedly white and masklike.
Lawrence, who was only 20 when he painted Street Scene, later created epic multipaneled narrative works. Here he seems to be giving us a random shard of a story in which it is impossible to figure out what the characters are doing. The painting, a wonderful proto-pop synthesis of Piero della Francesca and the Sunday comics, is compelling enough to tempt viewers to puzzle it out. You soon realize, though, that while the specific story is elusive, the big picture is obvious: Relations between white Americans and African Americans are forever shadowed by a history of dehumanization and violence. What we are seeing is merely a detail.
The more than 70 prints, drawings, and watercolors that follow provide a partial chronicle of African American artists' responses to this baseline of horror in our history. In contrast to Lawrence's featureless figures, these works show us all kinds of faces - dignified, determined, radiant, joyous, expert, bone tired - each one clearly an individual worthy of respect.
All the works in the show are from the collection of Harmon and Harriet Kelley, of San Antonio. He is a physician; she has devoted herself to finding works for the collection and amassing an important archive documenting African American artists and their work. This is a collection that reflects passion and commitment rather than great wealth, and it contains many fine works that were out of fashion at the time they were acquired.
The Kelleys want their collection to be seen. The current show is a version of one that has been traveling to museums across the country for seven years. (A show of prints and related materials donated to the academy by the artist Eldzier Cortor, who is represented in the Kelley collection, is being shown in a separate gallery through Aug. 31, also under the "Spiritual Strivings" rubric.)
Both Harmon and Harriet Kelley grew up in Texas when schools and public facilities were legally segregated, and are products of what were then all-black colleges. Harriet Kelley grew up on such a campus, where her father was a professor, in a household where she says European classical music was played constantly.
The collection includes distinguished works from 1900 to the present, but its heart is in the 1930s and 1940s. "If you like the true period in African American art, I think it starts in 1950 on back," Harmon Kelley says in an oral history included in the show's catalog. His reason is that in 1950, "they started painting like everyone else."
While such integration is arguably a mark of social progress, the focus on the black American experience just before the civil rights era is a strength of the collection. It does not tell the whole story, and the values it embodies are somewhat out of fashion, but it provides an inside view of a bygone cultural moment.
The academy's presentation of the works is uninspired: a huge gallery with the minimally labeled works lined up along the wall. It seems to be set up for school classes to be herded through. The works are grouped in vague categories, such as "Resistance," "Spirit," and "Labor," each introduced by a quotation from the Kelleys.
One of their most characteristic and memorable works is Street Car Scene, a 1945 lithograph by John Woodrow Wilson. Its central figure is an African American whose button identifies him as a Navy Yard worker, probably in Boston, where Wilson lived. Everyone else on the trolley is white, including the woman in the seat next to him; she holds a girl on her lap, who is, in turn, clutching a doll. Unlike in the Lawrence, there is no overt hostility. Everyone seems to be pretending he isn't there, though he seems to know he is being judged. (It's worth remembering that in much of the country, he would have been required to sit elsewhere.)
Newsboy, a 1937 drawing by Carl G. Hill, done when the artist was 17, is one of the Kelleys' newest and most compelling acquisitions. The central figure stands in the middle of a street, dwarfed by trucks and cars and buildings all around. But what we notice is the fluidity of his body, as he moves through the city with the apparently casual incisiveness of a Lester Young sax solo. Unlike many of the other figures in the exhibition, he is comfortable in his skin. He does not seem to be striving. He embodies another way of reacting to the horror Lawrence depicted. He is cool.
WORKS ON PAPER AT PAFA
"Spiritual Strivings - The Harmon & Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art: Works on Paper"
Where: Through Oct. 12 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building, 128 N. Broad St.
Hours: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Mondays and legal holidays.
Admission: Adults, $15; seniors (60 and older) and students (with ID), $12; youths (13-18), $8; children and military personnel, free.
Information: 215-972-7600 or www.pafa.org.