At the very beginning of "Represent: 200 Years of African American Art," visitors encounter a handful of works they might expect to see at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but not in a show like this one.
They include a series of cut silhouettes of the artist Charles Willson Peale and his family, a federal-era tall-case clock, and an elegant footed silver cup from 1841. They are traditional, upper-class prestige objects of the kind that form the bedrock of American collections, yet all are attributed, at least in part, to African American makers. The point is made subtly, but definitively: African American art is part of American art, and it has been so since the beginning.
Still, the premise of such a show as "Represent," which features 75 works by 50 artists, all from the Art Museum's permanent collection, is that it is worthwhile to acknowledge how African Americans have added something distinctive to the art of our nation and the world. Thus, the silver cup shares a glass case with a couple of stoneware face jugs that speak clearly of African origins. And in a gallery nearby is Joyce J. Scott's Rodney King's Head Was Squashed Like a Watermelon (1991). This work, made from beads and string, looks at first like a luxury item - perhaps an evening bag - but is, upon inspection, an exploration of ugly stereotypes, and of a racial confrontation that inflamed a city.
The art on display runs the gamut from pieces such as this one that embody the violent history of American race relations to a far larger group that celebrates African American life, and finally to works for which the race of the artist is apparently incidental. Many African American artists have felt an obligation to represent their people; others have sought the freedom to simply be themselves. (According to the catalog, Peter Bentzon, who made the silver cup, may have been "passing" as white, yet another way of dealing with race.)
Thus, the term African American art has some meaning, at least for most artists and viewers, but it is not easy to define what that meaning is, and this show does not attempt to do so. Its purpose is essentially celebratory: to tell Philadelphians and the world that the museum has a significant collection of works by African Americans - more than 750 - and that the art is worth seeing.
The exhibition is an outgrowth of a catalog of the same name written by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of art at the University of Pennsylvania, which has just been released. It is also providing an opportunity for the museum to respond to the observances of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and of Black History Month, in February, and to organize activities to bring more African American visitors to the museum.
If the show seems short on works that are unfamiliar and revelatory, that is probably to the Art Museum's credit. Many of the top paintings, furniture, and sculptures in this show are on display regularly in the galleries, or have been centerpieces of recent exhibitions. Textiles and works on paper are more fragile, and are thus displayed more rarely. Among the standouts here are two quilts: Sarah Mary Taylor's wonderful Hands (1980) comes out of a folk tradition. Faith Ringgold's knowing, neo-naïve Tar Beach 2 (1990) makes the roof of an apartment house into an earthly paradise.
The first African American artist represented in the Art Museum's collection - the first in any major museum collection, according to the catalog - was Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose monumental The Annunciation was purchased by the museum in 1899, the year after it was painted. Tanner, who spent his career in Paris, rarely painted obviously African American subjects. While he was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, with Thomas Eakins among others, a group of his fellow students attacked him and tied him to his easel, in a mock crucifixion, and placed him at the center of Broad Street. You can see why he would want to get away.
Yet, his 1897 portrait of his mother, seated in a fine blue dress in a dark brown room, looking emotionally warm and deeply tired, is an iconic painting, one of the museum's masterpieces. She is a memorable individual who happens to have had some African ancestors.
Usually, she hangs alone in the museum's American collection, but in this show, she is surrounded by a whole wall of faces. Among them is another of my favorites: Beauford Delaney's 1945 portrait of a 16-year-old James Baldwin. He is a formidable young man, with African American features, but the painter paints his face green, blue, and pink, with only a few areas of brown. There is a lot more color to this man than just black and white.
Also nearby is Samuel Joseph Brown's 1934 self-portrait, Smoking My Pipe, a watercolor that shows him in a fashionable wide-lapelled suit with a bow tie, and a nude painting behind him. It is part of a long, largely European, tradition of artists' representing themselves to assert social status. Yet, it also embodies a distinct, dressy African American style, in the tradition of Duke Ellington. This wall, hung at a Barnes-like density with excellent work, is in every sense the heart of the show. These faces, ranging from Dox Thrash's beautiful anonymous Octoroon (1934) to Chuckie Williams' raucous Ray Charles (1985-99) remind us of the emotions all people have in common, along with the distinctive ways of expressing them that have come from African American culture.
This point is driven home in Carrie Mae Weems' Kitchen Table series (1990), which hangs on an adjacent wall. In the photographs, a man and a woman (Weems herself) enact ambiguous stories, loving, anxious, or both, from domestic life. As viewers, we seem to be sitting at the table. We can't be passive. We must be part of this scene, no matter what color we are.
Represent: 200 Years of African American Art
Through April 5 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th and the Parkway.
Hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday; open Wednesdays and Fridays until 8:45.
Admission: $20; 65 and over, $18; students, $14; ages 13–18, $14; 12 and younger, free.
Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.orgEndText