To Conserve a Legacy
In our final post for Black History Month, here’s an excerpt from To Conserve a Legacy, a catalog for the major exhibition project of the same name that collected artwork from America’s historically black colleges and universities. The book includes color reproductions of artwork in the exhibition, biographical information on the featured artists, and a report on each university collection, with this excerpt detailing some of the contributions Atlanta University’s Art Annual Competition made to African American art in the 20th century.
In order to understand just how unusual (and often vexing) it was for the white art establishment and public to first visualize and then revere black subject matter, one need only return to those early years of the Art Annual, and read the reviews and commentaries on these “all-Negro” art shows. Disparaging statements that described Atlanta University’s African American art students as “chocolaty,” their subject matter as having a “primitive” quality, and their themes as largely concerned with “racial consciousness and antagonism” were not infrequent, and illustrated just how radical the annual exhibitions were. Boston artist John Wilson—who was included in more annuals than any other African American artist—described works like his Negro Woman (which received Atlanta University’s 1955 Portrait/Figure Award) as “African American versions” of an art that was popularized by the more socially conscious Mexican painters. According to Wilson, Mexican painters like Jose Clemente Orozco dealt with “images of people who were left our or unimportant,” and with “the realities” that racism and capitalism often imposed on the world’s darker peoples and the poor. This particular approach to a figurative art—exemplified in the furtive glance and defiant “non-whiteness” of Wilson’s Negro Woman—forced white viewers of the annual exhibition to acknowledge “an almost frightening racial strength” and, conversely, black viewers to recognize themselves in the art and to visually savor the experience.
After the first three exhibitions, the originator of the Atlanta University annuals, the widely traveled artist and broad-based teacher Hale Woodruff, felt that there would come a time when the art exhibitions would become integrated and, thereafter, appreciated across the historic racial and cultural divides in America, c. 1945. Woodruff’s call for the loosening of the “all-Negro” emphasis of the annual exhibitions was rejected by Atlanta University President Rufus E. Clement, who felt that his institution’s affirmation of the long depreciated black artist (not to mention his confidence in the larger mission of historically black colleges and universities) had not lost its imperative, despite all of the patriotic words and high hopes for racial reconciliation in the postwar years. One might interpret Woodruff’s response to this statement of institutional “focus” (of “self-segregation”) as two-tiered. First, he left Atlanta University (in 1946) to teach in New York University’s art education department: one of the first, tenure-track appointments of an African American art educator by a predominately white university, And second, at the invitation of President Clement in 1950, he returned to Atlanta University to paint a six-paneled mural, The Art of the Negro, for the University’s Trevor Arnett Library.
This painterly “retort” of Woodruff’s—a brilliant mixture of history, theory, figuration, abstraction, territoriality, and universality—culminated with a panel appropriately entitled Muses. In this panel Woodruff (in the tradition of Van Vechten and other chroniclers of celebrated blacks) portrays seventeen black artists of historical and contemporary significance. From the little known, pre-modern artisans of Africa, to the contemporary artists Charles Alston, Jacob Lawrence, Haitian intuitive painter Hector Hyppolite, and others, Woodruff enacted in Muses a visual “roll call” of black artistic greats, but framed within the entire mural cycle’s painted history of acknowledged traditions, social disruptures, and cross-cultural interchanges. To a great extent, Woodruff’s departing salvo to Atlanta University helped advance one of the original objectives for the Art Annual, providing “stimulus for development among black artists.” What The Art of the Negro communicated to Atlanta University’s audiences and competing artists was that not only were black faces beautiful and exhibition-worthy, but so were black expressions, visions, dreams, and abstractions: artistic avenues that were appealing, evocative, and historically grounded enough to stand alongside an entire community (and, ultimately, a universe) of contemporary art.