Celebrating the Legacy III: African-American Art at the Corcoran
Over the years, the Corcoran Gallery of Art has celebrated the contributions of African Americans within the mainstream of American art through exhibitions as well as acquisitions. It pioneered such special exhibitions as Facing History: The Black Image in American Art 1710-1940, Black Folk Art and Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance while building significant and representative holdings through private donation and institutional purchase. In 1996 the generous gift of the late Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr. augmented the collection by 30 works of art and an extensive archive; and the gift of approximately 300 photographs by Gordon Parks two years later substantially enhanced and broadened the scope of the collection. Today the Corcoran owns more than 500 works by ninety-seven African-American artists spanning two centuries, from 1806 to the present.
Celebrating the Legacy features a selection of work from the Corcoran’s permanent collection and is organized around a loose chronology that begins with the Baltimore-based portrait painter Joshua Johnson. For much of the nineteenth century, African-American and white artists worked in similar modes. The European academic influence was strong; landscape, portraiture, and still life were the predominant genres. Artists like Robert S. Duncanson and Henry Ossawa Tanner considered themselves artists first and foremost. Race was a secondary issue.
The twentieth century, on the other hand, is characterized by the exploration of heritage and identity in the art of African Americans. The first conscious celebration and promotion of black culture came about with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Through their art and literature, leaders of this movement sought to break down racial barriers and find acceptance as members of American society. During the next decades James VanDerZee and Addison Scurlock photographed the thriving African-American communities of New York and Washington, DC, capturing the diversity and richness of black urban life.
Since the Harlem Renaissance, many African-American artists have wrestled with the issue of whether their art must reflect their racial identity and, if so, to what degree. Drawing on her personal experience, Lois Mailou Jones worked in a variety of styles, and presented a broad range of subject matter. Her paintings include impressionistic French landscapes, bright figurative scenes from Haiti, and abstract compositions that incorporate African masks. Jacob Lawrence, on the other hand, painted “the things I know about and the things I have experienced …the American scene.” His distinctive style uses flat, cutout figures in rich planes of color to recount narratives of the black experience. Later, artists like Alma Thomas chose abstraction as the principle means of expression. In her work, formal concerns for color, shape and materials are dominant.
The paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs exhibited here demonstrate the accomplishments of African-American artists. The works reveal a complex tradition of art making, transcending issues of race and gender and championing the human spirit.