The Chemistry of Color (Review)

Taft Museum showcases a variety of African-American artists

Aug 26, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Critic's Pick

In 1988, renowned artist Jacob Lawrence visited the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) to give the school’s commencement address. During that trip, he wandered through the extensive American Art collection there, making a comment to then-Board Director Harold A. Sorgenti that would soon change the programming at the museum.

Lawrence pointed out the lack of African-American artists included in the collection. Sorgenti, also the president of ARCO Chemical Company, realized that Lawrence was scathingly correct; he set off to build the ARCO’s art collection to make up for the PAFA oversight.

The company began to collect only work by contemporary African American artists, concentrating on the time after the 1960s civil rights battles. ARCO amassed a treasure trove, but soon the company was swallowed up. Rather than allow the collection to be sold off piecemeal, Sorgenti bought it and donated it to PAFA.

The exhibition currently on view at the Taft Museum of Art, The Chemistry of Color: The Sorgenti Collection of African American Art, highlights some of the key artists in the PAFA collection: Saar, Faith Ringgold, Howardena Pindell, Sam Gilliam, Beverly Buchanan and Romare Bearden, as well as Lawrence himself.

Usually, museum exhibitions of “African-American Art” (or of “Women’s Art” or of any other so-called minority’s art) make me roll my eyes and stamp my feet. There is something ghettoizing — separating — about such exhibitions that defeats any high-minded purpose. And yet, The Chemistry of Color left me feeling rather the opposite.

The range of work is broad, but the time period is narrow: from about 1979 to 1991. Rather than clamoring “This Is African-American Art” — even though some of the Taft literature does actually claim that — the exhibition illustrates what was missing in art museums until very recently. Putting the work together here does more to make us gasp at the things that we never would have seen in a museum of American Art 20 years ago. A hideous omission to us now, a blind spot then.

The artwork itself is first-rate. Lawrence’s gouaches and seriographs from the 1980s are indicative of his style: In Images of Labor (1980) we see the social observation for which he is famous. The drawing shows the optimism of Harlem, even during the Great Depression. Brightly dressed people, drawn in a flat-modernized style, work happily. Lawrence is also known for historical images, and the two prints here, Toussaint at Ennery (1989) and Revolt on the Amistad (1989), deal with human rights battles and the immeasurable anguish of slavery.

Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier’s The Milestone Dance also deals with history. The artist has taken a steriocard from 1901 of a Cakewalk Dance — according to Taft literature, “a minstrel dance that evolved from plantation slaves in the 1850s that parodied the lofty gestures and ideals of the wealthy” — and collaged and reprinted it in her own language. Marshall-Linnemeier’s words state, “Wouldn’t be no cakewalk,” and the figures in the antique picture dance in front of a ragged cabin that speaks of Abraham Lincoln and the slow end of American slavery.

The term “cakewalk” has edged its way into the American lexicon, though many of us don’t know its history. The Milestone Dance makes us rethink how we read both language and historical images, even — perhaps particularly — photographs.

Faith Ringgold has been a star in the renaissance of craft art. Her quilts, including Tar Beach #2 (1990), on view in the Taft show, recall the tradition of oral storytelling. Ringgold also plays with and repositions the notion of “women’s work,” putting quiltmaking — a historically woman’s “craft” — into the realm of high art. Tar Beach #2 tells the story of a little girl’s imagination and the ultimate truth behind it.

The artists included in this exhibition are essential to any history of African-American art. But, more than that, they're essential to the study of American Art — and that message is what The Chemistry of Color leaves us with.

THE CHEMISTRY OF COLOR is on view at the Taft Museum of Art through Nov. 1. Get exhibition and museum details here.