Introduction to “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston” Exhibition Catalogue

In 1970, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and School of the Museum of Fine Arts mounted the exhibition “Afro‐American Artists: New York and Boston,” curated by Edmund Barry Gaither, then the newly appointed director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists (NCAAA) and special consultant to the MFA. The exhibition followed on the heels of artist and activist Dana Chandler’s January 1970 letter “A Proposal to Eradicate Institutional Racism at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts” as well as ongoing conversations between NCAAA founder and director Elma Lewis and MFA leadership about collaboratively creating and sustaining a new museum in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Boston. “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston” was the largest group exhibition of contemporary Black art at that point—it included 158 works by 70 Black artists—and received broad support and strong critical reception during its run from May 19 to June 23, 1970.

Introduction to the Exhibition Catalogue

For the first time ever, Gaither’s introductory essay from the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition is available online as a transcript. This transcript follows the text of the 1970 catalogue exactly. Spelling, grammar, nomenclatures, and stylistic choices have been left intact.

While no longer in print, the entire “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston” catalogue is available at these local libraries.


“Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston” is the largest and most concentrated exhibition of the work of contemporary Afro-American artists presented to the American public. It is the most recent addition to the group of so-called “black shows.” Yet it is not enough to simply state these facts, pay compliments to the artists and wait for the next such show. Indeed, part of the obligation of understanding such a project is to help you—the viewer—gain a perspective on the work, the artists, the nomenclature, and the circumstances which have led to the necessity for “black shows.”

To meet this obligation, let us focus our attention on the important terms “black show” and “black art.”

At its simplest, a “black show” is an exhibition of work produced by artists whose skins are black. The term seldom connotes the presence of properties or quantities intrinsic in the work and therefore does not act as an art historical definition. A “black show” does not belong to the same order as a “cubist show.” The “black show” is a yoking together of a variety of works which are, for social and political reasons, presented under the labels “black” or “Afro-American.” Such a show is thus a response to pressures growing out of racial stresses in America. At the same time, “black shows” attempt to introduce a body of material to a race-conscious public in order to recognize its existence and its quality. And like most socially motivated devices, the “black show” has its strengths and weaknesses.

The “black show” as a serious exhibition is a twentieth century invention. It began in the dual system which characterized American life early in the century, and it has continued because social and political factors still make black people a special group in the national population.

Artists who were black first appeared in large numbers in the United States in the 1920s. Chicago, Atlanta, New York, all of these centers began to produce, along with poets such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, professional artists such as Aaron Douglass, Hale Woodruff, Lois M. Jones and Edward Harleston. Visual artists were part of the blossoming called the “New Negro” movement. The climate of artistic ferment in which these artists found themselves was stimulating, but it did not provide institutional forms through which their work could be displayed and promoted. Finding it very difficult to locate suitable outlets for their talent, some of the artists went abroad to take their chances in what they thought to be the fairer European art world. Others lingered in northern cities where they sold their lyrical canvases to liberal whites and their more aggressive ones to leftist whites. Sales were made primarily through personal contacts and the patronage of such men as Carl Van Vechten. Exhibitions, when they occurred at all, were most likely sponsored by local churches, schools, YMCAs and other intra-community agencies. No professional museum services were available.

In the mid-1920s, the Harmon Foundation was created to promote the development of minority artists in the fine arts. Before long, the Negro artist had become its special cause. By 1928, the Harmon Foundation was sufficiently strong to undertake the organization of an all-Negro annual. The annual had more than eighty entries, and awards were given in several categories. Over the next several years, the annual shows presented thousands of works by hundreds of professional and semi-professional artists. The Foundation’s exhibitions were accompanied by a catalogue, biographical notes, brown-tone reproductions and short articles about new developments of interest to black artists. Of even greater importance was the fact that the shows traveled.

At best, the Harmon Foundation exhibitions appeared at New York’s International House. They never found their way into museums and galleries. Nevertheless, in the bleak years of the twenties, artists such as Allan Crite, Richmond Barthe, Henry Bannarn and others found the Harmon Foundation annual to be their most regular show, and in spite of its critical shortcomings, they regarded it as crucial.

The period of the thirties brought forth an even larger number of artists who were part of the WPA art projects. Now, however, the burden carried by the Harmon Foundation was lightened a little by the proliferation of series art programs at the black colleges in the south. Howard University in Washington, D.C. opened its art gallery in 1930. Fisk University, Atlanta University, Hampton Institute and other larger schools became limited but valuable agencies for the exhibition and collection of work by black artists. Community centers such as Karamu House in Cleveland and the South Side Art Center in Chicago appeared and began to complement the role of the colleges. To be sure, the greatly multiplied number of artists needing to exhibit found their situation hardly improved, for the Harmon Foundation, the colleges and the community centers all together were over-taxed. Museums and galleries still remained aloof and had no dealings with the black artist.

In 1941 Hale Woodruff and Rufus Clement, President of Atlanta University, instituted the “Annual Exhibition of Works by Negroes.” In the decade and a half following the creation of the annual, it played a major role in stimulating and displaying black American work, particularly in the southeast. It early included works by Charles White, Richmond Barthe and others. Simultaneously, the northern gallery world showed its earliest retreats from the freeze-outs against black artists. Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin were receiving downtown shows in New York and Philadelphia. Most other black artists were either not involved at all with the professional art establishment or they were involved on terms which compromised their integrity.

Two other events of the forties deserve citation because of their role in the evolution of the “black show.” In 1940 there was an exhibition which included virtually all of the known professional and semi-professional black artists. It was part of the American Negro Exposition in Chicago. The show grew out of the work of the Harmon Foundation and the WPA art projects. Among its participants were Robert Blackburn, Lois M. Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Hughie Lee-Smith and Charles White. A later outgrowth of the Exposition was “The Negro Artists Comes of Age, shown at the Albany Institute of History and Art in 1945. More than forty artists from the national black community participated in the Albany show. “The Negro Artists Comes of Age” announced itself as a quality show which had abandoned double standards. Whether it really had done so is questionable, yet that announcement was already a step beyond the canons of the Harmon Foundation.

The fifties brought no marked differences in the relationship between the artists who was black and mainstream art institutions. Exhibition opportunities were still severely limited although the colleges—Morgan State College, Fisk University, etc.—were more actively involved with art than ever before. Prejudice in the art world was omnipresent and even occasional exhibitions of the work of black artists in the liberal white community were infrequent.

In the sixties, after Birmingham, Watts and the others, cultural institutions re-discovered the black man and his world, and the groundwork for black studies programs and new “black shows” was laid. The only real variable was whether the catalyst would be internal or external.

Among the most impressive of the new “black shows” was “The Evolution of the Afro-American Artist: 1800–1950” organized by Romare Bearden and Carroll Greene, Jr. Of much historical interest, the exhibition had the important effect of stating clearly and definitively that there was a body of work by black artists which was exciting and of high quality and which would interest the public at large. At about the same time, museum and gallery shows appeared which focused more and more on younger artists. “Counterpoint,” Lever House, 1967 and “Afro-American Artists since 1950,” Brooklyn College, 1969 were two such exhibits.

“Black shows of the sixties differed in two important respects from earlier ones: they were usually hosted by major museums and universities and they were of much higher quality. The increased involvement with major art institutions reflects the pressure of militant black arts organizations and the heightened demands for relevancy. Higher quality shows result from the enlarged pool from which the art is selected. Serious critical standards can be observed because one no longer grabs everything possible for a “black show.” Instead, one carefully picks and chooses. A second factor contributing to the improved “black show” is the introduction of black organizers who have shown a greater sympathy and understanding of their fellows and have thus prevented faux pas such as “Harlem on My Mind.”

Irrespective of how one regards the “black show,” it still has certain points in its favor, at least for the rest of this decade. It begins to meet the need for real involvement between the black community and the professional art world. It begins to attack the ignorance which still clouds the culture of black people. It provokes people, black and white, to look, and it precipitates benefits for the artist.

The “new black show” is a valuable educational and cultural experience for both black and white viewers and artists. It will remain so as long as the racial attitudes out of which it grew remain, although it will no longer be the black artist’s only outlet.

The social meaning of the “black show” is, and has always been, clear to the astute observer. The foggy area has been the seeming inability of its organizers to move beyond simply pulling together works by artists who are black and to begin to create meaningful definitions of the work. That thirty artists have black skins and produce art is an observation of no artistic consequence. Unless they have some shared property in their art, there is no reason to group them together in an art show and label it “black art.” After all, what does that mean?

It is absolutely essential to recognize that even though the groupings which make “black shows” have a social imperative, the art nevertheless has properties which lend themselves to definition. It is possible for those much over-used terms “Afro-American art” and “black art” to have meaning. However, as critical terms, their meaning must derive from the study of the works.

Perhaps a fruitful way to approach the term “black art” is by reviewing its background. In the era of the “New Negro” (1920s), a number of black intellectuals and artists came to feel that the American black man had an honorable and rich heritage, and that by drawing upon it he could create an art uniquely expressive of himself. This idea was early suggested in “The Negro Artists and the Racial Mountain” published in 1927 by Langston Hughes. A more developed statement of the position was advanced by Dr. Alain Locke, professor of philosophy at Howard University and a Rhodes scholar. Locke stated that the black American had an artistic genius derived from his African past, but that the institution of slavery had broken his artistic temperament. He advocated the study of African art in order to rediscover its sense of subtlety and discipline. The artist was to learn African aesthetics. Out of this study would come, he felt, a school of Negro Art which would employ creatively the formal lessons which African art had taught the western world and interpret sympathetically the life and story of black people here and abroad.

Locke did not regard the creation of a school of Negro Art as a retreat from the mainstream art world, but he saw it as providing a foundation for the production of great Negro art which would be the equal of French or Italian art. The result of Locke’s efforts was the appearance of a short-lived movement based directly on African art. He also contributed to the growing concern for black subjects by black artists, but his influence at this level is probably secondary to the prevailing taste for realism and genre work. Nevertheless, Locke’s ideas have continued and have taken on new dimensions with the rebirth of cultural and political nationalism among black people.

While there is a continuing interest in ideas akin to those of Locke, not every artist who is black can be called a black artist if that term is to be meaningful. Although at its broadest “black artist” may mean simply an artist whose formative experience was in the black community, it is clear that as an artist he may choose to work outside of the traditions of that community. He may regard himself as a cosmopolitan artist. Depending on his political and social ideas, he may wish to cut all ties with the group. The group may pose a threat to his freedom and may reject his chosen style. The work of such artists may be most fruitfully discussed in terms of generally recognized styles and tendencies rather than as “black” or “Afro-American.”

By contrast, there are artists who knowingly and intentionally base their art on peculiarly black experiences, on the history of blacks and on a view of Africa. Their work must be considered within legitimate art historical groupings which may be characterized by specific and observable traits.

Perhaps there is no better expression than “Afro-American shows” for these new and diverse exhibitions of the work of artists who are black. In this case, however, the term is used for sociological reasons rather than art historical ones. “Afro-American” does not describe the work but states a fact about the artists which is of interest to the public at this moment in history. Thus under the umbrella of a sociological description may be found several styles, each of which belongs to the discussion of other works of a similar character. Afro-American art exhibitions may therefore include hard-edge painting, color-field art, minimal, kinetic or figurative art and even some varieties of social realism.

Black art, on the other hand, is one of two movements in the work of younger blacks which is subject to critical definition. Black art is a didactic art form arising from a strong nationalistic base and characterized by its commitment to a) use the past and its heroes to inspire heroic and revolutionary ideals, b) use recent political and social events to teach recognition, control and extermination of the “enemy” and c) to project the future which the nation can anticipate after the struggle is won.

In his visual language the black artist is basically a realist. Black art is a social art and it must be communicative. And realism is generally accepted as the most common visual denominator and therefore the most communicative art language.

A related but distinctly different movement in the work of black artists is Neo-Africanism. This direction is rooted in the study of traditional African art, its formal organization and its palette. Neo-Africanists do not attempt to copy or translate African art, they attempt to fathom its aesthetic, to get at its essence. The ideas thus extracted from African art are used to create art forms reminiscent of African art but at the same time peculiarly modern. Such works may seem superficially based on the shaped-canvas idea, but they are in fact resonant with deeper meaning. The palette of the painted masks and house decorations of West Africa finds a new home on stretched canvas or burlap. The shapes of Dogon headdresses and ritual objects reappear in Harlem with freshened memories of their historical significance in the African experience. The viewer of Neo-African work will be struck by the African qualities of the work which account for its consistency as a group. Neo-Africanists share with black artists proper a nationalist basis and, like black artists, they are associated with a syndrome of essentially nationalistic political views.

“Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston” presents a rich, high quality selection of works representing all of the directions which Afro-American artists are presently exploring. A great deal of the art belongs to the body of mainstream American art and therefore does not demand special explanation. Its strengths are its imaginative power, its subtlety and its fine execution. Into this group fall the kinetic work of Tom Lloyd, the stripes of Daniel Johnson, the nudes of Zell Ingram, the women of Emma Amos and the excellent father-son group of John Wilson. Other works belong to the category of black art proper; for example, the political art of Dana Chandler. Still other works such as the masks of Ben Jones and the sculptures of Tonnie Jones belong to the Neo-Africanist tendency.

Altogether, the exhibition underscores the vitality and diversity of the work of the American artist who is black, whether he embraces prevailing styles or makes new departures on his own. I am persuaded that, if the younger artists can retain their energy and direction, they may hold the key to the most vital art of the second half of the twentieth century.


Author

Edmund Barry Gaither is a renowned scholar, curator, and educator. From 1969 to 2020, he was the director and curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists and special consultant to the MFA.