Thursday, February 23, 2017

Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and “Expanding Tradition”

Freddie Styles, Working Roots Series #10, 1987
Following the end of slavery and the Civil War in the United States, two primary yet opposing figures emerged as leaders and thinkers in the African American community. Booker T. Washington (1856 – 1915) and W. E. B. Du Bois (1868 – 1963) pushed for the advancement of their people after over two hundred years of state-actualized oppression and degradation. Working against the failures of the Reconstruction period, Washington and Du Bois came to be the heads of polar-opposite ideological movements fighting for the same end. Finding themselves in the midst of this turmoil and striving for life and newness out of darkness, these two leaders helped forge African American — and, indeed, American — identity. The exhibition “Expanding Tradition: Selections from the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Collection” on view from January 28 to May 7, 2017, showcases works by African American artists and depicts an engagement with African American cultural identity, a practice that can be linked back to these two seminal leaders.

Booker T. Washington was honored on
a "Famous Americans Series"
Commemorative U.S. Postage stamp,
issue of 1940. Image: Wikipedia
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in Hale’s Ford, Virginia and became free while still a child. Young Washington worked in mines and as a “house boy” and was eventually able to attend the Hampton Institute where he learned the importance of education. Washington became a teacher and gifted orator, and in July of 1881, he opened the Tuskegee Institute, an establishment that would serve as both headquarters for, and living proof of, the Washington ideology for the betterment of the race. Washington promoted what he called “the dignity of labor” and stressed the importance of hard work. He believed the progress of his people would come about through economic self-reliance and maintained that this was achievable, within the existing system, through trade education and diligence.

Du Bois offered an opposing perspective. Born five years after the Emancipation Proclamation in Massachusetts, he was the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University and was a sociologist constantly studying his people and his “negro” identity. Du Bois spearheaded the Niagara Movement, which was founded to create a more radical strategy towards achieving racial justice and existed in opposition to the accommodationist policies of Washington. Du Bois, unlike Washington, believed in the necessity of gaining civil rights as a primary step in the search for advancement. He too believed in the importance of education but saw the industrial/trade education promoted by Washington as limiting. Despite their many disagreements, the thoughts and ideas of these two leaders often converge — specifically in the creation and promotion of a black American cultural identity.

W. E. B. Du Bois. Image: Hutchins Center for African and African American Research 
Although this desire manifested itself in different ways, both Du Bois and Washington saw art as a means of forging an identity out of the darkness of slavery and Jim Crow–era South. In his NAACP speech “Criteria of Negro Art,” Du Bois addresses the importance of discussing art and deems it inseparable with beauty and truth. He describes art as a means to “face our own past as a people” and concludes, “Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be” in its inextricable tie to truth. He also emphasized the need for self-representation during this time, as he recognized that what was depicted in the artistic record would very much be the future’s recollection of his people. He saw the creation of art as autonomy and hoped for his people to tell their own stories on their own terms. To Du Bois, art was a means of depicting the truth and one’s true self, an inherently radical idea in a country dominated by the white perspective.

Washington too has a distinct relationship with black art. Rather than focusing on the spiritual self-definement that preoccupied Du Bois, Washington focused on a mechanical, utilitarian creation of selfhood in the face of oppression. Washington constantly created and distributed photographs of himself and the Tuskegee Institute and by doing so, developed agency. In the book “Booker T. Washington and the Art of Self Representation,” Bieze argues, “Washington’s widely distributed images were part of a burgeoning modern form of self-representation”. He presented an aesthetic valuing nature and hard work, deciding utility itself would be beautiful. In many ways he worked to define “the early aesthetic of the new negro” (Bieze) through his dedication to visual demonstrations of cultural equality.

Wilmer Jennings, De Good Book Says (Church Series), 1935

Today, in “Expanding Tradition: Selections from the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Collection”, we see the artistic progress that came out of this revision of American identity. The exhibition displays works by African American artists throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and through this great range we get a true sense of African American art history and its continued cultural inquiry. In the painting “De Good Book Says (Church Scene)” (1935) by Wilmer Jennings, we see a lively religious scene featuring the animated expression of churchgoers under vibrant beams of light from stained-glass windows. Jennings depicts the spiritual nature of an African American community through this expressive work of art, and by doing so practices the self-definition promoted by Du Bois and Washington. In another painting on display, “Working Roots Series #10” (1987) by Freddie Styles, we see an abstract work on a red background, painted using the roots of plants. In many ways this engagement with roots parallels the engagement with cultural roots that is prevalent in works throughout the show. African American artists imagine and reimagine a rich past while engaging with an everchanging present. In this way they extend the practice of cultural agency and self-definition that once preoccupied Washington and Du Bois.

Jamie Brener
Publications Intern

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"Michael Ellison: Urban Impressions"

“Michael Ellison: Urban Impressions” opens this Saturday, February 18, and runs through May 21, 2017. Organized by Shawnya Harris, Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Curator of African American and African Diasporic Art, it features block prints and collage works on paper by the Atlanta-based printmaker and educator. This exhibition draws from a selection of Ellison’s block prints and collage works in the collection of Larry and Brenda Thompson.

 Michael Ellison, Waiting Room, 1999

Ellison grew up in Collier Heights, a middle-class African American neighborhood in southwest Atlanta. He studied art at Atlanta College of Art on the GI Bill, where he learned printmaking. The title of the exhibition comes from the way in which one of Ellison’s early printmaking instructors, Norman Wagner, described Ellison’s subject matter, referring to his prints as “urban landscapes and/or impressions.”

Michael Ellison, Ding, 1991
After receiving his diploma from Frederick Douglass High School in 1970, Michael Ellison wanted to go to New York to further his study of the performing arts, despite his mother’s misgivings. In 1975, he joined the U.S. Army and served toward the end of the Vietnam War. While stationed in Europe, Ellison took advantage of the cultural offerings there, visiting museums and painting watercolors that he sold to friends. After he completed his tour of duty, Ellison briefly attended DeKalb Community College, then transferred to Atlanta College of Art (ACA) in 1981 on the GI Bill. He soon realized his affinity for printmaking, creating linocut and woodcut prints saturated with dense patches of color that also created texture. He often focused on social settings such as the black church, bars and other gathering places. Ellison said, “The bar is sort of like a modern icon. It’s similar to a house of worship for some folks.” In 1991 an electrical fire badly disfigured the artist. As he began to recover and re-learn how to make prints, he created works with striking colors focusing on scenes of isolation and community in urban landscapes. Ellison passed away from heart complications at the age of 48 in 2001.

Harris says, “Michael Ellison's work represents an important piece to the discussion of not only only African American printmakers, but also the history of Georgia-based printmakers, their unique narratives and their contributions to the medium.” This exhibition is part of the museum’s commitment to presenting single-artist shows by under-recognized African American artists.

Related events include:

“Conversation on Collecting,” a discussion with collectors Brenda and Larry Thompson and Curlee Raven Holton, executive director of the David C. Driskell Center
Thursday, February 23 at 5:30 p.m

Black History Month Dinner ($55 members, $75 nonmembers)
Friday, February 24 at 6 p.m.

Tour at Two, led by curator Shawnya Harris
WednesdayMarch 15 at 2 p.m.

Toddler Tuesday (register by emailing
Tuesday, May 9 at 10 a.m.

All events are free and open to the public unless otherwise indicated.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Art by Immigrants at the Georgia Museum of Art

William Keith, The California Sierras, 1875
Last week, our director of communications Hillary Brown and PR guru Michael Lachowski took us on a virtual tour of works by immigrants in our galleries to highlight their stories, from colonial times to the twentieth century. The artists include John Smibert, who immigrated to the American colonies before the United States was its own country, and Willem de Kooning, who arrived in America as a stowaway and later became a naturalized citizen and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. We received requests for the video transcript, which we present as a springboard for viewers to delve deeper into the individual experiences of each featured artist.

John Smibert

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland; emigrated to the American colonies intending to take a teaching position at a new college in Bermuda; the college never came to be, and Smibert settled in Boston.

Jeremiah Theus

Born in Switzerland; immigrated with his family to the Province of South Carolina at the age of 19; South Carolina’s General Assembly gave land grants and transport funds to encourage European Protestants to settle there.

William Keith

Born in Scotland, raised by his grandparents; immigrated to New York City with his family when he was 12 and became famous for painting American natural wonders

Pierre Daura

Catalan artist who lived and worked in France, then fought on the side of the Spanish Republican forces (against Fascist General Francisco Franco) until he was wounded; Franco’s government revoked his Spanish citizenship; his American wife became ill in 1939, and while they were getting her medical treatment in the United States, World War II broke out; he and his daughter became naturalized American citizens in 1943.

O. Louis Guglielmi

Born in Cairo to Italian parents; his father was a professional violinist and the family traveled frequently; in 1914, they moved to the Italian slum in Harlem, NYC; he often painted scenes of the poverty he saw there.

Jan Matulka

Born in Bohemia (now part of Czechoslovakia) and emigrated to the Bronx as a child, with his family; “Between 1917 and 1918 Matulka traveled around the United States and the Caribbean as the first recipient of the Joseph Pulitzer National Traveling Scholarship, painting as he went. While in the Southwest he became one of the first modern artists to portray the Hopi snake rain dance.” He was “one of the first artists to bring avant-garde painting methods to the States.”

Ben Shahn

Born in what is now Lithuania; his father was exiled to Siberia for “possible revolutionary activities” in 1902, but fled, and the family immigrated to Brooklyn in 1906; he worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression, alongside Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange; with his wife, he painted murals for the Bronx post office inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “I See America Working.”

Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt

Born in Sweden and emigrated to the US with his family when he was a child; he registered for the draft during World War I and supervised the camouflage of merchant ships in San Francisco; he is well known for his paintings of New Mexico’s indigenous culture.

Willem de Kooning

One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, Willem de Kooning was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States as a stowaway on an English ship bound for Argentina, seeking the American dream; he worked for the Federal Art Project during the Depression but had to stop because he was not an American citizen; he was naturalized in 1962 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.

Philip Guston

Born in Montreal, Canada, where his Ukranian Jewish parents had fled to escape persecution. He moved with his family to Los Angeles as a child, where they encountered further persecution, by the Ku Klux Klan, and his father hanged himself. In 1931, Guston and the artist Reuben Kadish painted a mural to raise money for the defense of the young African American men known as the Scottsboro Boys, unjustly accused of raping two white women on a train. The Los Angeles police defaced the mural but were found not guilty. Guston worked for the Works Progress Administration, painting a post office mural in Commerce, Georgia, then turned to abstraction before formulating a new style of representational art that remains influential even in the 21st century.

Ilya Bolotowsky

Born to Jewish parents in St. Petersburg, Russia. He immigrated to the United States in 1923, settling in New York City. He is well known for his geometric abstractions and for cofounding the group American Abstract Artists.

Arshile Gorky

Born Vostanik Manoug Adoian, in Khorgom, in the Ottoman Empire; he fled the Armenian Genocide at the age of 13 and emigrated to the United States a few years later; he was one of the first artists employed by the Works Progress Administration, and his work was extremely influential on the abstract expressionists and others.

Hans Hofmann

Born in Bavaria, where he worked as a scientist and engineer until he immigrated to the United States in 1932; in New York City, he taught at the Art Students League, then left to found his own schools, where he shaped dozens of well-known artists, including Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler.

Hedda Sterne

Born in Bucharest, Romania, and narrowly escaped from the Nazis in 1941, when she fled to New York City. In 1944, she married the artist Saul Steinberg and became a US citizen. She was the only woman in the famous photograph of the Irascibles in Life magazine.

Mark Rothko

Born in the Russian Empire, in what is now Latvia, into a Jewish intellectual family; worried that his older sons were about to be drafted into the Russian army, Rothko’s father immigrated to the United States, and Mark, his mother, and his sister followed shortly thereafter; he began pursuing art in the 1920s, when he took classes at the Art Students League, in New York City, and met Gorky; he became a US citizen in 1938, fearing that the Nazi influence in Europe would lead to the deportation of Jews in America, and changed his name from Rothkowitz to Rothko.

Jimmy Ernst

Born in Cologne, Germany, to surrealist painter Max Ernst and Luise Straus, a well-known Jewish intellectual; in February 1933, a month after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the SS searched her apartment; Jimmy went to live with his grandfather and immigrated to NYC in 1938; he successfully petitioned for the release of his father from internment, but his mother was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp, where she died.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Artist Spotlight: Benny Andrews (1930–2006)

For Benny there was no line where his activism ended, and his art began. To him, using his brush and his pen to capture the essence and spirit of his time was as much an act of protest as sitting-in or sitting-down was for me. I can see him now: thinking, speaking, articulating what needs to be done and in the next few moments trying to make real what he had been contemplating. He was honest to a fault, and I think it was his determination to speak the plain truth that shaped his demand for justice and social integrity. He never aligned with any political group, but would offer the full weight of his support to anyone he thought was standing for truth.... 
 – John Lewis, Congressman and civil rights leader 
Andrews at Queen's College, 1997. © Benny Andrews Estate
Benny Andrews’s long and prolific career is eloquently synthesized in Lewis’s account of the artist’s character. His commitment to both art and activism manifests in the many series, paintings and drawings he created. Recently exhibited at the Georgia Museum of Art in “Storytelling: The Georgia Review’s 70th Anniversary Art Retrospective” and soon to appear in “Expanding Tradition: Selections from the Larry D. and Brenda A. Thompson Collection,” the truthfulness and impact of Andrews’s work (both inside and outside of the art world) has not gone unnoticed. It is our honor to exhibit pieces by Andrews twice within just a couple of months. His lifelong dedication to art and activism is an important reminder of why we create, promote, and invest in art.

Benny Andrews, Circle Study #2, 1972. © Benny Andrews Estate
Born and raised as the son of sharecroppers in Plainview, Georgia, Andrews was one of ten children. The first in his family to graduate from high school, he went on to graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1958 after he served as a staff sergeant in the Korean War. Upon finishing school, Andrews moved to New York City. After spending a few years working in the city, Andrews received an invite from Bella Fishko to become a member of the Forum Gallery. His first New York solo show was mounted later that year, and he began meeting artists such as Bob Thompson, Jacob Lawrence, and George Segal (three artists whose work can also be found within the Georgia Museum of Art’s galleries.) Representation with Forum projected Andrews into the New York art scene, and his introduction to other artists became integral as he encouraged others to protest and oppose acts of discrimination from New York’s leading art institutions.

At once exhibiting an interest in abstraction, surrealism and figuration, Andrews’s work has a unique way of achieving unification despite its pastiche-like quality. While he may paint a large surrealist landscape (i.e. Circle Study #11) in one stroke, he creates a mixed-media portrait in the next. On view in “Expanding Tradition” is Poverty (America Series), which is composed of oil and graphite on paper with painted fabric collage. Seen in videos chronicling his process, Andrews roams the archives of his studio, drawing not only inspiration from the works that line the walls but oftentimes cutting figures or images out of past canvases themselves. This method of creation reads in the collage-like nature of his product, a remarkable blend of textures, colors, and, ultimately, of experience. Of his incorporation of fabric, Andrews says in American Vision (June/July 1992), “Where I am from….We wear rough fabrics. We actually used the burlap bagging sacks that seed came in to make our shirts. These are my textures.”
Benny Andrews, Poverty (America Series), 1990.
© Benny Andrews Estate

Drawing from his rural upbringing, heritage, and the cultural climate of his moment, Andrews’s output of work is extensive, socially critical, political and personal. Politically engaged as Andrews’s work is, however, it cannot be said that his oeuvre exists only for the time in which he experienced and created these representations of poverty, racism, and sexism – the themes in his work remain relevant today and are poignant reminders of the necessary role that artists play in the fight for justice, equality and love.

Sarah Dotson
Publications Intern