African American Art in the 20th Century Exhibition Opens at the Hudson River Museum in October

  • September 03, 2021 13:57

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Sargent Johnson, Mask , ca. 1930 - 1935, copper on wood base. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of International Business Machines Corporation.
Felrath Hines, Red Stripe with Green Background , 1986, oil on linen. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Dorothy C. Fisher, wife of the artist. © 1986, Dorothy C. Fisher

Hudson River Museum will present African American Art in the 20th Century, an exhibition of exemplary paintings and sculptures by thirty-four African American artists who came to prominence during the period bracketed by the Harlem Renaissance starting in the 1920s and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Drawn from the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the exhibition includes masterworks by iconic artists such as Romare Bearden, Beauford Delaney, Jacob Lawrence, and Loïs Mailou Jones, ranging in style from modern abstraction to stained color to the postmodern assemblage of found objects. The exhibition will be on view October 15, 2021–January 16, 2022; this will be the only New York venue for the exhibition.

The subject matter of the works are diverse. Benny Andrews, Ellis Wilson, and William H. Johnson speak to the dignity and resilience of people who work the land. Jacob Lawrence and Thornton Dial, Sr. acknowledge the struggle for economic and civil rights. Sargent Johnson, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Melvin Edwards address the heritage of Africa, and images by Romare Bearden celebrate jazz musicians. Sam Gilliam and Felrath Hines conduct innovative experiments with color and form. 

“It is an absolute honor to have these outstanding paintings and sculptures at the Hudson River Museum,” said Director and CEO Masha Turchinsky. “We are thrilled to introduce our audiences to one of the most significant national collections of African American art. This is a pivotal opportunity for the public to experience powerful works by these American luminaries at the exhibition’s only New York venue.”

Laura Vookles, Chair of the HRM’s Curatorial Department, added, “I can’t wait to see the exhibition galleries filled with these amazing works by such a large grouping of exceptional and influential artists. It has been a privilege to collaborate with my colleagues to plan the presentation here, and I believe people will find visiting the exhibition similarly meaningful.”

Norman Lewis, Evening Rendezvous , 1962, oil on linen. Smithsonian American Art Museum, museum purchase.
Palmer Hayden, The Janitor Who Paints , ca. 1930, oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of the Harmon Foundation.

These artists worked at significant social and political moments in American life. The Harlem Renaissance, World War II, the Civil Rights movement, and the forces for freedom around the world shaped their lives and worldviews. Family and personal history became subtexts for some. Others interpreted the syncopations of jazz in visual form, still others translated observation into powerful emotional statements. In styles that range from painterly expressionism to abstractions that glow with color, they explore myth and memory and acknowledge the heritage of Africa.

The words of scholar, writer and political activist W.E.B. Du Bois, Howard University philosophy professor Alain Locke, author Zora Neale Hurston, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and their contemporaries provided insight and inspiration. In response, the artists affirm community and individuality. For them art is a vehicle for understanding the complex, conflicting, and sustaining facets of the American experience. As featured artist Jacob Lawrence stated in 1951, “My pictures express my life and experience… the things I have experienced extend to my national, racial, and class group. I paint the American scene.”

Delilah Pierce, DC Waterfront, Maine Avenue , 1957, oil on board. Smithsonian American Art Museum, museum purchase made possible through Deaccession Funds

The full list of artists in the exhibition: Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden, Frederick Brown, Hilda Wilkinson Brown, Claude Clark, Eldzier Cortor, Allan Rohan Crite, Emilio Cruz, Beauford Delaney, Joseph Delaney, Thornton Dial, Sr., Melvin Edwards, Herbert Gentry, Sam Gilliam, Palmer Hayden, Felrath Hines, Richard Hunt, Malvin Gray Johnson, Sargent Johnson, William H. Johnson, Loïs Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Hughie Lee-Smith, Norman Lewis, Whitfield Lovell, Keith Morrison, Delilah Pierce, Charles Searles, Renée Stout, Bob Thompson, Ellis Wilson, Hale Woodruff, Kenneth Victor Young, and Purvis Young. 

Exhibition Catalog
The related catalog, African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, celebrates modern and contemporary artworks in the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection by African American artists. The book, co-published with Skira Rizzoli in New York, is written by Richard J. Powell, the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University; and Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; with contributions from Maricia Battle, curator in the prints and drawings division at the Library of Congress. It will be available in the Museum Shop ($39.95 for softcover).

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