'Another Tradition: Drawings by Black Artists from the American South' Goes On View at The Morgan

  • September 22, 2021 12:12

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Nellie Mae Rowe (1900–1982), Untitled (Woman Talking to Animals), 1981. The Morgan Library & Museum, Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection and purchase on the Manley Family Fund, 2018.101r. Photography by Janny Chiu, 2021. © Nellie Mae Rowe / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Morgan Library & Museum presents Another Tradition: Drawings by Black Artists from the American South, opening September 24, 2021, and running through January 16, 2022. This exhibition celebrates the Morgan’s 2018 acquisition of eleven drawings from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting Black Southern artists and their communities. Artists represented in the acquisition include Thornton Dial, Nellie Mae Rowe, Henry Speller, Luster Willis, and Purvis Young. Another Tradition also incorporates institutional and private loans by Rowe, Lonnie Holley, Sister Gertrude Morgan, and Bill Traylor.

In the last three decades, exhibitions and publications have established the rightful place of figures such as Dial and the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, in the canon of twentieth-century art. The focus has often been on the impressive works of assemblage—whether of found objects or fabric—that have emerged from the Southern United States. Artists only one or two generations removed from slavery, and subjected to the abuses of Jim Crow, developed ingenious formal techniques using found materials and skills learned outside the classroom and studio. Many, like Dial, Rowe, and Holley, exhibited their creations at their homes in elaborate “yard shows,” drawing the attention of passersby and art-world figures alike. Another Tradition focuses on the genre of drawing, which, like assemblage, is an art of “making do.”

Its accessibility and directness have always appealed to both artists and their audiences. While some works in the exhibition were produced on traditional artist’s papers, others incorporate the unique qualities of found supports. The range of media includes watercolor, ballpoint pen, crayon, and even glitter. But the impact of these works ultimately transcends their innovative means.

Although each of the eight artists represented speaks with a distinctive voice, the intimate space of the Morgan’s Thaw Gallery illuminates formal and thematic connections that arise from their shared geographies and experiences. Highlights of the exhibition include Rowe’s Untitled (Woman Talking to Animals), Dial’s Life Go On, and Young’s Sometimes I Get Emotion from the Game.

Thornton Dial, Ladies Stand by the Tiger, 1991. Watercolor on paper. Gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection and purchase on the Manley Family Fund. Photography by Janny Chiu, 2021 © Thornton Dial / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Nellie Mae Rowe’s (1900–1982) Untitled (Woman Talking to Animals) (1981) teems with animals, as is characteristic of her drawings, recalling her rural upbringing on a farm in Fayetteville, Georgia. In this work, two human figures hover in a dreamlike space alongside some twenty animals, including birds, dogs, and snakes. Rowe’s use of the paper’s reserve creates a feeling of openness, even porousness, amid the density of her marks, which extend from edge to edge of the sheet.

Thornton Dial’s (1928–2016) Life Go On (1990) comprises watercolor, acrylic, and graphite. When Dial took up drawing in 1990, he experimented with different materials and papers. In this early example—created on heavy, handmade paper—a bird’s nest rests atop a woman’s head. With exposed breasts and rouged cheeks, and surrounded by lush green plants, she is a symbol of fertility and life force.

Purvis Young’s (1943–2010) Sometimes I Get Emotion from the Game (1980), made of ballpoint pen and marker on paper glued to a found book, was inspired by Old Masters such as El Greco. Young painted elongated, expressionistic figures in dynamic groups. He created his paintings and drawings on a variety of found supports, including panel, paper, and—as in this example—books. Sometimes I Get Emotion from the Game is filled with drawings of men playing basketball and football. As the book’s title and imagery suggest, Young viewed sports as a space of freedom and release from the oppressive conditions that governed the lives of the Black men he knew.

The Morgan’s Director, Colin B. Bailey, said, “We were delighted to be able to acquire this group of works on paper from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and we are pleased to present them now in the intimate space of our Thaw Gallery. The acquisition represents a significant addition to the Morgan’s collections. With the selection of a small group of loans, Another Tradition stands as a magnetic component in the Morgan’s fall season of exhibitions.”

“The acquisition of eleven works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in 2018 profoundly enriched our collection of modern and contemporary drawings,” said exhibition curator Rachel Federman, the Morgan’s Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Drawings. “Black artists from the South have contributed tremendously to the visual culture of the United States with extraordinary quilts and assemblage sculptures, but also, as this exhibition makes clear, in the realm of drawing.”

An array of engaging public programs will accompany the exhibition. Please visit themorgan.org for further details.

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