“Another Tradition: Drawings by Black Artists from the American South” at the Morgan Library

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In the New York art world now, black art is entirely ascendant. Galleries are showing many African-American artists, reviews are regularly being written on their shows, and there has been a growing recognition that a strong and supple esthetic, particular to the black American diaspora, has been alive and well, if not noticed nearly enough, for a long time. The small show, “Another Tradition: Drawings by Black Artists from the American South” at the Morgan Library, which specializes in works on paper, presents the work of several artists whose exuberance and flair indicated that even in the constricted, prejudicial conditions in the South, there was the wherewithal to create work celebrating black life in the region. In particular, Thornton Dial (1928-2016), several of whose drawings appear in the show, stands out as an artist of visionary imagination. But the other artists as well stand out for the vibrancy and enthusiasm of their efforts. These artists are untrained in a conventional sense, but that is of little matter. What matters is the brave attention they paid to their art, mixing the figure, the landscape, and, sometimes, religious attributes in ways that remain original and new.

The show brings up the inevitable question of how to see work that comes from untutored artists, but which is convincing in the extreme. We think of the later paintings by the New York School artist Philip Guston, whose rough, even deliberately coarse, renditions of the lids of garbage cans and the soles of shoes are treated with the respect we accord to established artists working within an accepted convention–especially now, when the American art milieu is so deeply politicized. But the point of “Another Tradition” is different–it hopes to illustrate, in a small way, the mostly hidden creativity of a people boxed in by many generations of severe disregard and exploitation. Despite the burdens these artists carried, the general atmosphere of the work is joyous and free. Art became the voice of people who otherwise led lives on the margins, socially and economically. This does not mean that their efforts in this exhibition are overtly political; rather, they celebrate the culture they built against the odds. For some time now, contemporary culture has been widening the spectrum of art, and it is clear that the creativity of these artists has risen to the occasion. Indeed, the work communicates people’s wish to imagine and describe, no matter their station in life.

The Alabama artist Thornton Dial was untutored and made a living as a metalworker, but his art demonstrates a remarkable sophistication, making him a link of importance between the rough-hewn assemblages and paintings of his culture and the art establishment. His free figurative style feels marvelously contemporary. The women in his drawings are alluring and sometimes a bit menacing. But his drawings on show, like the rest of the work available, cannot be categorized as outsider art. It is something different–a display of cultural assertion and imaginative efficacy that presents a forceful outlook by the artists. The social implications of the work are large even though they don’t always play an evident role in the art. For example, in Dial’s Ladies Stand by the Tiger (1991), a brown tiger with black stripes and long limbs takes over the center of the composition. On the far left a blue woman with rouged cheeks and naked breasts is found; on the far right, another woman, also with red cheeks, is cast in yellow. In the middle, riding the tiger’s back, captured by the animal’s long tail, is a woman in pink. The tiger, a stand-in for Dial in particular and black men in general, is surrounded by amours, thus asserting the masculine force of the animal. It is a fine piece of work, socially exclaiming the prowess of black male prowess in a mythological fashion.

Posing (1996) shows two attractive women with brown skin and shoulder-length hair, both dressed in a blouse and pants, embellished with black abstract decoration. Each of them holds a single rose; they wear lipstick and display open mouths revealing their tongues. Their demeanor feels quite self-aware and also sexually charged. As the title indicates, they are deliberately posing for Dial, the artist. A lot of Dial’s work looks at relations between men and women; at least some of the exuberance we regularly find in his work has been generated by erotic undercurrents. The pair in this particular drawing is especially attractive, winning our attention through Dial’s stylized capacity for desire. In Posing Movie Stars Holding the Freedom Bird (1991), two women with blue faces, red cheeks, and brown, wavy hair, support a gorgeously colored bird, reddish-pink on the top and light yellow on its underbelly. The woman’s head on the left is angled upward to the right; the head on the right is completely upside down. Both act as a foundation holding up the bird, whose long tail falls from the upper right to a short distance above the bottom of the composition. The image is linked to a story, in the tradition of African-American folktales, in which a brother and a sister, held in slavery, find the courage to escape through the inspiration of a bird they healed from injury. The juxtaposition of movie stars and a mythic creature associated with freedom is a bit idiosyncratic, but the image itself, the bird especially, is unusually beautiful.

Lonnie Holley’s The Ancestor Throne Not Strong Enough for No Rock nor No Crack (1993) is a powerful assemblage of a figure, in part a reference to the eventual death facing all of us with its skull and flowers. At the same time, as the image notes point out, it develops as a reference to Hoodoo, a religion practiced in the southeastern United States, given to sorcery and spirit possession. “Crack,” the last word of the title, refers to a break in the sculpture as well as to the tragic consequences of the use of crack, the cocaine-related drug. The sculpture, constructed from random objects and Holley’s own wooden carvings, stands on a gray pedestal, lifting the work into ascendance. The notion of an ancestor throne sets up a connection with African ancestry, but the reference to crack makes it clear that ancestry cannot supplant the terrible drug usage active in the black community. Holley’s work is echoed in the improvised sculptures of the better-known black artist David Hammond; there is a tradition of rough assemblage in the black arts community that makes use of whatever is available, resulting in structures that are improvised and cogent in their presentation of black life.

Sister Gertrude Morgan is represented by a small book of bible quotations that she illustrated herself. She held Christian theology in high regard, establishing the Everlasting Gospel Mission in New Orleans. In the book’s frontispiece, we see a Revelation scene, connected to a vision of the New Jerusalem: the artist herself, sitting in a sofa, assuming the role of the bride of Christ, who is sitting next to her, dressed entirely in white. Behind them is an open, tall green structure, maybe a set of shelves, maybe a building. Climbing the structure and standing at its top is a procession of angels with brown hair, also clothed in white. The page opposite it is an extended dedication, which includes a line from a folk song, “Seal up your book John…don’t you write no more.” Christianity was a source of considerable solace for black people in the South, and this collection of sayings taken from the Bible reiterates its importance. While the depiction of the New Jerusalem is naive in its expression, Morgan’s belief comes through loud and clear. She is describing a religious vision that animates the imagery with beatific force.

Growing up and living in Georgia, Nellie Mae Rowe had a yard outside her home filled with various decorations. In an untitled piece from 1978, she includes as the centerpiece a black-and-white photo of herself. Inks of a vivid hue are used to color her dress and the yard she stands in. A frame surrounds the photograph, decorated with birds, flowers, and a tree, colored mostly in orange. The artist’s pride in her creation is evident in the large signature on the top of the frame, along with the date the piece was created. In a second work, a beautiful drawing called Untitled (Woman Talking to Animals) (1981), two figures on the right, one with a green hat and shirt, look to the left to a menagerie of animals–dogs, including a long red dog at the bottom of the painting; cats; and three blue birds, the largest placed at the high center of the painting. Rowe grew up on a farm, and this composition indicates close familiarity with the fauna of her youth. The drawing, which takes place against a gray-black background, teems with energy. It portrays a world far away from the sidewalks and streets surrounding the Morgan Library, communicating an existence close to nature.

Glorie Jean and Her Friends (1987), by Henry Speller, presents three white women in revealing swimsuits that allow us to see their breasts and genitals. Their faces display frozen smiles; the color of their hair is various, from blonde to brown to red. The depiction of these sexualized images by a black man, even as late as 1987, possesses transgressive force–mythologies of black-white erotic relations continue, revealing the power of a racialized desire. The women look like performers in a burlesque theater; whatever their vocation may be, the visibility of their sexual attributes results in a frisson of excitement and play. We remember that, until recently, white women were forbidden objects of desire for black men in America. Courthouse (1986) is a colorful rendering of a public building, composed of a sloped roof with what look like water towers on top of it. The building itself is made up of open squares and rectangles, but also with parts of the building being brightly colored–two wheels are attached to the water-tank-like structures on top of the building, while at the bottom of the drawing, we see a gray foundation supporting it. This is a wonderful work of art, approximating a large structure in a most imaginative manner.

Luster Willis’s reinvention of Picasso’s 1903 painting La vie is more than a copy. Called Standing Together (1986), the drawing depicts a couple painted in a luminous yellow embracing, while to the right a person dressed in a reddish-brown top and green dress holds an infant. Picasso’s drawing, done during his blue period, evidenced dark feeling, but the emotions generated by this small group are more optimistic. The work is unusual for its borrowing from a world-famous artist such as Picasso. In an untitled work from the 1950s, we see a portrait of a black man smiling, dressed in a dark suit coat and wearing a colorful tie. It is an image of a cheerful, confident man dressed for an occasion. One might assume this is a self-portrait, but the title doesn’t state so. Both drawings demonstrate Willis’s familiarity with culture at a high, sophisticated level–the rural South does not play a part in these works. The second drawing especially suggests a strong and vibrant social display in a region most Northerners assumed was impoverished, culturally and economically.

The last artist in the show, Purvis Young, did a collage in the 1980s with four scenes visible on one side of the paper work. All include figures: figures climbing a truck on the top left; a group of people dressed in pink, yellow, and orange on the upper right; two persons, one dressed and one nude, occur on the lower left; and on the bottom right, several figures in the sea, one with his arms raised toward the sky. As so many of these drawings are, they feel like improvised, emotionally driven portraits of the rich variety of black life in the South. A last drawing, named Sometimes I Get Emotion from the Game  (1980s), is done on a book with yellow pages. On the left page, we see a group of four men in orange uniforms rising upward, ostensibly to grab a basketball, while on the right we see a single football player in green, his helmet beside him as he sits on a green bench with black stripes. Sports were one of the few areas where black persons could publicly distinguish themselves, and these two drawings, highly expressive and dramatic, recognize and celebrate African-American achievement on the court or on the field.

The show, held in quite a small gallery space, reminds us that the need to make art is by no means restricted to the affluent classes. In America, we are living in a time of great change. Paying attention to the work that occurs in “Another Tradition” makes it possible for us to appreciate a way of working that is closely linked to experience, in a way that envisions black life as a site of energy and commitment, sometimes to sports, sometimes to God. That the show appears in so highly respected a venue as the Morgan Library says a lot about the concerted attempt among American art institutions to expand the spectrum of our visual experience. These drawings add to our recognition that culture need not be socially or racially stratified in any way. Traditions may be different or other, but they are in fact sequences of effort whose origins often derive from sources other than art history. The play of the imagination in response to everyday life has become a known way of working, something the artists in this show intuitively knew and expressed a couple of generations ago. Black culture now is rising in awareness and acceptance, showing people how visual constructions can come from anywhere–one’s backyard, local buildings, Biblical writing. The widening expanse of our experience of this art is a long step forward in the appreciation of a culture that has stayed alive despite enormous obstacles.

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