“Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe” at the Brooklyn Museum


Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982) was a self-taught artist, born in Georgia to enslaved parents who were born in 1863, the year of Emancipation. Coming from poverty, Row married young, divorced two times, and then, later in life, developed her artistic talents in visionary paintings known for their colorful energy. This is a time when the art of the black American South and elsewhere, untutored art especially, is gaining recognition not only for its excellence but also for its interest to scholars (there are now full-time curators of self-taught artists at American museums). Given the poverty and social difficulties of many of these artists, we can only show amazement at their endurance and willingness to continue in the face of hardship, not the least of which was a deep-seated and organized prejudice against them. Increasingly, the idea of the canon has been cast aside, in favor of an esthetic in which all art experiments are treated as equal in value, no matter the background of the person making the work. This change has had the consequence of leveling distinctions in art, so that artworks are viewed on their own terms, outside hierarchies based on tradition. Fine art, especially, has become the momentous imaginative category of our time, likely because it is accessible and it can easily accommodate different kinds of imagery, across time and geography and background, and assert an increasingly individualized esthetic. This has been for true some time.

More and more, self-taught artists are making their way into mainstream discussions of art. Now the emphasis is on experiencing all image-making as art in its own right, without the encumbrances of historical and class judgment. This is very exciting in a critical sense because fine art has moved away from an aristocratic outlook to a preference for a demotic imagination. Today, fine art is remarkably skilled in its incorporation of democratic imageries that take as much from the street as from art history. And, increasingly, critical estimation is moving away from the notion of a traditional canon in favor of an acceptance of all kinds of work. Rowe’s busy, colorful paintings include horses, visionary examples of nature, and birds, which occupy a spectrum that includes what looks like peacocks or birds of paradise. There is little rhyme or reason to the overall structure of Rowe’s compositions, in which everything is given equal visual value and seems to be taking place in the same moment. This is not so different from more mainstream works of art. But in Rowe’s understanding, the simplicity of her forms, crowded together in a tacit understanding of the simultaneity of the elements in her work, becomes a remarkably attractive way of demonstrating the presence of worldly elements, all at once.

Inevitably, Rowe’s art will be looked at in the light of art that precedes it, in particular the works deemed important in art history. But the importance of the comparison no longer has the weight that it used to. Instead, we are merging categories–of class, ethnicity, and gender–in a way that removes the aura from work appreciated historically as art, in favor of an open view that accepts all art as equally valid. The argument can be made that this is a mistaken reading–that criticism and connoisseurship have established hierarchies of achievement that ring true. But this understanding of differing levels of work presupposes, for many people, differences in accomplishment that may well be based on class and education. In America at least, the work of people with highly various backgrounds has been brought together, if not exactly merged, by a wide acceptance of different categories of imagery. The social structures that supported high culture have been dismantled in a favor of a cultural democracy supportive of artist backgrounds that may have little or nothing to do with each other. Yet contemporary artists and art writers now argue, indeed demand, that we appreciate the work of the untutored artist with as much seriousness as we used to consider the art of the great European painters. The change is conceptual; we now see no difference between the achievements of European artists from hundreds of years ago and the realizations of artists from other times, other esthetics, other economies.

Rowe, as a black domestic worker living in the South, throughout most of the 20th century, clearly had to have a remarkable will to survive and endure as she produced paintings of remarkable energy later in her life. Her work does not align with the trained, mostly white art community active during the same time. Instead, Rowe pushed ahead with a luminous vision of the world, in which animals and people, figuration and abstraction, are all established equally on the same plane. It is as if the artist did not have the patience to determine a rational view, instead delineating a world whose parts took on the same importance, no matter their existence as elements large or small. This means that the art demonstrated an independence beyond the established art mileu, a remarkable independence indicated in the title of the show: “Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe.” At this point in our culture, Rowe’s determination and long endurance as an African-American artist living without money in the South would ttake precedent over any academic, often class-deterimined judgment of her art. What one sees is a remarkable energy and imaginative purpose celebrating the diversity of our lives.

The work, then, becomes a rejoinder, even if it is not consciously made, to the difficulties of being a person of color in the South. In an attempt to right centuries of prejudice, it is clear that the show is committed to displaying a gifted artist working outside the pale. Increasingly, fine art has become subject to a radicalization of motive, even should the intention of dissent not be openly evident in the art made. Rowe’s work, enthusiastic in the extreme, depends on a charged sense of color to make its point, which is not socially concerned, but rather given to joyous praise. Her position is quite near to piety, given her imagery’s equal treatment of all objects and people in her paintings, as if we were all children under the benign hand of God. Only rarely do we find openly religious depictions in Rowe’s art; rather, the momentous intensity of her hues and figures result in exalted emotion that no one, especially in the terrible oppression of Southern prejudice, can take away from her. In that sense, the title of the exhibition is correct; the phrase “radical art” indicates that Rowe’s joy knew no boundaries and declared itself evidently free.

Now that we are at a point where the demonstrable democratization of the art effort is moving into a point of permanence, it becomes necessary to view Rowe’s vision with unbiased eyes. It is by all means needed to understand the difficult circumstances under which Rowe worked, but it is also important to see her art as moving past her situation into the same area all artist work: a window of opportunity enabling anyone and everyone to take on the task of imaginative effort. Given the long and sordid history of American racial bias, we can only admire Rowe’s effort, along with other outstanding black artists such as Bill Traylor, born into slavery; Mary T. Smith; and Thornton Dial. We cannot underestimate the repressive social circumstances under which these artist worked; indeed, Dial buried his art in his yard, ostensibly as privately made works, but perhaps, too, to evade attention from white society. Things have changed now to some extend; there is greater access to education and a respect for creative freedom on all accounts for African-American artists. Yet memory dies hard: the African-American artist Jennifer Packer, under forty, won the Rome Prize and speaks with passion about the art she saw there; yet her work consistently addresses the ongoing tragedies of black American life, including the murder of women by police.

Rowe of course belonged to a different time. She was not conventionally educated as an artist. But her paintings reveal an intuitive grasp of the essentials of the medium. For this writer, the most remarkable aspect of Rowe’s work belongs to the presentation of the equal emphasis of things: a kind of allover treatment of the objects found in her world. Outsider art is no longer outsider art. Instead, it is now being seen as demonstrably on a par with academically trained artists. Additionally, in the artworld now, the emphasis is on a rew expressionism that regularly rejects the evidence of skill. High culture is merging with all culture, in the sense that, in painting especially, there has been a decades-long tradition of rough and skewed intelligence. This means that just about anything can take form on the canvas, from cigarette advertisements, to wall graffiti, to symbols originated by ancient cultures. Rowe’s work does not evidence this sensibility; instead, she painted what she knew, in the most vivid terms. Her vernacular is intensified by her knowledge of her theme. Yet there is also an element of abstraction that can occur in the paintings, which may not be based on known work by others of the time.  Instead, her paintings can show an intuitive understanding of patterns made for their own sake.

If we look at Rowe’s paintings, we find that a similarity of stylistic construction appears. Again and again, the works are teeming with brightly colored, recognizable elements. Birds often occur; traditionally, they are a symbol of the spirit and populate the art as if they were demonstrating the need of the artist to transcend the conventional. For example, in the work Untitled (Woman with Butterfly Wing), made in 1980, only two years before Rowe’s death, the artist has used crayon and marker on paper to develop a symbolic realism. In this piece, a woman in a brown dress with a round head of hair stands off to the right, backed by a large, butterfly wing with yellow bars. Dogs of different shapes and colors, painted in a single row, line the top and bottom of the painting, whose background is blue. On the upper left, we see a different woman’s profile; just in front of her is a large cluster of grapes. The painting is crowded with objects that may well have emblematic meaning for the artist, who was devotional in her feeling. But the symbols seem private, mostly understandable to Rowe alone. As with many of her works, we can only speculate about their deeper meaning; only a few assert outright their orientation and depth of interest.

It is true that Rowe was inspired by the Christian faith. In one beautiful, simple composition, called Untitled (Cross and Trees), made before 1978, is a triptych unified in the middle by a yellow cross. One either side of the cross in separate compartments is a single tree, whose thin stem and burgeoning leafage, separated by black lines, are colored a light green. Then, in the middle of the painting, behind the cross, are two rust-brown shrubs, with a red sun radiating black lines in the upper right. The identification of faith with painting is complete; no difference exists between the intent of the painter and her image. In the 1978 image called Peace, a woman’s extended arms and hands seem to reach out to a blue goat or lamb (a symbol of God?). The hands are decorated by finger polish and, on the left wrist, a red bracelet. The background is complex, with a vertical band of light green on the left, a bright yellow in the middle, and between the arms, a pinkish and orange mass of thin lines. In the far right, we find a standing sheaf of wheat. The title of the work convinces us of the spiritual slant of the painting. It is obvious that Rowe found solace in a deep-seated belief, and the directness of the two a\paintings convey her passion for a God-driven vision quite forcefully.

In What It Is (1978-82), Rowe seems to be presenting a forceful reality, that according to the title, exists for itself. In the image, a young black child, in a yellow shirt and blue short, stands on a silver slide. The figure’s head has become a flower, with blue and yellow leaves. A black tree is seen underneath the slide, with miscellaneous animals, dogs and likely cats, on both the slide and beside the dark tree. On the upper left a gray dog fronts a couple of gabled houses, and on the top left, the title of work is written. The visionary treatment of childhood seems to be the theme of this marvelous, psychologically complex work. How does a child become a flower? And what does that mean? It feels like an idealization, symbolic in scope, of childhood, with the boy apparently sliding down a ladder. Despite the difficulties in her life, Rowe appears to have been a long-term optimist, as this work shows. Another image of innocence, this time given in more simple terms, is Untitled (Woman with Green Hair) (before 1978). The image is uncomplicated: it presents a smiling girl with a thick, green head of hair. She is wearing a green dress with a round collar; vertical lines divide the fabric of her garment. What stands out, above all, is the open joy of the girl’s demeanor. She stands for the innocence of youth, as yet untouched by the troubles of the world.

The title of the striking work titled This Worl Is Not My Home (1979) comes from gospel lyrics sung quite a bit earlier in the century. Rowe is quite daring, painting what a portrait of a nude woman sitting on a gray bench. To her left is a reddish-orange flower pot, with a gray dog sitting on top. The area is covered with short black rods, as if a free energy were emanating from the objects. On her right is a an orange plant with plumed leaves. On the upper right we see the name of the painting. Our interest is drawn to the animation of the woman’s demeanor. Rowe painted this piece in 1979, and by that time the nude had been explored so thoroughly that its erotic charm had become entirely acceptable. But Rowe invests this image with a startling immediacy of feeling, its sensuality subtle but very much part of the picture. Her presentation, by implication, underscores the recognition that desire is part of the imagination of all genders of all backgrounds. Thus, a picture of a naked woman, unusual for Rowe, becomes a statement of forthrightness and uninhibited joy.

In this overview of Rowe’s work, comprising more than one hundred paintings done in the last 15 years of her life, the artist tracked the black American imagination, but, even more, the details of a life lived without compromise. Her ardor for living comes close to overwhelming her audience, startled by her gift for sensuous color, everyday life, and feeling for animals, dogs and birds especially. Her imagination took the form of dreaming, in the sense that relations between objects and creatures, including people, were both lyric and open to interpretation. It looks like Rowe took refuge in her Christian faith, but remained a devoted realist as much as a devotional painter. Despite the certain struggles she had to face as a woman of color, she transformed her life into a sequence of praise. The art that resulted clarifies the stance of someone who simply would not be defeated. This sense of triumph is developed through a gifted sense of color, as well as an interest in the multiplicity of the world–its teeming energies the equivalent of a God-given paradise. Thus, she reports, with unerring accuracy, the energies surrounding us, existing within us. Armed with a determined will, a physical energy that sustained in her later years, and an equal belief devoted equally to art and spiritual feeling, Rowe has given us a remarkable life embodied in a momentous art.

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