At the Smithsonian, catching up on African-American art

The history of the neglect of African-American art in this country is reflected in the history of the nation's own art collections. "Remarkably," states Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art, "for 135 years after the founding of the federal art collections in 1829, no work by a black American was represented in the nation's holdings."

"Appallingly" would be a better word than "remarkably," but to its credit, in the last 30 years, the National Museum has worked hard to catch up. Good fortune and perseverance have resulted in a collection of more than 2,000 African-American artworks so far.


A sampling of that collection is now on view in "Free Within Ourselves: African-American Art From the Museum's Collection," including 188 works by 94 artists. Sprawling, changing course in midstream, suffering from gaps and distortions of representation, it's nevertheless a most worthwhile show, for it brings to light some of the rich history of African-American

creativity, which is still too little recognized.


The much better-organized and better-looking section of the show is the first half, devoted to 19th-century artists, because it ZTC concentrates on a few and shows them in some depth. Chronologically, it begins with Baltimore portraitist Joshua Johnson, active between 1795 and 1825 -- "the earliest documented professional African-American painter," as the show's accompanying catalog says.

Johnson's portraits of Barbara Baker Murphy and her husband, Capt. John Murphy, probably from about 1810, show Johnson's gift for decorative detail in his handling of Mrs. Murphy's lace and jewelry. But these are far from Johnson's most elaborate works, for they have plain backgrounds devoid of furniture or references to the captain's seagoing profession. Surely the museum could have found room for a third work, included in the show's catalog, the delightful full-length portrait of the little girl Adelia Ellender (about 1803-1805).

Robert Scott Duncanson, primarily a landscape painter, is probably the best-known African-American artist to reach maturity before the Civil War. Here he is well represented by nine works covering his career from 1843, when he was 22, to 1871, the year before he died. Notable among them are "Landscape With Rainbow" (1870) and "Pompeii" (1871), especially remarkable for their suffusing light.

Less well-known but at least equally fine is that other 19th-century landscapist, Edward Mitchell Bannister. Influenced by the pre-impressionist 19th-century French Barbizon school, Bannister's works possess rich textures and deep colors, especially well-realized in "Oak Trees" of 1876. That was the same year in which another painting by Bannister won an award at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, probably the best-known black American artist before modern times, was one of those who felt it necessary to become an expatriate to escape discrimination, settling in France in the 1890s when he was in his 30s. This show contains several of his later religious works. The finest work here, however, is "Fishermen at Sea" (1913), with its dramatically upturned perspective and its depiction of a boat that manages to look like both an abstract painting and an African mask.

Classically inspired 19th-century marble sculpture has never really returned to favor in this century, but Edmonia Lewis' works, especially her "Hagar" (1875), represent worthy examples the discipline. Despite early success, including an 1872 exhibition of her works in San Francisco when she was about 30, Lewis fell into complete obscurity. The date and place of her death are unknown.

It is when this exhibit ventures into modern times, and especially into recent decades, that it changes course to become more diversified and consequently less coherent. The reason is not difficult to find -- the closer we come to the present day, the more the number of African-American artists increases. Despite the fact that this exhibit sprawls over about three-quarters of the museum's third floor, a choice between inclusiveness and depth had to be made. Inclusiveness won, with the result that at least a few of the most distinguished artists are underrepresented.

That is especially true of Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas, represented by one work apiece. To be sure, Bearden was recently the subject of a retrospective here, but we really ought to have more than just one monotype by this formidable artist.


In that respect, the show's catalog (or really accompanying book, since it does not catalog the entire show) is a more consistent effort. It concentrates on 31 artists, giving each a brief essay accompanied by reproductions of more than one work in most cases.

The up side of the decision to make the show inclusive is that we get to see a number of lesser-known but worthy artists. In particular, there's a strong section of works by folk and outsider (untrained) artists, including Bill Traylor, Leslie Payne, William Hawkins, Frank Jones and Joseph E. Yoakum. It's particularly encouraging to see these artists shown on an equal basis with their more sophisticated confreres. Like African-American art, folk and outsider art have not received the recognition they deserve.

And speaking of outsider art, those seeing this show should not miss the first-floor installation of James Hampton's "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly" (about 1950 to 1964). Hampton, a black outsider artist, was a Washington janitor who spent his spare time for 14 years assembling, in a rented garage, a visionary religious work consisting of 180 objects covered in gold and silver foil. This grand work was discovered after the artist's death by the National Museum's installation designer, Harry Lowe. It subsequently entered the museum's collection.

Among the show's recent artists who make an impression is Keith Morrison, whose brightly painted "Zombie Jamboree" (1988) combines references to sources as disparate as voodoo ceremonies and "Hamlet." His work manages to be both serious and quite enjoyable. The same is true of Frederick Brown's dynamic and highly colored painting "Stagger Lee" (1983), based on an African-American folk hero.

Judging by this show, the National Museum still has some collecting to do. There are no works here by important artists Aaron Douglas, Archibald John Motley Jr. and Horace Pippin. And Broun, in her foreword to the catalog, writes that the museum only recently began collecting works by black photographers. There's a small representation, including works by Roy DeCarava, James VanDerZee and Baltimore's own Roland Freeman, but Gordon Parks is a conspicuous absentee.

Despite some omissions and shortcomings, this is a show that anyone with an interest in American art should make an effort to see.



What: "Free Within Ourselves: African-American Art from the Museum's Collections"

Where: National Museum of American Art, Eighth and G streets, N.W., Washington

When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily (except Christmas Day), through Feb. 26

$ Call: (202) 357-2700