The exhibition of African-American paintings and works on paper at the Zenith Gallery in Washington is one of those rarest of art-world events, a gallery show where most of the artworks on display are not for sale.
The Freedom Place Collection includes works by Romare Bearden, Benny Andrews, Alma Thomas, Robert Freeman and Richard Yarde. It belongs to a local couple, Washington attorney Stuart Bloch and his wife, Julia Chang Bloch, who began collecting in the late 1970s, when the value of artworks by African-Americans was not widely appreciated.
This is a private collection, which the Blochs are displaying largely at their own expense. It is, of course, now worth many times what they originally paid for it, but it has never been exhibited publicly in Washington.
At the opening last weekend, the Blochs said they considered the show to be a kind of community service that allowed them to give something back to the city they love and call home. Even the collection's name was inspired by their district residence, which was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The first African-American artwork the Blochs ever purchased was a small but exquisitely rendered cut-paper collage by Bearden titled Memories of High Cotton (1977). They acquired it for $800 shortly after the artist created it, and it is surely one of the gems of this sparkling show.
The image, fashioned in Bearden's signature style from fragments of photographs snipped out of magazines, colored construction paper, inks and acrylic paint, re-creates a vividly three-dimensional scene of field hands harvesting the cotton crop.
The piece is a poignant evocation of the artist's boyhood memories of rural North Carolina in the 1930s, where he spent summers with relatives between school terms in New York City.
There's a dreamlike quality to the image, whose patiently laboring figures appear suspended in the primal rhythms of reaping and sowing that seem nearly as old as the human condition itself.
Yet so skillfully does Bearden manipulate the flat, seamlessly integrated elements of his composition that fields, trees, mountains and sky conjure up a marvelous impression of enveloping deep space that feels as big as all outdoors.
A second Bearden collage, Morning of the Red Bird (1975), presents an equally diminutive pastoral scene. A figure that could be a pregnant woman or possibly an angel stands at the threshold of a humble country cabin whose walls made of thin, wooden slats are filled in with rust-colored North Carolina clay.
It is a vision of the rude, vernacular architecture of the very poor, but Bearden turns what could be a drab document of rural deprivation into a riotous celebration of color among dancing floral blossoms and a magnificent cardinal and his mate.
The show also includes a magical color-field abstraction by Washington Color School painter Alma Thomas and decorative figurative paintings, drawings and prints touching on the African-American social whirl by Andrews, Freeman and Yarde.
The Freedom Place Collection runs through Sept. 30 at the Zenith Gallery, 413 Seventh St. N.W., in Washington. Call 202-783- 2963 or go to zenithgallery.com.