THE PRIMAS COLLECTION OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN ART
By Jud Yalkut
In the study of 20th century American art, it is easy to overlook important trends and tendencies while trying to piece together a continuum that historians and scholars find convenient and easy to transmit. Just as in religious studies, many belief systems are either filed discreetly or neglected, despite being both ancient and fundamental, to create a supposedly universal catechism It is a mistake to condense the history of world or regional art into one digestible package.
This is profoundly revealed in contemplating the depth of one collector’s vision in “100 Years of African-American Art: The Arthur Primas Collection” running through January 30 at the Dayton Art Institute. While the history of African-American culture can be traced through the visual content of this collection, from slavery to segregation to the Harlem Renaissance and modernism, there comes the realization that virtually every one of the represented artists fulfills all of the requirements of being accepted as a major contributor to the whole of American art.
The task given to Dayton Art Institute’s curator Will South was to condense over 500 pieces in Primas’ collection down to 69 in his attempt to give an open view of African-American art over the last century. This scope parallels the general history of American art in the same period because African-American artists participated in just about every movement of modern art history dealing with, in South’s words, “issues of oppression, civil rights and identity in a rich collection of points of view.”
This presentation of 34 major artists is enriched by the accompanying exhibition of Dayton’s own Willis “Bing” Davis in “Marking the Past/Shaping the Present.” The Institute selection concentrates on the long-running series of Davis’ influential “Ancestral Spirit Drawings” in oil pastel in a “reclaimed” space in the Special Exhibitions Gallery, while a concurrent exhibition of the multi-talented Davis’ ceramics, collages and photographs are being presented by the University of Dayton in December.
Bing has said that the artist should be his own best work of art. “Since 1973, how Africa affected me has resulted in this series, and they also reflect West Africa from where most African-Americans came with their concern for community,” Davis said. “I took special patterns from the fabrics, growing up in the 1960s, and my love for music, combining the appreciation of African textiles with jazz improvisation, gospel, R&B, jazz rhythms, classic and free jazz to inspire this continuing body of work.”
The African influence on these pieces is augmented by items from Davis’ own collection of African objects like the masks and the Kente cloth, with African music playing in the gallery for this show.
Arthur Primas has been an entertainment producer for many years and developed his passion for art so fully in his off hours that he had to build a bigger home to contain his collection. “I collect because I want a piece to tell a story,” Primas says. “The back story – something that will draw me in and I’ll research the story. We don’t call them collectors but ‘keepers of the culture.” Davis’ “Ancestral Spirit Dance #416” (2009) and “#417” (2009) are included in the Primas collection.
The first room in the Primas exhibition demonstrates the range of persuasions driving the art, ranging from Paris in the 1930s to Senegalese dances captured in classical style sculpture by Richmond Barthé (1901-1989) with his sinuous “Feral Benga” (1935) whose plaster sculpture was finally cast in bronze in 1986, three years before the artist’s death. Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas (1898-1979), known for his fusion of cubism with African tribal forms, is represented by his pastoral oil “Haitian Landscape” (1938) with its loose brushwork and post-Impressionist high color.
Hale Aspacio Woodruff (1900-1980) used his studies in modernist art in Paris, and integrated the lessons of Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse with their synthesizing of African art forms popular in Paris at that time. His “Woman by the Sea” (1930) used the palette of Cezanne in incorporating his figure into the landscape, but with subtle pink and green tones enforced by his energetic brushstrokes. A teacher at Atlanta University (1931-1946), he lobbied the local art museum to let him bring in African-American students on Sunday.
Beauford Delaney (1901-1979), who integrated himself into the émigré life in Paris, and his brother Joseph (1904-1991) pushed the envelope of realism in their works like Beauford’s “Portrait of Mary Carolyn Davis, Poet” (1945) with its expressionist brushwork and her bright red dress, and Joseph’s capturing of Christ’s inner light in his “Last Supper” (ca. 1940). Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828-1901) was the first African-American artist to win a national award at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, submitting his work with only his signature. The jurors, upon learning that he was a black man, wanted to take it back, but were pressured by the white artists to award the medal. Bannister’s “Lazy Day” (1893) dreamily expressed his vision of peaceful coexistence between man and nature.
Arthur Primas collected the screenprints of Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) who told epic stories with gorgeous simplified forms, depicting Haitian self-liberation with such images as “General Toussaint L’Ouverture” (1986) with its flat iconic color and composition. This is compared in the same gallery with an engraving on paper of the same subject from 1830-1840 by an unknown artist. Also included is Lawrence’s screenprint “To Preserve Their Freedom” (1986) of people fleeing from Napoleon’s attempt to restore slavery in Haiti, from his 41-panel series of the “Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture” series.
Romare Bearden (1911-1988) is a broadly recognized pioneer of the flat-planed collage style, incorporating icons from both classical and contemporary mass cultures. His lithograph “The Lamp” (1984) has a mother sharing a book under the kerosene lamp in a paean to home schooling. One of the finest sculptors of the modernist tradition is Elizabeth Catlett (b. 1919) who is seen here with her voluptuously twisted “Torso” (1978-1990) in black marble, the upward-looking recumbent “Stargazer” (c. 1990, cast 2000), her bronze “Mother and Child” (1978), and her woodcut of the anti-slavery hero in her stark and uncompromising “Young Douglass” (2004).
Charles White (1918-1979) also portrayed a despondent Frederick Douglass in an etching in 1973 and his career bore out his status as one of the greatest American draftsmen. White was in Dayton in 1968 for a week’s workshop at the Living Arts Center, where Bing Davis worked, and had a habit of bringing classes to his studio later in life. The Primas collection contains many important works by White, such as the tempera “Gospel Singers” (1951) with the man and woman singing to one another before a framed stained glass; his most acclaimed series “J’accuse” (1965-6) in charcoal protesting French anti-Semitism and relating it to civil rights in this country; the poignant lithograph “Sound of Silence II” (1971) with its inner explosion; and the powerful ink and charcoal editorial style of “Freeport Columbia” (1946).
Another teacher of art was James Amos Porter (1903-1970) who was deemed “Dean of Afro-American History” for his scholarship and his 1943 “Modern Negro Art” book, while his own work fused realism with post-Cubist touches as in the blue instrument and striped pants of his oil “Man with Ukulele” (1957). Sculptor Charles Alston (1907-1977) was the first African-American to teach at the Museum of Modern Art and the first African-American Project Supervisor for the WPA with his historic murals. His powerful bust of “Martin Luther King” (1973) and his willowy “Musician, Clarinet” (ca. 1970) are both shown here from the collection, the latter dramatically lit to form a kinetic dancing shadow on the gallery wall.
Several other important artists took techniques from mainstream American art to articulate the black experience in America and both its difficulties and uniqueness. Humanism was a common post-Depression theme and the work of Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-1999) certainly demonstrated this. His isolated thoughtful figure of “Navy Sailor” (1944) is a precursor of his later work in which it matters not whether the subjects are black or white, but are unified by the ecstasy of dancing in the swirling male and female figures of “Dancing on a Dune” (1949). Benny Andrews, who was later acknowledged by the National Endowment for the Arts, applied a combination of color and collage in pieces such as “Woman with Flowers” (1961-62).
James C. McMillan (b. 1925) studied with Porter and pioneer woman artist Lois Mailou Jones with whom he later shared the experience of Paris. His involvement with the civil rights movement was reflected in his participation in demonstrations in Greensboro and his exuberant pieces with the hope of progress like the young girl chasing the yellow butterfly in “Dream Chaser” (1959-60) and the sea rescue attempt of “Breaking Free” (1968). Richard Wyatt, Jr. (b. 1955) is a Los Angeles artist who studied with Charles White and a prolific muralist who is represented in the Primas collection with his extraordinarily realistic and detailed portrait of “Aunt Ruby” (2008).
Younger New York artist Bryan Collier (b. 1967) produced a book called “Visiting Langston” including the watercolor with collage “Langston Hughes” included in the collection, as well as a collage synthesizing elements of the uptown Harlem community and the vision of a shining city. An earlier resident of New York, born in Louisville, Ky., Bob Thompson (1937-1966) became totally acclimatized to the lower New York artists’ community, which included Robert Beauchamp, Red Grooms, Jay Milder and the Delancey Street Museum crowd of the early 1960s. Later an artist with the prestigious Martha Jackson Gallery, Thompson painted monumental canvases incorporating his study of classic themes and influenced by the broad color of Gaughin, which celebrated alternative culture and syncopated jazz dance in such exotic tableaus as “The Bathers” (1964-65) and “Wogadu” (1960) before he moved to Europe for further studies where he died prematurely before his 29th birthday. Alvin Loving, Jr. (1935-2005) is included with his shaped abstract mixed media works on paper applied to foam core or Plexiglas like his untitled pieces or “Spiral Collage #4” (2001-2003).
Other African-American artists who were important to mainstream contemporary American art included in the Primas collection, but not included in this museum selection include: the abstractionist Sam Gilliam who argued against the term of “black art” in regards to his work; the color field work on often shaped canvases of Edward Clark (b. 1926) known for uniquely working on paper with dry pigment; and the abstract expressionist work of Frank Bowling (b. 1936), a native of Guyana, who has stated that formalist art raises doubt as to if “one can actually or positively tell the skin color, race or gender of the artist just by looking at his or her work.”
The Dayton Art Institute is located at 456 Belmonte Park North in Dayton. Admission to both exhibitions is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, $6 for youth (7-18) and free for museum members and children ages six and under. Free Third Thursdays are offered on December 16 and January 20. For more information call (937) 223-5277 or visit www.daytonartinstitute.org.