Panel 58 of ‘The Migration Series’ by Jacob Lawrence
Celebrating Black History Month
Only recently has Black art been accepted into mainstream culture in the United States. This is a fact most people don’t think about. In 2021, we celebrate black pop music icons, actors and fine artists to a degree that perhaps suggests it’s always been this way. But this is not the case. This must be considered when reflecting on the body of Black art in America. Why? Because the sheer tenacity, greatness and value of, let’s say, a Basquiat or a Kara Walker, gains an entirely new perspective. Much like diamonds formed from great pressure, this is what we are dealing with, when speaking of Black Art in America. From the earliest known painters (then slaves) like Robert S. Duncanson (b.1821) who were completely self taught, to Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828) , who obtained some training by creating ties with abolitionists, it is remarkable to witness what has been accomplished. To exist as an artist and slave. To carry the burden of dehumanization, and still, express the bolt of inspiration that makes up the human spirit. This is the stuff of Black Art in America.
Fast forwarding to what is considered the most celebrated time for Black Art in the history of America, we find ourselves at the Harlem Renaissance of 1918-1937. People like Aaron Douglass and Augusta Savage played a huge role during this period, once again creating their own success in a world that wouldn’t make space for them. Perhaps one of the biggest voices stepping off the shoulders of this renaissance would be Jacob Lawrence. Born Sept 7 1917 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Jacob was known for his portrayal of contemporary life. He claims he was not primarily influenced by French art, but rather that of the rich color, shapes and vivacity of the Harlem Renaissance. His style has also been referred to as “dynamic cubism”. According to Wikipedia, He brought the African-American experience to life using blacks and browns juxtaposed with vivid colors, and was also a professor at University of Washington.
Lawrence’s early life wasn’t exactly the norm, as he was put into foster care, and then soon after at just 13 years old, moved to New York to reconnect with his mother. Three years later at 16, having dropped out of school and beginning work at a laundromat, He began attending classes at the Harlem Art Workshop. This is where he was mentored by Charles Alston and later, Augusta Savage at the Harlem Community Art Center. By the time he was 23, Lawrence gained national recognition for his work the Migration Series, perhaps one of his most acclaimed pieces. Lawrence died in June of 2000 at 82 years old. According to Wikipedia, before his death he claimed "...for me, a painting should have three things: universality, clarity and strength. Clarity and strength so that it may be aesthetically good. Universality so that it may be understood by all men."
Next we have Jean-Michel Basquiat, born December 22, 1960, in New York. Known for his work in the graffiti duo SAMO, Basquiat took to the lower east side of Manhattan to lace the area with provoking epigrams. During this time, the late 1970’s, we find hip-hop, punk, rap and street art creating the dominating counterculture of the time. Considered neo-expressionist, his paintings often render an emotionally violent experience in their audience. His breakout as a solo artist began in the 1980’s and he sold his first painting, Cadillac Moon (1981), to singer Debbie Harry, frontwoman of the punk rock band Blondie, for $200, according to Wikipedia. Very soon after his work was popping up in galleries internationally. Basquiat hit many milestones in his short life, notably for becoming the youngest to appear in documenta in Kassel. At 22, he was the youngest to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial in New York, according to Wikipedia. His works are some of the most expensive paintings to ever sell, hitting $110 million for a single painting in 1982. Though his success was massive, it certainly was not without a difficult past.
Basquiat’s upbringing was precocious. At 7 years old Basquiat was hit by a car and consequently spent time in bed recuperating from the accident. This is where his mother gave him Grey’s Anatomy drawing book. Already showing his artistic genius by 5, and having learned three languages by the time he was a young pre-teen, it’s no wonder he was already carving his stamp on culture by 18. The turbulence of his childhood clearly contributed to an already intense life path, as he witnessed his mothers admittance into a mental institution and was kicked out of his father’s home by the time he was 17. For a period he took to living on the streets of New York. The last five years of his life sadly were filled with drug use and reclusive behavior. While his death came way too soon at 27 from a heroin overdose, we were lucky to have the supernova that was Jean-Michel Basquiat as long as we could. His breadth of work spans lifetimes.
Untitled, 1982, by Jean-Michel Basquiat
Horn Players, by Jean-Michel Basquiat
The last artist we are highlighting for Black History Month is Kara Walker. Born November 26, 1969, Kara is known as an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker who explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity in her work. She is best known for her room-size tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes. Walker lives in New York City and has taught extensively at Columbia University. - Wikipedia. A California native, Kara comes from a background of fine arts, with her father teaching and painting growing up. Known for her black figures against a white wall, or panoramic friezes of cut-paper silhouettes, she addresses racism and slavery through provocative imagery. This is another example, like Basqiuat, where we see emotionally violent depictions in Black art. All appropriate for the turbulent and traumatic experience of the African-American experience in America. Her piece Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, was the first time she gained the world’s attention in 1994. Walker's work does a fantastic job of highlighting unfinished folklore in the Antebellum South, raising identity and gender issues for Black women in America. Her commentary on the romanticized southern plantation experience remains as a potent truth telling in Black art. One that elegantly yet militantly begs the viewer to listen to uncomfortable truths. Her work has been the topic of many controversies, and remains to push the boundaries of what is considered taboo. Today she is living in New York where she still paints, and teaches at Columbia University.
Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart by Kara Walker
Resurrection Story With Patrons by Kara Walker
Although it’s impossible to summarize the vast contribution of Black Art, we hope there was some light shed in the narratives we covered today. Lawrence, Basquiat and Walker are just three of many, yet their works span lifetimes of story in them. We hope you continue celebrating Black History Month with us, and continue your education on Black art in America.