It was a reunion, but of people who’d probably never met. Packed into a basement room in Harlem one night last week, dozens of the artists featured in the Schomburg Center’s new exhibition, “Black New York Artists of the 20th Century,” stuffed themselves with caterer’s lasagna and then hauled their catalogues around for one another to sign. If it felt as though the artists all knew each other, it wasn’t in the usual insider way. There was none of the nudge-nudge wink-wink of art mafia parties, where everyone knows everyone and has a utilitarian reason why. And there was little of the well-rehearsed art world blasé. “While I’m in this feeling, let me get this feeling,” the 79-year-old WPA painter Herbert Gentry was overheard saying to 62-year-old artist Adger Cowans. “You and your work have meant so very much to me.” The feeling was mutual, from the look of things.
Organized by the Schomburg Center as part of a two-year, citywide project called Black New Yorkers/Black New York, the show originated as a component in centennial celebrations marking the 1898 merger of New York’s five boroughs as Greater New York. Originally planned as a survey of contemporary art, the exhibit’s scope mutated when curators encountered the fact that the library collection is longest in works predating integration. “We have a lot from the Harlem Renaissance and the WPA,” curator Victor N. Smythe remarked at the preview party. Many were part of the original Arthur Schomburg bequest. But, as Smythe said, “there just aren’t as many works from the present time because we don’t realistically have a budget to purchase contemporary art.”
What a visitor won’t see at the library are pieces by Lorna Simpson, David Hammons, or Leonardo Drew. Instead there are works by 125 artists from four major periods: the Harlem Renaissance, the WPA, the Black Arts movement of the late ’60s, and what Smythe refers to as the post–Black Arts movement, a time when a “plethora of styles in all media” abounded. It’s a show of odd correspondences and unexpected pairings. There is Aaron Douglas’s ethereal 1934 jazz mural, Song of the Towers, and Beauford Delaney’s solidly classical 1942 Portrait of George Broadfield. There is William Braxton’s 1923 Woman in Black, its brush-slashed surface seeming to prefigure the work of English painter Frank Auerbach, and Selma Burke’s delicately crosshatched 1935 bust of Jim.
There is a 1968 engraving by seminal printmaker Robert Blackburn and a schematic inlaid floor piece by Houston Conwill called Langston Hughes Rivers from 1991. There is art from the collectives Spiral and Weusi and an early ’70s exhibit by black women artists called “Where We At.” There is agitprop and commentary and uplift-the-race work and art that defies a viewer to analyze it in ethnic terms. There is kitsch and schlock, of course, but even the bad art has something to say about what American means in the loose identity compound called African American. As does work by so-called diasporans, living in New York but born outside the U.S.
At last week’s party, the Nigerian artist Jide Ojo was discussing the catalogue cover with Haitian-born painter Francks Francois Deceus. The image is of Inge Hardison’s figure of Sojourner Truth, torso bent low, neck elongated, caught in forward motion. ‘my country we have giraffes,” said Ojo, “and the giraffe, as you know, has long legs that allow it to see anything in its environment. She is also enabled to see into the future. What I imagine for the future is, 20 years from now, people reading this catalogue will see in it a very essential look at black artists.” They’ll also see, added Deceus, that, even at the end of the century, major surveys of black artists are staged in libraries because “there’s nowhere else you can go of any substantive merit” that will recognize the scope of black art.
The artists in the retrospective “never had the acceptance of the mainstream museums,” Smythe said flatly. For every Romare Bearden there are scores of lost careers. “There was token representation, but the mainstream refused to accept or conveniently overlooked or pretended to ignore the work. It’s just the basic racism of the country.” Smythe’s mission, said Georgette Seabrooke, an 82-year-old artist who painted murals at both Harlem and Queens General hospitals, “was preserving the legacy.” Smythe’s selection from Seabrooke’s career is telling: a 1930 block print of a woman in profile done on a Harmon Foundation fellowship, “when I was 14.”
“This is really a show of American artists who just happened to be of African descent and live in New York,” Schomburg Center director Howard Dodson said. “It spans a period of time when the work was marginalized and treated as outside. But it’s as much a part of American and world traditions in art as anything that’s specifically African in nature and content. What really matters is that the artists did their work when they were doing their work. And you can’t marginalize that.”
What’s important, said MacArthur Foundation fellow Blackburn, who has taught generations of artists at the Printmaking Workshop, a Manhattan institution, over the past 50 years, “is that a show like this represents to most of the artists the culmination of our dreams and hopes. Young people today wouldn’t know what that means. Things have changed, but this is still the tip of the iceberg. For me personally it has particular meaning because I first came into this library when I was a teenager. I went to school at P.S.89 and P.S.139 and P.S.5. Where other people played baseball, basketball, this is where I came to work. Back in 1939 and 1940, we wouldn’t have ever thought about a big survey show like this happening.” Back then the library functioned in a different way, said Blackburn. “It was a haven. It was my growing-up ground.”