Duke University Alumni Magazine

Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century

By Richard J. Powell. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997. 256 pp. $29.95 cloth; $14.95 paper.

n Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century, Duke art history professor Richard J. Powell examines modern and contemporary art made by black Africans and other members of the world's "black diaspora" and describes the characteristics of a combined sensibility, outlook, and identity that can be "summed up by the all-encompassing, historical designation "black.' " Likewise, Powell defines "black diasporal culture," through which "blackness" is vividly expressed, as "the things that significant numbers of black people do"--in society, the arts, religion, and so on--in all facets of the lives of their communities. In this ambitious example of what is known as revisionist art history, he documents and classifies contributions by lesser-known black African and African-descended artists in Europe and the Americas to the story--or to what might be called the overlapping stories--of modernism's emergence into the century's dominant mode of artistic expression.

     In addition, Powell looks briefly at a number of non-black artists, such as the Chilean-born Alfredo Jaar and the Americans Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring, who produced some pieces, but by no means the bulk of their respective oeuvres directly or allusively about "black" themes. Those subjects include race, racism, historical events, social marginalization, the black body and style or identity, and many others.

     Powell calls attention to such remarkable talents as Norman Lewis (1909-1979), whose striking portraits and later abstract-expressionist tableaux, and whose participation in the post-World War II New York School, are almost never included in standard modern art surveys. Among many others, Powell also looks at the American Jacob Lawrence (1917- ), who has used a clean-edged graphic style to treat black historical themes; at Haiti's self-taught Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948), whose Vodun-inspired images, with their seductive, magical air, attracted the spirits-and-shamans-smitten Surrealists; and at the religious-themed works of the New Orleans singer, teacher, and painter Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980).

     This brief survey also includes the exquisite portraits painted by John Robinson (1912-1994) and the South Africa-born, later Paris-based Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993). In highlighting such black artists, Powell explains that their impact on or involvement with evolving modernism went beyond Picasso and the Cubists' early borrowing of dramatic, geometric styling from "primitive" African sculpture and masks; they, too, he proposes, contributed actively to the new art, while often making the new art's styles their own.

     That give-and-take was evident, Powell suggests, in the black identity-searching outpouring of art, music, and literature that marked the Harlem Renaissance or "New Negro Movement" of the 1920s and early 1930s. He notes that the label or notion of Harlem as a cultural metaphor also applied beyond New York, to the flourishing of an aesthetic sensibility that was firmly rooted in and celebrated "blackness," with its heritage of story-telling, searching for a sense of identity, and overcoming oppression.

     Among the era's leading figures, who energized popular culture: black artists like actor Paul Robeson, writer Langston Hughes, jazz composer Duke Ellington, and singer Ethel Waters, and such intellectuals as W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke. "In a society," Powell writes, "that had recently suffered a war of tremendous proportions and was increasingly changing into an urban, impersonal, and industry-driven machine, black culture was viewed, interchangeably, as life-affirming, a libidinal fix, an antidote for ennui, a sanctuary for the spiritually bereft, a call back to nature, and a subway ticket to modernity."

     Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century also recognizes self-taught, visionary artists who have worked outside the art market or mainstream society. Powell describes, for example, James Hampton's monumental sculpture, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly. Hampton (1909- 1964), a night janitor in Washington, D.C., painstakingly constructed his resplendent, altar-like display during the last fourteen years of his life in a rented garage. His raw materials: cast-off furniture and trash, including old light bulbs, cigarette packets, bottle tops, and kitchen foil. Hampton also inscribed his glittering, room-sized creation with a holy script that scholars have yet to decipher. Easily one of this century's most enigmatic masterpieces, Hampton's Throne was discovered after his death and rescued by the Smithsonian Institution, which now keeps it on permanent view at Washington's National Museum of American Art.

     With certain exceptions, such as Martin Puryear's formally pure sculpture, Robert Colescott's satirical canvases, or the Chicago outsider artist Mr. Imagination's found-object con- structions, much of the work of more recent decades featured in Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century is of the didactic, polemical, postmodernist variety. Race or racism is often the central subject in the art Powell cites of such postmod practitioners as Adrian Piper, who produced a 1986 calling card that announced, "Dear Friend: I am black."; of Glenn Ligon, who, with the Korean-American Byron Kim, made a punching bag (Rumble, Young Man, Rumble [Version 2], 1993) stenciled with quotes from boxer Muhammed Ali; or of Howardena Pindell, who created mock American flags covered with the names of people who died from AIDS.

     Of such artists of the 1980s and 1990s, Powell writes: "Because of an omnipresent racial dimension in [their] works...and [in that of] others working with similar concepts, these postmodernist acitivities are seen as different." Indeed, like so much of the narrowly focused art product of its kind, such work might or should more accurately be called, generically and non-judgmentally speaking, a kind of propaganda. Still, even though soulless postmodernism has begun to show its cracks, and deconstructionist critical theory may be sliding unpromisingly toward its dead-end denouement, it could be that we are too close to this kind of work now to be able to know if it constitutes an entirely new form of artistic expression or not. Will the passage of time provide a vantage point for classifying it more precisely?

     The bottom line, of course, is that any exceptional work of art will endure for generations and continue to speak across cultures and through the ages. James Hampton's dazzling sculpture, like Langston Hughes' poetry of hope ("Hold fast to dreams...") and Martin Puryear's raceless, faceless, eloquent odes to the transcendent beauty of pure form, possess just that kind of alluring resonance.

     Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century celebrates a range of creativity whose richness and diversity are staggering. But as valuable as such a survey may be, its appearance inevitably recalls the conundrum faced by many artists who wish to transcend race-, or gender-, or ethnicity-based, self-limiting labels, however accurate or illuminating they may be.

     Consider, for instance, the position of New York gallery director June Kelly, the first black dealer admitted to the Art Dealers Association of America. In January, Kelly conspicuously skipped the National Black Fine Art Show in New York, an event that was billed as the country's first major black art fair. Kelly chose not to participate, she told The New York Times, because she did not "believe in black art, but [in] art."

--Edward M. Gomez

Gomez '79, a writer for ARTnews and contributing editor of Art & Antiques, is a member of Duke Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board.

Understanding Reynolds Price

By James A. Schiff '81. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. 217 pp. $24.95.

hat contemporary writer on the globe can lay claim to the scope and variety of work that Reynolds Price '55 has published in the last decade? Four novels, two story collections, three books of poetry, two volumes of memoir, several plays, a collection of essays, the texts for songs by pop musician James Taylor, and a new book of biblical translations and essays--all since his debilitating bout with spinal cancer that began in 1984. Though Price is a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters and has received numerous prizes--among them, the William Faulkner Award for his first novel, A Long and Happy Life (1962), and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Kate Vaiden (1986)--his works have yet to be examined and dissected by literary scholars to the same degree as some of his contemporaries, say, John Updike or Toni Morrison.

     James A. Schiff '81, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, argues persuasively in his new volume Understanding Reynolds Price that "cultural circumstances and fashion have worked against [Price's] career." Though A Long and Happy Life is a Southern classic and has never been out of print, Price's other early novels--A Generous Man, Love and Work, The Surface of Earth, and The Source of Light--were met with mixed reviews in the 1960s and Seventies.

     Schiff explains: "In an age favoring a more idiomatic, casual, and realistic prose, Price strives for an impressive sound which sometimes reminds one, more than any other example from contemporary American literature does, of the Bible or even Paradise Lost." Should this be surprising from the man who has instilled a passion for the lyricism of Milton in scores of Duke undergraduates over the years (in addition to playing midwife to the early work of such literary lights as Josephine Humphreys '67, Hon. '94; Michael Brondoli '70; David Guy '70; and Anne Tyler '61 among others)?

     It is somewhat ironic, however, as Schiff suggests and as Price himself has noted, that the most successful book of his career in terms of media attention, A Whole New Life (1994), is not a work of fiction at all but the story of Price's life-threatening illness and the healing that followed. The intimate account of his body's possession by a spinal tumor resulted in an inundation of mail and phone calls from readers offering Price thanks, praise, and their own stories of relatives and friends suffering from cancer.

     Why such acclaim? Though dozens of books are offered each year by the popular press recounting stories of individuals who've overcome physical adversity, none has been written by a person of such enormous literary gifts, Schiff argues. (He might be forgetting the remarkable account by William Styron '47, Hon. '68 of his encounter with clinical depression, Darkness Visible.)

     More significantly, however, the period of Price's illness also marked a radical turn in his fiction toward first-person narrative and a prose style that Schiff calls "less astringent and more inviting." While suggesting that Price's post-illness prose "has become less demanding of his readers," Schiff also points out that "his work has deepened and intensified because he has plunged more openly and personally into a cauldron of crucial matters regarding race, sexuality, religion, and gender," thus sharpening his position of distinction among twentieth-century writers.

     Today, the body of Price's work has begun to be examined more fully, appreciated more widely, and prized for the truly distinctive voice and sensibility at work among us. Meanwhile, he continues his output at a blistering pace, one that has already made Schiff's analysis a bit dated.

     The University of South Carolina's "Understanding Contemporary American Literature Series," of which this study is a part, aims to serve students and nonacademic readers by identifying common themes, symbols, architectural styles, and points of view in a single author's or group of authors' works. The volume on Price takes its place among analyses of the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Walker Percy, the Black Mountain poets, Raymond Carver, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, and Anne Tyler, among others.

     While Schiff gives his primary attention to Price's ten novels, he has a distinct advantage over some of the other literary scholars who have contributed to the "Understanding" series. Price himself, through memoir and poetry, has written a great deal about his childhood, his loves, and the variety of personal experiences that inform his fiction. Drawing heavily from the nonfiction, Schiff pulls several important and tantalizing threads through the novels that help us appreciate more fully the seminal events and real-life relationships to which Price returns over and over (consciously or unconsciously) in shaping his characters' stories. Perhaps the highest compliment to be paid to Schiff's effort is the urge he creates to return to Price's own pages, to read and relish again with this critical analysis as guide.

--Georgann Eubanks

Eubanks '76 chairs the North Carolina Humanities Council and is assistant director of Duke's Office of Continuing Education and Summer Session.

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