Category: African American

Review: Four Los Angeles Exhibits

I started 2012 by taking in four exhibits in the Los Angeles area; Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation and The Colt Revolver in the American West at the Autry National Center, as well as Places of Validation, Art & Progression and The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by color, shaped by Cultures at the California African American Museum.

What unites these seemingly unrelated exhibits are the deep insights they provide into the American experience. This review is to encourage those in the Southern California region to see the shows for themselves if possible, and barring that, to do further research on the artists mentioned.

Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation

Starting with the Autry National Center, the Art Along the Hyphen exhibit (which ended Jan. 8, 2012), presented the work of six Mexican-American artists who created art in Los Angeles in the post-WWII era of the 1950s and early 1960s; Alberto Valdés, Domingo Ulloa, Roberto Chavez, Dora de Larios, Eduardo Carrillo, and Hernando G. Villa. That these artists are still unknown, even to aficionados of Chicano art, is a testament to the influence of art establishment gatekeepers. It was not just elite art world racism that kept these and other Mexican-American artists out of the museum and gallery systems, it was also the totalitarian supremacy of abstract expressionism that held them in check. The artists in the Art Along the Hyphen show were committed to narrative figurative realism, and that put them squarely at odds with an art establishment obsessed with abstraction.

"Braceros" - Domingo Ulloa, 1960. Oil on masonite. Image courtesy of the Autry.

"Braceros" - Domingo Ulloa, 1960. Oil on masonite. Image courtesy of the Autry.

The paintings and prints of Domingo Ulloa (1919-1997) were the most politically charged in the Autry exhibit.

The artist was unquestionably influenced by the 1930s school of Mexican Muralism and social realism; Ulloa in fact studied at the Antigua Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City, the same art academy attended by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Born in Pomona, California, Ulloa was the son of migrant workers, and after serving in World War II he came under the influence of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop), the famous Mexican political print collective. Every bit as didactic and radical as his contemporaries in the TGP, Ulloa’s art focused on the social ills of American society; racism and social inequality, police brutality and imperialist war.

In 1963 Norman Rockwell painted a canvas he titled, The Problem We All Live With. It was a depiction of a 6-year-old African-American girl named Ruby Bridges being escorted through a racist mob by U.S. Federal marshals to the just desegregated William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The real life incident occurred on Nov. 15, 1960, when a large crowd of white racists gathered in front of the school to protest against integration. Armed Federal marshals had to guard the tiny black girl against the angry throng as it chanted “Two, Four, Six, Eight, we don’t want to integrate!” Rockwell’s painting appeared as a double page spread in Look Magazine in 1964, it was a controversial image that would capture the attention of Americans, but Domingo Ulloa had painted a similar canvas six years prior to Rockwell’s original painting.

"Racism/Incident at Little Rock" - Domingo Ulloa, 1957. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Autry.

"Racism/Incident at Little Rock" - Domingo Ulloa, 1957. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Autry.

In 1957 Ulloa painted Racism/Incident at Little Rock, which was based upon real life events that took place that same year in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1957 a federal court ordered the State of Arkansas to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which outlawed racial segregation in America’s public schools. Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas and a Dixiecrat (a right-wing racist Southern Democrat) resisted the court decision by calling in Arkansas National Guard soldiers to prevent African-American students from entering “white” schools. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower pressured Faubus to uphold federal law and use the Guard to protect black students, but Faubus instead withdrew the troops entirely, leaving black students exposed to attacks by white racist lynch mobs.

When nine black students attempted to enter Little Rock High School on September 23, 1957, thousands of enraged whites assaulted them with stones and fisticuffs. This clip from the 1986 PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize details the incident. At 7.55 minutes into the video you will see footage that I viewed on national television in 1957 at the tender young age of four; the indelible imagery changed my life forever. Although only a four-year-old, I wanted to rush to the victim’s defense. Ulloa attempted to capture all the horror of that ugly affair on his canvas.

Ulloa’s painting is dramatically different from Rockwell’s, and it goes without saying that Ulloa’s vision did not appear in Look Magazine. In Racism/Incident at Little Rock there are no government agents deployed to rescue black school children, there are only six youthful black students surrounded by a howling pack of phantasmagorical monsters. The adolescent African-Americans in the picture huddle together, the oldest of them looking stoic; they have no one but themselves to rely upon. Ulloa’s canvas was inspired by The Masses, a 1935 lithograph by José Clemente Orozco; one could say that Ulloa perhaps borrowed a bit too much from Orozco, or he was simply paying homage to the master. Ulloa’s paintings at the Autry showed that he had not entirely escaped the orbit of the Mexican Muralists; his heavily textured brushstrokes and color palette bearing a striking similarity to that of Siqueiros.

"Don Pela Gallos" - Alberto Valdes, 1980. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Autry.

"Don Pela Gallos" - Alberto Valdes, 1980. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Autry.

The works of Alberto Valdés (1918-1998) caught my eye. His delicate semi-abstract paintings were filled with vivid color and Pre-Columbian iconography; dreamlike apparitions, mythic creatures, indigenous warriors, and fantastic landscapes.

A small portrait of a fierce imaginary Aztec warrior held me spellbound; painted in muted hues of red and yellow, the face filled the entire diminutive picture plane.

Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) was an obvious inspiration to Valdés. A handful of Valdés’ paintings achieved a mystical quality where reality melted into intricate webs of translucent primary colors. However, I think Valdés for the most part agreed with Tamayo that a “non-descriptive realism” would counter the “bourgeois” escapism of abstraction. The enigmatic Don Pela Gallos is indicative of Valdés’ opulently painted visions.

The Colt Revolver in the American West

While at the Autry to see Art Along the Hyphen, I decided to visit the museum’s newly opened Greg Martin Colt Gallery, were the exhibit The Colt Revolver in the American West can be found; I knew a rare poster by artist George Catlin (1796-1872) was part of the exhibit. Starting in 1830 Catlin was the first American artist to travel beyond the Missouri River to visit and document indigenous people; over a six-year period he ended up painting more than 325 portraits of individuals from eighteen tribes, some of which had never seen a white man before.

Colt Single Action Army revolver. This lavishly engraved .45 cal pistol belonged to Captain Manuel Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers in 1929. Gonzaullas was the first Latino to become a high ranking officer in the Texas Rangers. First introduced in 1873, the Colt 45 became known as "the handgun that won the West." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Colt Single Action Army revolver. This engraved .45 cal pistol belonged to Captain Manuel Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers in 1929. Gonzaullas was the first Latino to become a high ranking officer in the Texas Rangers. First introduced in 1873, the Colt 45 became known as "the handgun that won the West." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 2004 the Autry hosted an unforgettable exhibition titled George Catlin And His Indian Gallery that showcased 120 paintings by the artist. The exhibit was originally organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which houses the greater part of Catlin’s works in its permanent collection. Ever since first learning of Catlin when I was a teenager, I have maintained a keen interest in his works, and so was eager to see his poster in the Colt exhibit.

Detail of historic poster designed by George Catlin for Colt firearms. Circa 1851. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of historic poster designed by George Catlin for Colt firearms. Circa 1851. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Samuel Colt constructed the very first rotating cylinder fed handgun in 1831 at the age of sixteen, a prototype of which is on display in the Autry exhibit. He patented his invention in 1835, and his innovative revolver grew increasingly popular with hunters, frontiersmen, and settlers. Around 1851 Samuel Colt commissioned Catlin to do a series of paintings showing the artist using Colt rifles and pistols during his travels. Catlin’s paintings were reproduced as lithographs, a common practice at the time, and distributed to promote the Colt line of firearms. A total of six different lithographic posters were produced, but only Catlin the Artist Shooting Buffalo with Colt’s Revolving Pistol, is on display at the Autry. Apparently Catlin was one of the very first American artists to promote a commercial product.

While the Autry asserts Catlin’s poster depicts the artist firing a “Dragoon revolver”, I think otherwise. The Colt Dragoon was first produced in 1848, years after Catlin made his 1830-1836 excursions through territory inhabited by the original Americans. The handgun Catlin depicted himself using in the poster looks very much like the model No. 5 Colt “Paterson” Revolver manufactured by Samuel Colt in Paterson, N.J. in the year 1836, a year that fits the time frame of Catlin’s actual travels. In 2011 a rare 1836 Colt “Paterson” sold at auction for $977,500, a world record price for a single historic firearm sold at auction.

Places of Validation, Art & Progression

The California African American Museum (CAAM) offers Places of Validation, Art & Progression, an exhibit tracing the development of artistic expression in the Los Angeles African-American community from 1940 to 1980. On view until Feb. 26, 2012, this large and somewhat unwieldy exhibit covers an important period for L.A. and the United States. The post-war struggle to achieve full human and civil rights for African-Americans, and the social engagement in the arts that accompanied that effort, is a central focus for much of the work in the exhibit.

Concomitant with political shifts in the U.S., Black artists in the 1960s began to explore Africa as an aesthetic wellspring, in addition to taking on a critical examination of Black life and history in America. A good portion of the art on display is in the figurative realist tradition, but the CAAM exhibit also demonstrates how Black artists in the avant-garde used conceptual and installation art in a decidedly political way; here, Betye Saar’s Sambo’s Banjo comes to mind.

The work is a mixed-media assemblage composed of a banjo carrying case displayed to stand open, the outside of the case painted with a contemptibly stereotyped image of a Black man with huge bulging eyes and enormous blood red lips. An examination of the case interior reveals that in the area where the circular body of the banjo would rest, a diminutive “Little Black Sambo” toy figure dressed in red, white, and blue hangs from a tiny noose. Above, in the thin part of the case were the banjo’s fretted neck would be situated, a small black metal skeleton is arranged next to a historic black and white photograph of an actual lynching. A piece of wood carved and painted to look like a large slice of watermelon sits in front of the tableau formed by the banjo case. Altogether, Saar’s assemblage forms a chilling picture of American racism.

"My Miss America" Ernie Barnes. Oil on canvas. 49 x 37 inches. 1970.

"My Miss America" Ernie Barnes. Oil on canvas. 49 x 37 inches. 1970.

The exhibit contains three works by Charles White (1918-1979), an artist whose works exerted a powerful influence upon me in the early 1970’s.

Three works by White are on display, a small linoleum cut and a larger and quite extraordinary etching, the triad completed by a sizeable oil painting titled Freedom Now. These three works alone give enough reason to visit Places of Validation, but the CAAM exhibit offers many other treasures.

One of my favorite works in the exhibit is by Ernie Barnes (1938-2009), who was born in North Carolina during the brutal years of White supremacy.

In 1956 the eighteen-year old Barnes visited the North Carolina Museum of Art while on a field trip; when he inquired of a docent where he might find the museum’s collection of works by Black artists, he was told “Your people don’t express themselves that way.” Barnes would develop into one of America’s premier Black artists and in 1978 would return to the same museum for a successful solo exhibition of his art.

On display at the CAAM is My Miss America, Barnes’ heroic depiction of Black womanhood. Painted in 1970, the canvas portrays a woman made rough by years of drudgery and sacrifice; dressed in a plain red cotton dress she hauls two heavy brown bags with her coarse hands. It is evident the working woman is part of America’s permanent underclass, yet, she exudes the dignity and nobility that evades those thought to be “above” her. The title Barnes gave to his canvas was not based on the notion of woman as trophy, rather, it is an affirmation of the strength, integrity, and leadership of women. If there is a “Miss America”, Barnes showed us where she is to be found.

The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by color, shaped by Cultures

In another wing of the CAAM one can see the works of Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957). It brings together the artist’s paintings, lithographs, drawings, sketches, and illustrations for books and magazines portraying people of African heritage in the United States, Haiti, and Cuba; but the exhibit also includes portraits the artist made of people while traveling through North, East, and West African countries. Gathered under the thematic banner of  The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by color, shaped by Cultures, the exhibit’s primary focus are the works Covarrubias produced in the mid-1920s as an observer of the Harlem Renaissance.

"Rumba" Miguel Covarrubias. Lithograph. 1942. This, and other superlative lithographs by the artist are on view at the CAAM exhibit.

"Rumba" Miguel Covarrubias. Lithograph. 1942. This, and other superlative lithographs by the artist are on view at the CAAM exhibit.

With a grant from the Mexican government, the 19-year old Covarrubias traveled to New York City in 1924 where he  became immersed in African-American culture. He met and befriended Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other notables from the literary scene, and regularly frequented Harlem’s many Jazz clubs. He produced an endless stream of drawings and other artworks that depicted African-Americans in church, on the street, and going about their everyday lives; to my mind few non-African-American artists up until Covarrubias had ever been given to such a positive examination of Black Americans. By 1927 a number of these works were published in book form under the title of, Negro Drawings, and more than a few of these original works are included in the CAAM exhibit.

A remarkable painter, printmaker, curator, writer, theatrical set and costume designer, anthropologist, and radical humanist, Covarrubias is mostly known in the U.S. as an illustrator and caricaturist whose celebrity caricatures graced the covers and inside pages of publications like Vanity Fair, Fortune, and The New Yorker in the 1920s and 1930s. But when it came to his depictions of African-Americans, he said the following: “I don’t consider my drawings caricatures. A caricature is the exaggerated character of an individual for satirical purpose. These drawings are more from a serious point of view.”

"Black Woman with Blue Dress" Miguel Covarrubias. Oil on masonite. 1926. Collection of the Library of Congress.

"Black Woman with Blue Dress" Miguel Covarrubias. Oil on masonite. 1926. Collection of the Library of Congress.

One especially striking painting in the exhibit is Covarrubias’ Black Woman with Blue Dress, an oil on masonite study of a fashionable young woman. One must assume she was a denizen of one of the Jazz clubs the artist haunted, her cool gaze and “Flapper” attire the mark of an urban sophisticate.

The reproduction of the painting shown here does not begin to do the original justice; Covarrubias made full use of the transparent characteristics of oil paint, his vibrant portrait looking ever so much like a backlit panel of stained glass. Next to this painting, another similarly sized and composed oil portrait stood out conspicuously, a masterful interpretation of a young woman in a deep red dress.

The portrait of the Black woman in the red dress continues to enthrall me, though I did not get the title or date of the painting. The woman wearing a bobbed Flapper hairdo so angular it seemed architectural, was portrayed in silhouette against a background the color of ripe lemons. Thrown into shadow and her beautiful ebony skin painted in the darkest of hues, her features appear hidden, until a closer look reveals that her eyes are staring back at you. Covarrubias’ close-up portraits of North African women are similarly eye-catching and arresting studies that will have me visiting the exhibition a second time before its closing.

I cannot speak highly enough of  The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias, it is one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen in Los Angeles, if only for the fact that the artist’s fine art prints and oil paintings are so little known in the United States. Regrettably the museum offers no printed catalog of this important show, not even an informative pamphlet. The superb exhibition runs until Feb. 26, 2012.

In Praise of Gil Scott Heron

Gil Scott Heron, 1971

Gil Scott Heron, 1971

Gil Scott Heron died on May 27, 2011 at the age of 62. Some obituaries have referred to him as “The Founding Father of Rap”, but as the BBC put it in their coverage of Heron’s passing, “He was quick to reject some of the more grandiose epithets such as the ‘Godfather of rap.’” I think it proper to refer to Heron as a griot. In the traditions of West Africa, a griot is an itinerant musician and storyteller who keeps alive a people’s history through song and poetry. That was certainly Heron’s role in life, and his works had an enormous influence on my generation.

In explaining his artistry, he once said; “For the longest kind of a time, I have felt that people who said that they did not care anything about politics or were not interested in it were making a political statement in and of itself. The new poetry that evolved in our society, concerned the fact that folks wanted to use both words that people could understand, and well as talk about ideas that people could understand.” I shared Heron’s belief that art, in no small sense, sprang from an awareness of the world, and his music was the iconic soundtrack for my life as a politically engaged artist throughout the 1970’s and beyond.

I first heard Gil Scott Heron in 1970, when he released his debut album, A New Black Poet: Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, a searing piece of vinyl that castigated American consumerism, racism, and pseudo revolutionaries. The album contained Whitey on the moon, a poem set to music that brought attention to the contradictions of spending vast amounts of money on the space race while social and racial inequality festered in America’s urban slums. But the album’s real gem was The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a raging spoken word piece set to conga drums that damned America’s commercial media and advertising empires and the somnolent effect they have over a confused population…

“The revolution will not be right back after a message
about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.
The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.”

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised became anthemic in a way, its truth immediately grasped by all those who imagined a different type of society, this is still true today. The song’s title has entered the English lexicon, defining the chasm between real social events and the fallacious spectacles broadcast by capitalist mass communications. As Heron himself put it in an 1990s era interview;

“The first change that takes place is in your mind, you have to change your mind before you can change the way you live and the way you move. So when we said that the revolution will not be televised, we were saying that the thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film, it will be something that you see and all of a sudden you realize - ‘I’m on the wrong page’, or ‘I’m on the right page but I’m on the wrong note, and I’ve got to get in sync with everyone else to understand what’s happening in this country.’”

After his 1970 debut album I enthusiastically followed Heron’s artist output, which matured dramatically. But it was his 1975 album, First Minute of a New Day, that really got my attention. The jazz and blues oriented masterwork was a collaboration with longtime musical associate Brian Jackson. It heralded the African Liberation struggle then blazing in our collective consciousness with an infusion of African rhythms and instruments held in a jazz and blues structure. The record included the song Winter In America.

Winter In America was a devastatingly melancholy ode to the true condition of the United States. The song addressed the entropy many were sensing at the time; Nixon’s Watergate debacle was in the news but there was no resolution, America’s war on Vietnam was being lost and would totally collapse in ‘75; the powerful Black Liberation, student, and antiwar movements were dwindling. “And I see the robins perched in barren treetops, watching last-ditch racists marching across the floor, but just like the peace sign that vanished in our dreams, never had a chance to grow.” Oddly enough, Heron’s elegy seems all too relevant to our current situation.

First Minute of a New Day also contained the evocative Guerilla, and We Beg Your Pardon America, a scathing indictment that lambasted the pardoning of Nixon by Gerald R. Ford - the only U.S. president recognized by official circles not to have been elected. For many of us, the righteousness expressed in Heron’s spoken word piece would be the only semblance of justice to come out of the Watergate fiasco. The album also contained the song, Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman, a still relevant warning to those who believe that a political superhero will come to our rescue.

If First Minute of a New Day put us in touch with the African Liberation Movement, then the 1976 From South Africa To South Carolina spurred us all into action. The album contained Johannesburg, a call to actively support the freedom fighters then battling the vile racist South African apartheid regime. “Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’, but I’m glad to see resistance growin’.” Listening to that song for the first time I knew I would become actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement; some years later when distributing my Free South Africa poster at demonstrations against apartheid rule, protestors chanted a refrain from Heron’s song; “What’s the word - Johannesburg!” (a video of Heron’s live performance of Johannesburg can be viewed on the BBC’s website).

There are many other brilliant musical diatribes from Heron that are etched upon my mind, his caustic Jose Campos Torres (1979), the anti-nuclear Shut Em Down (1980), the anti-Reagan Re-Ron (1983). Heron’s discography is much too extensive to list here, and I have not even mentioned his most recent recordings; those unfamiliar with his output are urged to take a closer look. His best works will no doubt become eternal, and it is difficult to imagine that there will ever be another Gil Scott Heron - yet times demand that other singer/songwriters step forward to play the role of griot.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life

Last year, celebrated American paintings were presented at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, from October, 2009 to January, 2010. Titled American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, the exhibit was comprised of 103 paintings that recorded the American experience from the colonial period to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. On display were iconic canvases by the likes of John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, John Sloan, and George Bellows, along with artists whose names are unfamiliar to most, but whose works have left an impact on the American consciousness.

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899 - 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

"The Gulf Stream" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1899. "The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of Blacks in America in 1899, 38 years after the close of the Civil War."

Organized by the Metropolitan, the museum maintains a website about the exhibit, an archive that should be viewed by all. In addition, the Met’s publishing house released an exhibit catalog that features many works not included in the show. People on the West coast of the U.S. can see the Met’s survey of American art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), where the show opened on February 28, 2010 for a four-month run.

The exhibit is divided into four categories presenting a timeline of the nation’s development; Inventing American Stories: 1765-1830, Stories for the Public: 1830-1860, Stories of War and Reconciliation: 1860-1877, and Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915. The Met’s conception of the nation’s history sweeping from the East to the West coast was somewhat meekly “corrected” by LACMA’s adding a fifth category; paintings depicting the Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese influence on the history of California, but sorry to say this section of the exhibit seemed but an afterthought. LACMA reduced the number of paintings the Met originally had on display by around 20, and swapped out paintings from the Met’s collection for works found in LACMA’s collection - for instance, the Met initially included Thomas Eakins’ Swimming (1885), whereas LACMA replaced it with the artist’s Wrestlers (1899).

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

"Chinese Restaurant" – John Sloan (Detail). Oil on canvas. 1909. 26 x 32 1/4 inches. Sloan’s painting depicted a Chinese eatery in New York with its working class clientele.

The exhibit is important for a number of reasons, not all of them related to the progress of American art. The show gives an overview of the nation’s growth, presenting a wide look at the people and forces that shaped the country. Artists in the exhibit frequently brought up questions of class, race, and gender – unconsciously or not – and to see America’s changing political landscape chronicled by artists is just one of the fascinating aspects of the show.

Today’s Americans will hardly be able to recognize the country and people depicted in American Stories; the transformation of American society from 1765 to the present having been truly astonishing in scope. Existing U.S. culture with its digital communications and amusements, “reality” television shows, and celebrity worship, bears little if any resemblance to the country as it was from 1765 to 1915; yet, some things never change. Thoughtful viewers will be compelled to ask the questions, “What does it mean to be an American?” and “Where are Americans going as a people?”

I attended the LACMA exhibit on March 1, 2010, and recommend it to others. There are simply too many fabulous artists and paintings in the show to write about, so I proffer the following opinions regarding just a few of the works found in the show.

The first painting to greet the viewer is Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815). His iconic 1768 portrait of the Boston silversmith, who would come to play a major role in the American Revolution, is a remarkable work of art, partly because the artist was self-taught at a time when there was not a single art school or museum in the colonies. The jolt of standing in front of Copley’s flawlessly realistic painting of the American revolutionary is repeated when seeing that the room in which it is hung also holds other marvelous canvasses; The Cup of Tea by Mary Cassatt, Chinese Restaurant by John Sloan, The Breakfast by William McGregor Paxton, The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer, Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, and Eel Spearing at Setauket by William Sidney Mount. That African Americans are central characters in three of these paintings is but an introduction to the complicated racial dynamics in the U.S. that serves as a subtext for much of the exhibit.

In Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778), it is a black man that holds a rope lifeline to the imperiled Watson, who is being attacked by a shark in open water. The artist put the black sailor at the apex of a triangular composition in order to draw the eye directly towards him; he is also portrayed as an equal to all the others – a remarkable narrative for a canvas painted when America held African people in bondage. Painted 16 years before the American Civil War, Mount’s Eel Spearing (1845) has as its focus a black slave woman at the bow of a small boat teaching a young white boy how to catch eels. While the woman is obviously in control, she is also a slave. Homer’s The Gulf Stream could be construed as an allegorical painting regarding the status of blacks in America in 1899 – 38 years after the close of the Civil War. The canvas depicts a black man in a small wrecked sailboat cast adrift on a stormy sea filled with sharks. I could write lengthy essays about each of these extraordinary paintings, but for the sake of brevity I shall restrict my remarks to John Singleton Copley’s Revere.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. 1768. 35 1/8 x 28 ½ inches. Copley (1738-1815). From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Copley had no formal training in art, but his stepfather was an engraver and portrait painter who undoubtedly tutored the precocious teenager for the three years they lived together. By the time Copley was fifteen he was known for producing impressive oil portraits of notables in his community, and that reputation, not to mention his technical skill as a painter, grew considerably. He was thirty when he painted Paul Revere (1735-1818).

When Revere sat for Copley he had not yet carried out the acts that would make him famous, like his illustrious April 18, 1775 Midnight Ride from Boston to Lexington to warn patriots of British troop movements.

He was nevertheless deeply involved in the Sons of Liberty, that underground organization of patriots whose  “no taxation without representation” slogan came to epitomize the anti-colonial struggle. Only five years after Copley painted Revere, the Sons of Liberty initiated the legendary Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, when patriots, including Revere, seized three ships in Boston Harbor in order to dump the cargo of British tea overboard in an act of protest against British taxation. That fact is not insignificant when considering the portrait of Revere, since Copley’s father-in-law was the merchant that had his British-consigned tea tossed overboard during the Tea Party! The issue of British taxation went back to 1767, a year before Copley painted Revere, when the British Parliament imposed heavy new taxes on tea in the colonies. Given that evidence, Copley’s painting takes on new meaning.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Revere had Copley paint him as a master craftsman in the silversmith trade, he was after all one of the most famous silversmiths in colonial America. On the mahogany table at which Revere sat, you can see his silversmith tools set out before him, and he had himself pictured holding a silver teapot. It has generally been accepted that Copley’s painting of Revere is simply a portrait of a successful artisan, but I think there is ample evidence to suggest otherwise.

One must take into account that at the time of the painting’s creation, people living in the thirteen colonies were entering a period of intense political conflict that would ultimately lead to revolutionary war. Viewed in that context, it is incorrect to see the portrait merely as an expression of Revere being proud of his profession, rather, it appears he meant his portrait as a political statement. An outspoken radical, Revere was no doubt infuriated by the 1767 British tax on tea, and so it was probable that by having himself painted holding a teapot, he was challenging viewers over British rule. Revere stares directly at the viewer as if to ask, “Which side are you on?”

It was also unusual for a gentleman to have himself painted wearing anything other than his finest frock coat, yet Revere had himself depicted wearing an open sleeveless waistcoat (the undergarment worn beneath a fine coat) and a linen shirt, which at the time was a form of “undress” appropriate only for hard work or relaxing at home in private. The British controlled the economy of the colonies through the importation of goods and by imposing taxes. As the anti-colonial movement gained strength, patriots found multiple ways of resisting British hegemony, such as boycotting imported goods. When the colonists began producing linen as an act of resistance, those using imported British linen were isolated as Tories, conservative supporters of British rule. By having himself portrayed wearing a billowing shirt of American-spun linen, Revere was making a statement in favor of independence; the shirt was not so much a symbol of being a craftsman as it was an affirmation of revolutionary politics.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

"Paul Revere" – John Singleton Copley (Detail). Photograph © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

While Revere’s linen shirt and teapot were more than likely politically charged props, Copley had no interest in political matters, besides, his family members were Loyalists devoted to the British Crown. In a 1770 letter Copley wrote to Benjamin West (an American-born artist who moved to England and became a painter to the court of King George III in 1772), he flatly stated that he was “desirous of avoiding every imputation of party spirit. Political contests being neither pleasing to an artist or advantageous to the art itself.”

Though he helped establish American painting and created portraits of prominent American patriots, Copley did not have a passion for independence. His relationship to Revere, as well as his attitude towards the anti-colonial movement, is indicative of the complicated human drama that occurred during the revolution. Copley left the colonies for London in 1773, a year after the Boston Tea Party – never to return to America.

Another notable artist from the Revolutionary War period whose works are included in the exhibit is Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). A fiery radical and member of the Sons of Liberty, Peale created portraits of many leaders involved in the War of Independence – John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Hancock, and Alexander Hamilton to name but a few. In 1765 Peale met the artist John Singleton Copley, and studied in his Boston studio for a time before traveling to London in 1770 for two years of formal training under the tutelage of Benjamin West. Upon return to the colonies, Peale settled in Philadelphia, and in 1776 he joined the Continental Army to wage war against the British Empire.

After the successful War of Independence, Peale refocused his energies on the arts and sciences. In 1782 he opened the very first art gallery in the United States, and in 1786 he established the nation’s very first museum, the Peale Museum, which was given to the exposition of paintings and natural history. There are two paintings by Peale in the LACMA exhibit, a 1788 double portrait of the merchant Benjamin Laming and his wife Eleanor, and the 1805 Exhumation of the Mastodon, whereupon Peale recounted his having discovered and excavated a prehistoric mastodon skeleton in New York, painting the scene for posterity.

Skipping ahead to mid-point in the exhibit there is a collection of splendid canvasses by Winslow Homer, these are aside from his painting in the exhibit’s opening room. Of the handful of works arranged on their own wall under the Stories of War and Reconciliation section of the show, two took my breath away, The Veteran in a New Field and The Cotton Pickers.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer. Oil on canvas. 1876. 24 1/16 x 38 1/8 inches. LACMA permanent collection.

Created in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865), The Veteran in a New Field (1865), depicts a former soldier hard at work harvesting wheat, his Union army jacket cast off and laying in the field at the picture’s lower-right corner.

The ex-combatant swings his scythe into the tall wheat as if he were the grim reaper, the fallen wheat symbolizing the massive numbers of deaths from the war – including the nation’s chief executive. Some 620,000 soldiers from the Confederate and Union armies perished in the conflagration, along with an undetermined number of civilians. By contrast, around 416,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in WWII. It is not hard to imagine the impact this painting had on Americans in 1865, but while the painting’s imagery is a metaphor for a people’s sacrifice and loss, so too is it a symbol of recuperation and redemption.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

"The Cotton Pickers" – Winslow Homer (Detail). Oil on canvas. LACMA permanent collection.

The Cotton Pickers was not included in the original Met exhibit, but since it is part of LACMA’s permanent collection, the L.A. museum wisely placed it in their showing of American Stories; luckily for the public I might add, it is one of Homer’s finest works. Painted just 11 years after the end of the Civil War, the canvas depicts two emancipated black slaves, except they are working at the same backbreaking labor they performed prior to their liberation, and likely for the same property owner. The slave’s lament of working from before sunrise until after sunset had not changed; Homer painted the two African American women standing in a cotton field at the crack of dawn, their bags heavy with cotton picked from before daylight. The artist’s handling of the dim light of morn is awe-inspiring, but it is the expressions on the faces of the women that I found extraordinary. Far from being broken, they appear dignified and ready to step beyond dreadful circumstances. The woman in red looks positively defiant, exemplifying the spirit that would carry blacks through some very unhappy days.

The exhibit’s final category of paintings, Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories: 1877-1915, might have the most resonance for present-day viewers, since we continue to grapple with the same questions portrayed in the canvases; the evolving status of women, global expansionism, waves of immigration, industrialization and urbanization, and the predicament of the working class.

I found The Ironworkers – Noontime by Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912) to be of specific interest. Anshutz was an influential painter whose genre paintings were in great demand. Trained by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and William Bouguereau (1825-1905), he might at first glance seem an Academic painter, but a closer examination reveals an artist breaking with convention. His portraits of women appear to be celebrations of American Victorianism, though paintings like A Rose (1907) and The Challenge (1908) depict women who were a far cry from the timid and demure model of the Victorian Lady. Anshutz was a respected teacher of painting who instructed at the Pennsylvania Academy. His students included John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens; painters who would initiate America’s first art movement, the Social Realist Ashcan school, it is their works that comprise the final group of paintings on display in American Stories.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz. Oil on canvas. 1880. 17 x 23 7/8 inches. From the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Painted in 1880, The Ironworkers – Noontime is about as bleak a picture of America’s industrial landscape as one is likely to find. Anshutz painted men and boys who worked at a nail factory in West Virginia taking a break from their dreary work. At the time there was no such thing as an eight-hour work day.

Most American and immigrant workers labored seventy hours or more per week for extremely low wages and absolutely no benefits whatsoever. Factory work was hazardous and often injurious or fatal as safety standards were non-existent. Child labor was rampant. The burgeoning union movement was just beginning to make the eight-hour day one of its central demands.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime" – Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

"The Ironworkers - Noontime." Thomas Anshutz (Detail) Oil on canvas.

Anshutz based his painting on sketches he made at an actual factory, and if the poses of the men seem founded on an Academic approach, overall the artwork contains important differences with Academic painting.

To begin with, the artist recorded a scene from real life, a dismal factory where laborers worked to the point of exhaustion. It was a tableau painted without romanticizing or sentimentalizing its subject; the workers were shown as simply worn-out and poverty-stricken. It was a disagreeable scene that would have sent any Academic painter to flight. The work’s gritty realism ran counter to the saccharine idealism of Academic art. Late in life Anshutz declared his belief in socialism, and while trained by Bouguereau, he had more affinity with Robert Koehler (1850-1917), a German-born painter and fellow socialist that spent most of his career in the U.S. The two were among the first artists to depict industrialism and its impact on working people (Koehler’s work was not included in American Stories).

A prominent painter in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who also served as the director of the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts for twenty-two years, Koehler created a number of paintings that portrayed urban workers. His 1885, The Socialist, is the earliest known portrait of a working-class political agitator. Between the years 1878-1890, Germany banned socialist organizations, publications, and meetings, and as a result many German socialist leaders came to the U.S. where they addressed the growing worker’s movement in cities like New York and Chicago. Koehler’s The Socialist could have portrayed such a meeting or rally anywhere in the U.S. or Germany.

Anshutz’s The Ironworkers – Noontime was created six years before the Haymarket massacre of May 4, 1886, when violence between workers and police in Chicago led to the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of workers, who were on strike demanding the eight-hour day. The authorities arrested eight labor leaders and anarchist activists from Chicago’s eight-hour day movement, charging and convicting them for the murder of one of the police officers. The U.S. labor movement was dealt a decisive blow when four of the defendants were executed, even though there was no evidence linking them to the killing of the officer. Koehler’s The Strike was painted that same year, and when his painting was shown at a spring 1886 exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York City, a review in the April 4, 1886 edition of the New York Times referred to it as the “most significant work of this spring exhibition.” At that very moment activists were organizing for a national strike that would bring 350,000 workers into U.S. streets to demand the eight-hour day – and the Haymarket massacre was only weeks away.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows. Oil on canvas. 1913. 40 1/4 x 42 1/8 inches. In this canvas, Bellows painted the poor immigrant slums of New York’s Lower East Side. This work is the very embodiment of American Social Realism.

The final room in the exhibit is a showcase for the Ashcan School, with works by George Bellows, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens on display. Stylistically these works seem closest to our own reality; their technique, approach, and content having been influenced by the Modernist revolution. In fact New York’s Armory Show of 1913, where Americans got their first eye-opening exposure to modern art, was in part organized by Sloan; those in the Ashcan circle like George Bellows, William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, and John Sloan exhibited in the groundbreaking Armory Show.

Sloan’s small oil on canvas The Picnic Grounds depicts flirtatious working class youth in a public park in New Jersey, the energetic brushwork epitomizing the best of the artist’s early works. William Glackens was a brilliant colorist who concentrated on the depiction of city life as enjoyed by middle-class layers of society. The Shoppers is one such painting, portraying a group of fashionably dressed women as they wonder through a department store, a new phenomenon in America at the time. Everett Shinn was given to portraying life in the theater, though he created his share of canvasses depicting harsh realities on the street. In The Orchestra Pit, Shinn’s depiction of a popular vaudevillian theater in New York’s Madison Square, the artist places the viewer at the lip of the stage directly behind the orchestra pit. Of the Ashcan paintings displayed, two by George Bellows were my favorites – Cliff Dwellers and Club Night.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

"Cliff Dwellers" - George Bellows (Detail). As with the central figures of Bellows' painting, the entire canvas was painted with a limited palette of colors using quick, spontaneous brush strokes.

Club Night was from a series of artworks Bellows created from direct observation of public boxing matches, which at the time were illegal in the U.S. To avoid the law but still be able to attract paying customers, fight organizers would hold bouts at private gyms, and boxing fans gained admission by becoming “dues paying members” of the athletic clubs; competitions were held behind closed doors for members only.

Bellows frequented a squalid New York City gym across the street from his studio called Sharkey’s, where such contests were held. Disdainful of those who attended the fights, Bellows pictured them as bloody-minded bourgeois individuals slumming in poor neighborhoods.

The groups of men dressed in tuxedos in the lower right portion of the painting bear a striking resemblance to the demented characters in Francisco Goya’s The Pilgrimage of San Isidro, one of Goya’s so-called “black paintings” depicting fanatical religious zealots.

In the end the limitations of the American Stories exhibit at LACMA are overshadowed by the show’s strengths. Despite curatorial exclusions and a tendency to expound a somewhat rosy view of American history, there is still an immeasurable sense of the real, the human, and the historic in American Stories. Compared to the cynical and socially detached gimmickry of postmodern art, the paintings in American Stories exude idealism, compassion, and a deeply felt humanism. It is regrettable that the timeline for the exhibit stops at 1915, when Modernism in the U.S. was just beginning to percolate. It would have been instructive to have included artists from the 1930s and 1940s, when the “American Scene” and “Regionalist” painters from coast to coast were in their heyday and Social Realism was the dominant aesthetic. It is unlikely that LACMA will hold such an exhibit in the future – but without a doubt I will continue to cover that era in articles yet to come.

RATTLE Poetry Journal Cover Art

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My oil painting, African American, appears as the cover art for the summer 2009 edition of Rattle, a journal dedicated to “Poetry for the 21st Century.”

One of the foremost poetry publications in the United States, Rattle has been publishing for 15 years. The “Tribute to African American Poets” edition will celebrate the work of 30 African American poets. You can order your copy directly from the Rattle website.