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Memphis Flyer Collectively Speaking

The Civil Rights Museum's latest exhibit spans many years and styles of African-American art.

By David Hall

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  Over at the National Civil Rights Museum, after pausing at the memorial plaque in front of where Dr. King was assassinated and looking up at that infamous balcony, the last thing I wanted to do was to look at art. It didn't seem appropriate to follow such a solemn experience with an aesthetic one. But I stuck out my chin and walked in anyway to see the "Hewitt Collection of African-American Art." I'm glad I did.

John and Vivian Hewitt used special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries to add to their art collection over the years, and chose works in a wide range of styles and media. The collection was bought by Nationsbank from the Hewitt estate and donated to the Afro-American Cultural Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. The 30 or so works will tour five cities, of which Memphis is the first.

The works on display span almost a century and document the contributions of African-American artists, many of whom became expatriates so that their artistic careers could blossom. The earliest works in the exhibit are by Henry Ossawa Tanner, who is probably the best-known artist in the collection. As a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Realist Thomas Eakins mentored the artist. A couple of the works that were inspired by Tanner's travels to the Mediterranean and the Middle East display strikingly different styles; in the painting Gate in Tangiers, the forms of buildings and alleys are delineated loosely with blue-grays scumbled over warm ochers, sacrificing the details for mood. It's worth the trip just to see this canvas. In contrast to the painterly expression of that work is a pencil drawing of a young man in a turban that was done the very same year (1910), titled Seated Figure. Its rather cool and cerebral technical rendering reflects Tanner's background in academic life drawing.

Other artists exhibited experimented with various styles and techniques throughout their careers. Ernest Crichlow was inspired by the faces and figures of his Brooklyn neighbors, yet the look of the work changes over the years to include naturalistic representation, graphic stylization using lithography and serigraphy, as well as collage. Woman in a Blue Coat from 1948 displays an ease of facility in the sure brushwork and use of color: The mark-making and the palette are simplified to capture the essence of the scene, resulting in a naturalistic image that is compelling for its elemental use of means. In two lithographs from 1965, Crichlow portrays the isolation in the faces of a girl and a boy; each picture is distinct in the kind of marks the artist used to build up the values, from the frantic scribbles in Ronnie to the subtle gradations of tone in Waiting.

There are quite a few nice graphic works in this collection. In Elizabeth Callett's lithograph Head of a Woman, the close-cropped face gazes sternly at the viewer with piercing eyes. The accompanying literature said Callett became an political activist in Mexico (and a citizen), and there is something of the Social Realism of Jose Orozco and Diego Rivera in the chiseled features and chunky stylization. The hilarious Playing Records by Jacob Lawrence depicts a hep cat replete with beret and pointy goatee, squatting before a record player, taking in the tunes. John Biggers' Family #2 represents a man, woman, and child huddled together, but abstracted almost to the point of being unrecognizable as such. It looks like the mixture of Africa-inspired themes and patterning with a modernist bent. A kind of Afro-Kandinsky.

Biggers isn't the only artist included who chose to do modernist work. Frank Wimberley's Seventy-Eight is made up of various scraps of paper, rope, and canvas saved from wastebaskets and is a gem of an abstract collage that transcends its humble elements. Influenced by Jackson Pollack and Stuart Davis, Wimberley seeks to "defy narrative and encourage each viewer to interpret the work in his or her own manner." Hale Woodruff's oil on canvas, Sentinel Gate, is a work of painterly abstraction whose graceful swaths of brushstrokes remind me of some of Hans Hoffman's paintings.

Other notable works exhibited include Margaret Burroughs' whimsical cityscape Warsaw, Harlem Games by Virginia Evans Smit, a five-color wood cut of children playing in front of a brownstone, and James Denmark's Head, a collage using richly patterned scraps of fabric. In fact, the quality and diversity of this collection of works attests to the Hewitts' distinguished taste as patrons of the arts.

The installation of the show, while neat, was really crowded on the walls of the gallery. Artworks, especially when from a varied collection such as this, need to be displayed in a manner where there is a respectful distance between them, so that each can be contemplated individually. It should be remembered that other factors besides excellent art come into play for a positive visual experience to happen, the sensitive installation of the work being one of them.

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