Redlining. Riding at the back of the bus. Separate, but unequal facilities.
The indignities endured by African Americans for much of the 20th century have been well-documented. Along with the menu of everyday humiliations African Americans in all parts of the country endured up through the civil rights movement and beyond, African American artists carried the additional burden of being marginalized. As their white peers flourished, many African American artists labored in obscurity, unable to get their work into galleries or museums or win the favor of tastemakers.
Twenty years into the 21st century, as contemporary African American artists are being recognized and feted, African American painters and sculptors from the middle part of the last century are being rediscovered by the art world cognoscenti.
The New York Times reported in 2015 collectors and museums have fiercely battled to get their hands on works by the likes of abstract-expressionist painters Norman Lewis and Beauford Delaney. The Times noted the belated interest is due in part to “a broader revolution underway in museums and academia to move the canon past a narrow, Eurocentric, predominantly male version of Modernism, bringing in work from around the world and more work by women.”
The exhibit “African American Art in the 20th Century,” which opens Sunday at Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, brings together works by some of the leading figures in African American art from the period of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s through the 1990s. In the middle of Black History Month, visitors to the museum can see works by marquee names like and Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, along with many less-heralded figures.
A traveling exhibit assembled by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “African American Art in the 20th Century” is one of several Smithsonian exhibits Westmoreland Museum of American Art has hosted over the last 20 years. Barbara Jones, Westmoreland Museum’s chief curator, said the exhibit was booked at the same time her institution has been thinking about expanding its holdings.
“In the last couple of years, we have been looking at diversifying our collection and diversifying our exhibit program to be more inclusive and think about what American art represents,” she said.
“African American Art in the 20th Century” was organized by Virginia Mecklenburg, a veteran Smithsonian curator who has also put together exhibits on subjects as diverse as Norman Rockwell and New England folk artist Earl Cunningham. On the phone from Washington, D.C., last week, Mecklenburg explained the Smithsonian was committed to collecting works by African American artists before the stampede to acquire it started.
In pulling together “African American Art in the 20th Century,” Mecklenburg said she wanted viewers “to have the opportunity to see how rich and profound work by black artists is.”
“The artists need to be seen as remarkable painters and sculptors individually,” Mecklenburg added.
All told, there are 45 works by 34 artists in “African American Art in the 20th Century.” The subject matter is mixed, and includes family, jazz, civil rights and Africa. It cuts across genres, with examples of representational, modern abstract and postmodern art all being displayed.
“There is a sense of heritage and a committedness to Africa,” Mecklenburg said. “The sense of identity is pretty strong.”
“African American Art in the 20th Century” is one of a legion of exhibits the Smithsonian has criss-crossing the United States right now.
“We’re a publicly supported museum, and a big part of the way we think is the art needs to be out in the world,” Mecklenburg said.
The exhibit will be at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art through May 10. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It is closed Monday and Tuesday. Admission is free.
For information call 724-837-1500, or visit thewestmoreland.org.