Monthly Archives: February, 2018

“Whose Nation? The Art of Black Power,” By Nell Irvin Painter

“Whose Nation? The Art of Black Power”

By Nell Irvin Painter

A few years ago, when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Britain, students gushed to me about their all-time favorite period in United States history: the heroic civil rights and Black Power era of the 1960s and 1970s. That’s when America was really fascinating, they told me, when issues were clear, and the right Americans made their voices heard. Many Americans feel this way, too. It is true that the civil rights revolution enkindled the concept of black power, which galvanized black artists—playwrights, choreographers, filmmakers, musicians, as well as visual artists—to make work that reflected the ideologies and energies of the era. It really did seem in the 1960s and 1970s that artists could make a difference in the struggle against racial discrimination by joining political activists as a force against white supremacy. Those young people in the UK were right to imagine a time when valiant Americans were outspoken and relatively united. And here I stress “imagine,” because in fact, ideological disagreements had hardly disappeared at that time. Last year, an ambitious art exhibition captured these hopes in visual form.

Faith Ringgold: United States of Attica, 1971–1972. ACA Galleries, New York/Artbook, D.A.P.

I come to “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” with two identities: as a historian and as a visual artist. I am interested in art history: in the machinations of history and memory as they apply to art, and in changes in taste and how they relate to power, money, and cultural visibility. As an artist, I’m attentive to how art is presented and actually looks in physical space. This piece, the first of a two-part review, focuses on the catalogue and how the works and ideas of the exhibition are represented in a book, an object that I hold in my hand in Newark, New Jersey (and an object of great beauty it is—a museum artifact in its own right). In a second piece, I will review the “Soul of a Nation” show at the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Black art is often characterized as solely a statement of identity, as commentary on blackness in world history, or as a critique of racism. Work by black artists is likely to get lumped together as black, regardless of period, medium, and style. This kind of grouping occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when protests against exclusion prompted white-run museums to attempt to desegregate their collections. Some, like the Newark Museum in New Jersey, had made intermittent efforts to show black work. Others, like the Brooklyn Museum, had a steadier history. Still others had little idea even of where to start. Early museum outreach was prone to grasping at whatever works were easily obtained, then burying them in storage after protests calmed down. What little art criticism there was tended to neglect the visual meanings and value of the art.

Barkley L. Hendricks: What’s Going On, 1974. Barkley L. Hendricks/Jack Shainman Gallery/Megan & Hunter Gray

“Soul of a Nation,” which originated at the Tate Modern in London, features some 170 works made by black artists between 1963 and 1983. Co-curators Mark Godfrey and Zoé Whitley—who both curate the collection of international art at the Tate Modern—chose sixty-seven artists, living and dead, all but two of African descent: some of sustained prominence (for example, Romare Bearden, David Hammons, and Melvin Edwards); others who surged initially, then fell out of fashion (such as Charles White, Sam Gilliam, Dana C. Chandler Jr., and Kay Brown); and others, again, who produced steadily but have only recently achieved widespread acclaim. In this third group are two artists who experienced late but notable prominence: the sculptor Betye Saar, known for a wide range of styles starting with assemblages, and the vividly figurative painter, the late Barkley L. Hendricks. The cover of the Soul of a Nation catalogue features What’s Going On (1974), a Hendricks painting of emphatically dark-skinned figures, one a nude woman, the others wearing luminous white suits and hats.

Soul of a Nation answers the complaint that black visual artists have been making since the Harlem Renaissance, that their art suffers from a lack of serious engagement, notably compared with black music. To this day, black visual artists are rarely the subjects of lavish catalogues and lengthy personal essays. Soul of a Nation is certainly lavish, and while the catalogue spends time on individual artists, its strength lies in its acknowledgment of the important part institutions play in art’s creation and reception. Within the racist and sexist history of the American art world, black curators, collectors, and galleries have exerted a crucial countervailing influence.

Emma Amos: Eva the Babysitter, 1973. Emma Amos, the Amos family/RYAN LEE Gallery/Artbook, D.A.P.

Organized in three parts intended as introductory surveys of the art, artists, and movements of the civil rights and Black Power period, Soul of a Nation is rigorous and encyclopedic. The first section, “Spiral to FESTAC,” presents a history of institutions (voluntary organizations, galleries, art festivals) that showcased black art in the 1960s–1970s. It begins with Spiral—the 1963–1965 New York black artists’ cooperative, made up of all men but the youngest member, Emma Amos—whose founding statement announced that they wanted to discuss “the commitment of the Negro artist in the present struggle for civil liberties,” as well as the art-historical project of documenting African-American artists. Spiral dissolved in three years, as the artists did not agree with Romare Bearden, one of its founders, that members should embrace a uniform aesthetic. Older members, such as Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston, hesitated before making art they considered propaganda.

Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism, 1964. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian/Artbook, D.A.P.

In addition, the question of how tightly to embrace the idea and the imagery of Africa also generated controversy in Spiral, as it did among other black people, including artists throughout the country. Spiral continued to inspire the artists involved and those who followed. Other collectives and organizations, like the Black Panther Party newspaper, the Studio Museum in Harlem, AfriCOBRA, and The Black Photographers Annual, are addressed as part of this survey. The section closes with the 1977 FESTAC festival in Nigeria, at the time the largest pan-African cultural gathering, an event that exemplified black American artists’ embrace of a diasporic identity and identification with a “‘trans-African’ ethos: a prevailing African sensibility that remained identifiable despite geographic distance and diasporic dispersal.”

Elizabeth Catlett Black: Unity, 1968. Photograph by Edward C. Robison III/Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

The second section’s two essays address abstraction and figuration. “American Skin: Artists on Black Figuration,” by Zoé Whitley, begins with Hendricks and moves through a thoughtful survey of figurative artists like Faith Ringgold, best known for her narrative quilts, and the sculptor and graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett, both of whom created works that were explicitly political. Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die  (1967) shows bloodied black and white people fighting with one another, arms and legs splayed, as terrified children look on. Catlett’s Black Unity (1968), a mahogany carved fist with two faces on the back, illustrates her interest in making art, as she said, “to service black people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”

“Notes on Black Abstraction,” by Mark Godfrey, covers ground that will likely be unfamiliar to many, as abstract black art has long been ignored by museums and critics in favor of figurative representations of black life. This essay begins with the shaped canvases of Al Loving, who in 1969 became the first black artist with a solo show in the Whitney Museum of American Art. The work of the Abstract Expressionist painter Norman Lewis, long ignored but recently selling well, and of the photographer Roy DeCarava—known for his pictures of Harlem in the mid-twentieth century, but who also experimented with light, shadow, and abstraction in the 1960s—is considered and luxuriously illustrated.

Norman Lewis: America the Beautiful, 1960. Collection of Tonya Lewis Lee and Spike Lee/Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York

The third section, entitled “Recollections,” focuses on figures who were integral to the fostering and reception of black art during the Black Power era. While black art history goes back to the Howard University philosopher Alain Locke’s 1925 concept of African “ancestral arts” and the Howard artist James A. Porter’s Modern Negro Art(1943), the 1960s–1970s produced an outpouring of new commentary by art critics, historians, and curators such as David Driskell, Richard J. Powell, Deborah Willis, Lowery Stokes Sims, Cheryl Finley, and Camille Billops. In Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980 and South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angles in the 1960s and 1970s, the art historian Kellie Jones (thanked, but not quoted here) laid the groundwork for art of the Black Power era and for Soul of a Nation.

“Recollections” offers invaluable original, first person reminiscences by many of these artists, curators, gallerists, and publishers. The painter Samella Lewis founded The International Review of African American Art in 1976 to publish serious art criticism about black artists who were otherwise ignored by mainstream journals. David Driskell, also a painter, curated the pioneering 1976 exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750–1950,” a cornerstone of black art history. In 1976, Linda Goode Bryant founded the 57th Street gallery Just Above Midtown, which showed black artists such as the painter Palmer Hayden, photographer Dawoud Bey, and performance artist Senga Nengudi. Even today, with the exception of the small minority of internationally prominent artists with major gallery representation, most artists, especially black artists, lack the means to widely share their work.

Faith Ringgold: American People Series #20: Die, 1967. Faith Ringgold, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY

The British students I met on Fulbright imagined black voices speaking as one against American racism. In a sense, Soul of a Nation represents a composite voice, made up of a wide range of artists, curators, and writers: the diverse soul of black America at the time of Black Power. The title also seems to reference the fact that black nationalism regarded black America as a nation on its own. But “nation” in Soul of a Nation also implies that the art of this period confronts and concerns all Americans.

Near the beginning of the catalogue, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation (a major funder of the project), writes that the “exhibition not only reflects on a particular period in American history, but reaffirms the integral role of art in the fight for social change.” Walker hopes that Soul of a Nation will provide insight into our past and inspire “empathy and action in the days to come.” The exhibition is explicitly intended to serve as a guide to art institutions seeking to desegregate their collections by race and gender, an issue that remains relevant today. Expanding what is seen and accepted as “American art,” then, is a fundamental target of the show. Soul of a Nationitself is an effort, supported by major institutions, to break down habits of exclusion: to reshape American art history by increasing the visibility of black artists then and now. But no single definition of black art can usefully embrace the work of contemporary artists as disparate as Kara Walker, Adam Pendleton, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Charles Gaines, Martin Puryear, and Joyce Scott. Race alone does not serve as a useful category in visual art. Soul of a Nation takes a snapshot of a different time, a moment when the work of black artists was most easily defined by race, and when black work was most frequently and emphatically black. It omits some work from the period that doesn’t fit this criterion, such as the landscapes of Barkley L. Hendricks and Hale Woodruff. Nonetheless, the exhibition surpasses the limitations of twentieth-century museums by including a great deal of work that does not shout its racial identity.

Reginald Gammon: Freedom Now, 1963. The National Afro American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio/Artbook, D.A.P.

For all its capaciousness, the catalogue suggests that the exhibition should more properly be titled “Soul of the US-American Nation,” or even “Soul of the US-American Nation As Seen from Chicago and the Coasts.” The art of Black Power in its British, West Indian, and South American manifestations is all but absent here, even though, as Cheryl Finley has noted, British curators have taken on the Black Arts Movement in exhibitions like Nottingham Contemporary’s “The Place is Here” last year. Within the US, provincial artists of the civil rights era, like Herman Kofi Bailey in Atlanta, remain invisible, despite his service to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a graphic artist.

In our own Black Lives Matter times, when police brutality, racial discrimination, and voter suppression still disfigure American democracy, the issues that artists featured in Soul of a Nation sought to confront are very much still relevant. In trying to understand our current moment, we might look back to the American artists who worked to make sense of their nation in turmoil through creation, mutual support, and collective action.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power is published by Tate Publishing and distributed by Artbook, D.A.P. The exhibition is now at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas through April 23, and will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum from September 7 through February 3, 2019.

By Nell Irvin Painter, Reprint from The New York Review of Books, 4 February 2018, © 1963-2018 NYREV, Inc.

“A glowing cosmic spectacle – Anthony McCall Solid Light Works review,” By Jonathan Jones

“A glowing cosmic spectacle – Anthony McCall Solid Light Works review”

Hepworth Wakefield: JMW Turner meets Isaac Newton and JG Ballard in this psychedelic show of smoke machines, light vortices and luminous mists that map roads into the unreal’

By Jonathan Jones

In a darkened, cavernous space, projectors draw strong white lines on black walls. The animated sketches they beam out form squiggles that grow into ovals and circles then collapse and start again. Meanwhile, smoke machines pump out a fine mist that floats into the cones of light and fills out their geometries to create an effect the artist calls “solid light”.

So far, so interesting, but when you walk inside that solid-seeming light and turn your eyes back towards the projector, strange things start to happen. The circles, ovals and triangles of light beaming around you form corridors and gothic arches, spooky tunnels and apocalyptic vortices of silvery whiteness where clouds of smoke stream by in an ever-changing stormy spectacle. It is like being inside a painting by JMW Turner, enclosed in cascades of luminous mist, revealing endless vistas of skies and seas that melt and merge in a glowing cosmic spectacle. Step out of the beam, and it vanishes in an instant. Run your fingers through the light and you can draw with shadows, like putting your hand in a running stream to see the water dance.

McCall’s art is interactive in the best way. It does not insist on any particular kind of behaviour or coerce a reaction. In fact, the mood is still and sombre. The white monochrome light is grave and serious. From the outside, the structures it creates are dignified, restrained, even mournful. Yet in the end you can’t resist going into that light. As soon as you begin exploring its gradually altering pyramids a fantastical dimension opens up.

‘In the end you can’t resist going into that light’ … Doubling Back. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

What is light? Ask a physicist. Perhaps the first light artist was the father of physics himself, Isaac Newton, who released the spectrum of colours from white light by letting a sharp shaft of sunshine into a darkened room and refracting it through a prism. That was in the 1660s. Since then, light has been defined as both a wave and a particle and we know the light we can see is just one narrow part of the electromagnetic spectrum. McCall does not so much prove such theories as make us see, and seem to touch, the power of this fundamental phenomenon of nature.

In other words, he is a mystic, a sun worshipper. The awe McCall makes us feel is similar to the excitement that Neolithic people must have got from seeing winter sunlight penetrate the entrance shaft of Orkney’s Maeshowe burial chamber at the winter solstice. Yet he hides his primitive cult of light under a rigorously scientific approach.

This important British artist’s mini-retrospective at the Hepworth juxtaposes beguiling installations with drawings, photographs and films that chart his almost five-decade preoccupation with the tension between romance and rationality, vision and design.

‘Fire-worshipping ecstasy’ A still from McCall’s Landscape for Fire II, 1972. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

McCall’s journey into the light began at festivals in early 70s Britain where rock, art and drugs mixed freely. Between 1972 and 74 he worked with future members of the punk band Crass to create eerie “Landscapes for Fire” on abandoned second world war airfields. In a film of Landscape for Fire II, white-suited performers methodically light regularly spaced bowls of fire in a field at dusk until the flames form a precisely planned grid of pagan light in the darkness. JG Ballard could surely have written a story about this weird moment of psychedelic conceptual art in which ritualistic, fire-worshipping ecstasy is contained within a geometrical structure. It is a strange, disciplined rite.

In 1973, experimenting like Newton in his chamber, McCall let a single crack of light into his room to study how dust and smoke made it seem substantial. In those days there was more than enough cigarette smoke in galleries and to provide such effects. Nowadays, he has to supply dry ice.

I walk back inside the corridor of light. It is hard to resist those dreamy feelings of transfiguration. McCall is a scientist of the sublime, precisely mapping roads into the unreal. After a while, all critical faculties vanish as you wander down his intoxicating highways of light, letting go, with the controls set for the heart of the sun.

Anthony McCall, Solid Light Works is at the Hepworth Wakefield until 3 June.

Feature image, top: ‘Endless vistas of skies and seas that melt and merge’ … gallerygoers interact with Face to Face by Anthony McCall at the Hepworth Wakefield. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

By Jonathan Jones, Reprint from, 16 February 2018, © 2018 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.

“Rediscovering Edward Melcarth, a Gay, Communist Visionary,” By Edward M. Gómez

“Rediscovering Edward Melcarth, a Gay, Communist Visionary”

‘Kentucky-born artist Edward Melcarth dared to live as an openly homosexual man and did not hide his support for communism.’

By Edward M. Gómez

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Oblivion is a very lonely place in which to spend eternity.

It’s also a destination that many artists who take their work seriously, thinking ahead to the long stretch of posterity, would very much like to avoid.

Fortunately, in recent decades a growing number of art historians, employing research and analytical approaches influenced by feminist and postmodernist critical thinking, have dug back into Western art history’s familiar canon to shine long-overdue light on certain forgotten or overlooked artists from different periods, including those from some of modernism’s best-known eras. Often these researchers have called attention to innovative contributions to modern art’s evolution from non-white, non-hetero, or female artists.

Looking back, it appears that the Kentucky-born artist Edward Melcarth (1914-1973), who dared to live as an openly homosexual man and did not hide his support for communism, did not earn a significant place in modern art’s canonical history for exactly those reasons. His achievements were also overshadowed by the art establishment’s preoccupation with Abstract Expressionism, whose rise coincided with Melcarth’s development of his own personal, mature artistic language.

The artist Edward Melcarth at work in 1950; location and photographer unknown (photo courtesy of the Faulkner Morgan Archive)

Melcarth’s work is now the subject of two illuminating exhibitions in Lexington, Edward Melcarth: Points of View, a mini-survey of his oeuvre on view at the University of Kentucky Art Museum (through April 8), and Edward Melcarth: Rough Trade, a selection of portraits on display through February 17 at Institute 193, a small, independent arts center whose programming focuses on cultural figures with strong ties to Kentucky or the southeastern United States.

How or why did Melcarth disappear from — or never fully gain entrance to ⎯ the annals of modern art? Never mind that he was active on New York’s burgeoning, post-World War II art scene; his work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s and at Manhattan galleries over a decades-long timespan, and he knew just about everyone: Peggy Guggenheim (for whom he designed a famous pair of bat-shaped sunglasses); Tennessee Williams; Gore Vidal; and the multimillionaire art collector and Forbes magazine publisher, Malcolm Forbes; his circle also included many other artists as well as countless, now nameless hustlers, sailors, beach bums, and representatives of working-class “trade” who posed for his pictures and with whom he had sex.

Perhaps the transgression that most likely explains Melcarth’s exclusion from the abstraction-focused art history of his time was the fact that he was an avid figurative painter — an enthusiastic depicter of the male face and body, subjects he often eroticized in compositions whose structures can appear as sophisticated and dynamic as their emotional-psychological atmospheres can feel strangely ambiguous. With his solid understanding of art history and fine drawing skills, Melcarth celebrated paganism and bemoaned modern art’s banishment of the human body as a central theme.

Edward Melcarth, “Junkie with Open Shirt” (no date), oil on canvas, 40.5 x 30.25 inches, The Forbes Collection (photo courtesy of University of Kentucky Art Museum)

Melcarth was born Edward Epstein to Jewish parents in Louisville in 1914. After his father died, his mother, whose family discouraged her from becoming an opera singer, remarried a wealthy British aristocrat. Edward, who would reject religion and change his surname to that of an ancient Phoenician god, was educated in London and at Harvard University; later he studied art in Boston with the German-born painter Karl Zerbe.

In an interview in Lexington last week, the historian Jonathan Coleman, a former teacher of gender studies at the University of Kentucky and the founding director of the locally based Faulkner Morgan Archive, noted, “Melcarth was in Europe in the late 1930s, where, in Venice, he saw a Tintoretto exhibition that, for a young artist who had worked his way through Cubism, came as an epiphany; in his own art, he crafted a vision of a world that perhaps was too beautiful to exist. With their idealized male bodies and often large formats, his paintings represented what he called ‘Social Romanticism.’”

Edward Melcarth, “Portrait of Blond Youth in Turquoise Jacket” (no date), oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches, The Forbes Collection (photo courtesy of Institute 193)

Melcarth once stated that “Social Romanticism attempts to describe man’s idealized view of himself using the techniques closer to the Renaissance”; it took ordinary subjects and rendered them “extraordinary.” He added, “There can be no separation between form and content[;] the two are one.”

Coleman, who wrote his University of Kentucky doctoral dissertation about same-sex prostitution in London from 1885 to 1957, oversees an archive named for the gay, Kentucky-born artists Henry Faulkner (1924-1981) and his student, Robert Morgan. Faulkner, a close pal (and maybe also a lover) of the playwright Tennessee Williams, made colorful, stylized still lifes and was known for turning up at art shows with a bourbon-drinking goat. Morgan, who was born in 1950, makes mixed-media assemblages, some of which have incorporated photographs and personal mementos from young gay men who were the victims of AIDS, alcoholism, or drug abuse. The archive houses Faulkner’s and Morgan’s personal papers, photos, and gay-related miscellanea; its mission, Coleman explained, is to document the contributions to Kentucky’s history, culture, and society of LGBT persons who would otherwise be written out of the region’s mainstream history.

Edward Melcarth, “Blond Youth with Brown Jacket” (no date), oil on canvas, 22 x 16 inches,The Forbes Collection (photo courtesy of Institute 193)

Coleman’s research has shown that Melcarth, Faulkner, and the photographer Thomas Painter lived together in New York for some time during the decades following WWII. They shared friends, artistic interests — and sexual partners, too. Coleman said, “Painter was one of the research subjects who provided testimonials about his own and his homosexual associates’ sexual activities to the pioneering sexologist Alfred Kinsey. His reports were detailed, and from them one can learn something about Melcarth, whose appetite for sex was rapacious.”

The faces of several of the hustlers, blue-collar workers, and other acquaintances who posed for Melcarth and presumably also kept his bed warm are the subjects of the mostly small-format, oil-on-canvas paintings on view at Institute 193. Its director, Paul Brown, said, “They complement the larger, complex compositions in the university’s show, capturing a range of emotions in the male face.” Melcarth’s men can be rugged or pretty, or, as Brown noted, “both at the same time” as the artist simultaneously renders accurate likenesses of his subjects and idealizes the features that attracted him in the first place.

From 1941, “Standing Man with Open Shirt,” the only dated work on view, shows a tall figure with a long neck and a narrow head with a downcast, pensive gaze. In “Portrait of Blond Youth in Turquoise Jacket,” a young man with rock-star hair looks away, distracted or lost in thought, while in “Blond Youth with Brown Jacket,” a more preppy type twists back to face the viewer. In these and other paintings, Melcarth’s men seem to guard their secrets while oozing a detached air that is more chilly-mysterious than come-hither sexy. “The Hanging,” the most unusual picture here, is far from erotic. Like a bizarre, inexplicable slice of Southern Gothic, it depicts, in the shadows, a blindfolded, apparently light-skinned man in a long, white nightshirt, his trousers pulled down to expose his genitals, hanging from a noose attached to a leafy tree branch. (Does it depict the actual or imagined lynching of a homosexual man?)

Edward Melcarth, “The Hanging” (no date), oil on canvas, 17 x 13 inches, The Forbes Collection (photo courtesy of Institute 193)

At the University of Kentucky’s museum, oil paintings of varying sizes, along with a few sculptural pieces (none of which are dated), demonstrate Melcarth’s range — as well as the sometimes mystifying singularity of his artistic vision. What is a viewer to make, for example, of his take on the Greek myth of Danaë, whose father, a king, locked her up to prevent her from becoming pregnant in an effort to defy a prediction that he would be killed by a grandson? Here, Danaë appears as a world-weary odalisque attended by a feline companion (Melcarth loved cats) while a man seated beside her shoots up heroin.

In “Rape of the Sabines,” Melcarth’s interpretation of another mythological tale, in which men from ancient Rome, in search of wives, abducted women from other places, the painter portrays a storm of hunky male bodies crashing through a fence and spilling across the pictorial space with all the athleticism and spunk of a West Side Story production number. In the long, vertical “Untitled (Bather),” the viewer’s eyes go straight to the back side of a standing, bikini-clad woman on a beach, only to move unstoppably upward to a boardwalk scene, in which a sailor in his white uniform approaches another young man seated on a bench. Melcarth obscures all of his subjects’ faces, but his tightly composed picture is all irrepressible ogling and desire.

Edward Melcarth, “Rape of the Sabines” (no date), oil on canvas, 60 x 85.5 inches, Collection of Steve Forbes (photo courtesy of University of Kentucky Art Museum)

His masterwork here, though, is his “Last Supper,” in which the old Christian story is set at the counter of a diner. In this long, horizontal composition, the arms of handsome men reach out in a tussle to grab doughnuts or touch a muscled server — who just might be the figure of Jesus Christ with his face turned away — in counterpoint to shafts of light piercing the narrow space they all occupy. Where is Judas? Is he the fellow in a white cap, seen from the back, or a nearby, standing comrade, whose face is buried in a newspaper?

In the late 1960s, Melcarth left New York and settled in Venice, where he focused on making sculpture and died in 1973. At some point during his New York years, he had met Malcolm Forbes, who became a regular collector-patron and, after Melcarth’s death, acquired a large quantity of his works. It is from the Forbes family’s holdings that the current exhibitions have been assembled. (After Forbes died in 1990, it became publicly known that he had lived as a closeted gay man. His written correspondence with Melcarth was friendly and cordial, and mainly concerned his purchases of the artist’s works. What, if any, gossip about New York’s gay demi-monde they might have shared remains the stuff of speculation.)

Edward Melcarth, “Last Supper” (no date), oil on canvas, 40 x 144 inches, The Forbes Collection (photo courtesy of University of Kentucky Art Museum)

These two exhibitions, backed by Coleman’s ongoing research, suggest that Melcarth’s work may begin to enjoy a period of deserved rediscovery. If so, as the University of Kentucky Art Museum’s director Stuart Horodner told me, “It’s kind of a backward process we’re witnessing, but that’s okay; for instead of presenting a hitherto overlooked body of work with all the relevant scholarship already done, we’re putting it out there first, complete with many unanswered questions, in the hopes of attracting researchers and stimulating the public. This work is exciting and feels relevant to many of today’s concerns.”

Certainly Melcarth’s vision of an art celebrating the human form and the passions that fuel it will give art historians something that should be examined on its own terms, and not in a context set by the booze-soaked, paint-flinging experiments of torturous, Ab-Ex angst. As Melcarth’s art of sex, sensuality, erotic fantasy, and yearning enters the history book, it could very well burn up its pages.

Edward Melcarth: Rough Trade continues at Institute 193 (193 North Limestone Street, Lexington, Kentucky) through February 17; Edward Melcarth: Points of View continues at the University of Kentucky Art Museum (405 Rose Street, Lexington) through April 8.

Feature image, top: Edward Melcarth, “Danaë with OD and Cat” (no date), oil on canvas, 50 x 77.5 inches, The Forbes Collection (photo courtesy of University of Kentucky Art Museum)

By James Gibbons, Reprint from Hyperallergic, 10 February 2018, © 2018 Hyperallergic Media Inc.

“When Artists Move from the Margins to the Center,” By James Gibbons

“When Artists Move from the Margins to the Center”

‘The most powerful outsider artworks in Outliers and American Vanguard Art at the National Gallery of Art evoke ideals about all artists: the belief, for example, that they are distinct from non-artists.’

By James Gibbons

It’s been quite a while since “outsider art” — the not wholly satisfactory term coined by the British art historian Roger Cardinal in 1972 — has occupied the art world’s peripheries, far from the insiders’ world of top-tier galleries, museums, and the market. Outsider art’s abiding allure is evident in the extensive infrastructure now supporting its display and dissemination, encompassing museum collections, art fairs, and foundations devoted to important figures. It’s inconceivable the significance of outsider art will ever recede from view. We can even speak of “canonical” outsider artists (Henry Darger, James Castle, Martín Ramírez) whose prominence within this art-historical rubric seems as secure as Pollock’s and De Kooning’s within Abstract Expressionism. The rise and entrenchment of outsider art and its tributaries (most notably, though most uneasily, folk art) signal that this kind of work stirs up (without necessarily satisfying) some of the fundamental desires that inform our experience of art more broadly. Clearly we want something from outsider art. But what is it?

I asked myself this question as I went through Outliers and American Vanguard Art, a capacious exhibition centered on outsider art, currently on view at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. As this show demonstrates, the rawness and tactility of the most powerful outsider artworks offer a sense of bedrock presence, of stubborn conviction and irrepressible need. The artworks’ authority asserts itself even as it is cloaked in gestures or an overall angle of vision that is off-kilter and eccentric, often due to mental states that most of us will never inhabit. The most powerful outsider artworks in Outliers and American Vanguard Art evoke certain cherished ideals about all artists: the belief, for example, that they should be seers, uncompromised and uncompromising, and are somehow mysteriously distinct from non-artists. Or that they should use their difference to channel a larger group’s energies into expressive forms that, their social origins notwithstanding, bear a strongly individualized cast. Such assumptions about the artist’s personality and role in society can and should be scrutinized and nuanced, and some may reject them outright. But it’s undeniable that to engage with outsider art — works that prompt comparisons in equal measure with modernist masterpieces and paleolithic cave painting — is to return to first principles, to reflect on the very DNA of art, expression, and creativity.

Outliers and American Vanguard Art is intended not as a survey of American outsider or self-taught art (with “outliers” the preferred term of its curator Lynne Cooke), but rather as a staging of three distinct eras of encounter with this material by artists, curators, and the public. Works by unschooled artists mingle freely with those by art-world luminaries like Charles Sheeler, Cindy Sherman, and Kara Walker and suggest plausible affinities among them, if not direct influence. One of the exhibition’s strengths, then, is to acknowledge in its premise the kinds of desire elicited by outsider art and the uses it has afforded over the last hundred years.

The show’s opening section, devoted to the interwar years in the United States, focuses on folk and so-called primitive painting and sculpture. On the institutional side, the advocacy of crucial enthusiasts, such as the dealer Sidney Janis and, above all, MOMA director Alfred Barr, drew attention to works that, to prior generations, would not have been considered art or would have been taken for granted as utilitarian crafts. Barr’s admiration for the tombstone carving of the Tennessee sculptor William Edmonson led to a small solo exhibition at MOMA in 1937, the museum’s first for an African American and the first for an artist who lacked formal training. Edmonson’s sudden visibility follows the template that has governed so many self-taught artists who meet with renown — the sculptor, whose career making tombstones had begun only in his fifties, was “discovered” by an influential tastemaker, whose validation catapulted him from the margins to the center.

One can regard this now-venerable process as the manifestation of a lopsided power dynamic, and, in this case, even as paternalism on the part of Barr and MOMA. But, as the show’s catalog points out, Barr came to know of Edmonson only after Harper’s Bazaar refused to publish Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s photographs of him and his sculptures because he was black. Barr’s advocacy was not expressed in a social vacuum and he was not solely concerned with disinterested appreciation of Edmonson as an artist. In any case, Outliers and American Vanguard Art provides a wider view, presenting Edmonson’s work in dialogue with sculptors of his era — John B. Flannagan and the Harlem Renaissance artist Henry Bannarn, and, by extension, Brancusi and his European peers — regarding the essence of their medium and its expressive possibilities.

Horace Pippin, “Interior” (1944), oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 30 3/16 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meyer P. Potamkin, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the National Gallery of Art

For the trained artists featured in the show, their unschooled counterparts exerted an irresistible pull as exemplars of vitality, ingenuity, sincerity, and a bracing lack of polish. Among the moderns, avid collectors of folk or “primitive” art such as Elie Nadelman and Yasuo Kuniyoshi created works that were indebted to the untutored artists they cherished; Louis Eilshemius and Florine Stettheimer renounced their formal training and embraced a naive idiom, though to a mixed reception (Stettheimer was devastated by the response to her lone gallery exhibition during her lifetime). Marsden Hartley’s admiration for the folk paintings he encountered in the American Southwest comes across in portraits that pay homage to their style, but the unvarnished directness and formal flatness of these late-career works also reflect artists he may not have been aware of, such as Horace Pippin and the immigrant John Kane, born in Scotland to Irish parents. The latter’s bare-chested self-portrait greets the viewer with arresting assurance and verve.

Joseph Yoakum, “Briar Head Mtn of National Park Range of Bryce Canyon National Park near Hatch, Utah U.S.A.” (c. 1969), blue-black and black ballpoint pen and colored pencil on paper, 20 x 24 inches, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, gift of the Collectors Committee and the Donald and Nancy de Laski Fund

Jumping ahead a few decades to the ferment of 1960s counterculture, Outliers and American Vanguard Art traces the entanglement of schooled and unschooled artists at a time of momentous cultural upheaval. A signal example is the work of the Chicago Imagists, a group that included Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, and Barbara Rossi. Their attraction to raw, self-taught mavericks is encapsulated in Nutt’s praise of autodidact artist Joseph Yoakum and other outsiders: “Yoakum’s work for me is fantastic, true fantasy, and I came to learn that I had a right to my own when I realized I was willing to accept his. When you see someone like [Martín] Ramírez or [Simon] Rodia [creator of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles] or Yoakum striding out on their own, it makes you feel more comfortable with doing that yourself.” Nutt’s remarks cast these figures not only as spirit guides but as rugged individualists in the grand American line (“striding out on their own”) who serve to underwrite the wildness of Nutt’s own works, which traffic in psychosexual tumult and fantastical exuberance. Starting in the late 1960s, concurrent with the Imagists, many African American artists sought out invigorating encounters to push their art in fresh directions. However, they tended to look not to striding loners but to more collective expressions of homegrown genius: textile traditions, for example, embraced by Al Loving and others in their abstractions, or assemblage practices with deep roots in vernacular African American expression.

In the show’s concluding section, which extends into the 21st century, the boundaries between insider and outsider, self-taught and impeccably schooled are so porous that they seem barely to exist. There are certain continuities with the earlier material: the advocacy of Barr and Nutt is echoed by Robert Gober’s presentation of Forrest Bess’s work for the 2012 Whitney Biennial; Gober’s commentary on Bess for that show is also included here. But an emphasis on photography and its uses in staging gender narratives indicate that new cohorts of outliers have been invited to the outsider party. Here we find Eugene von Bruenchenhein’s copious photographs of his often topless and apparently game wife; the rather creepier ballerina-doll pictures made by Morton Bartlett, after devoting laborious attention to crafting the dolls themselves; the insouciant intensities of Greer Lockton, revolving around gender reassignment and the refashioning of icons, both cultural (Jackie O.) and subcultural (Candy Darling) through dolls and photographs; and selections from the inscrutable archive of Polaroids taken of actresses on television by the anonymous photographer known as Type 42. Perhaps meant to anchor these works to an important art-historical moment are several of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980), but at least in this context I found Sherman’s photographs drained of their usual power and fascination, oddly staid in the presence of such offbeat visionary company. (I wondered, too, why the show did not include images by the photographer Francesca Woodman or, for that matter, the self-portrait photographs of Vivian Maier.)

Florine Stettheimer, “Father Hoff” (1928), oil on canvas, 28-1/8 x 18-1/8 inches, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer

Such occasional misfires notwithstanding, Outliers and American Vanguard Artis nearly overwhelming in the works it gathers and the pleasures it affords. One such pleasure is purely intellectual and lingers well beyond the experience of the show. By encouraging a conversation between outsiders and their mainstream comrades-in-arms, the exhibition leaves you pondering the sorts of fruitful, unresolveable questions that anyone who takes art seriously does well to consider. How do artists access the wellsprings of aesthetic power? Can such power be taught? What is the purpose of artistic training, and what are its limits? Given the late starts and difficult circumstances (i.e., poverty, institutionalization) that often affect outsider artists, what sorts of normative expectations — fair or not — do we bring to our notions of a proper artistic career? At the same time, the exhibition produces enough sensory overload that one readily ignores such calls to cogitation. The rare and unlikely marvels among the show’s objects — a Ramírez Madonna; the word “place” as communicated visually by the illiterate James Castle; a monumental quilt by Mary Lee Bendolph — assert their own reasons for being. The mind pauses. Sometimes it’s sufficient just to look.

Outliers and American Vanguard Art continues at the National Gallery of Art (between 3rd and 9th Streets along Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC) through May 13.

Feature image, top: William Edmondson, “Angel” (c. 1931), limestone, 22 x 16 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches, Robert M. Greenberg Collection (all images courtesy The National Gallery, Washington, DC)

By James Gibbons, Reprint from Hyperallergic, 11 February 2018, © 2018 Hyperallergic Media Inc.

“Art et Liberté: Egypt’s Surrealists,” By Charles Shafaieh

“Art et Liberté: Egypt’s Surrealists”

By Charles Shafaieh

In March 1938, the Egyptian poet and critic Georges Henein and a small group of friends disrupted a lecture in Cairo given by the Alexandria-born Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti, who was an outspoken supporter of Mussolini. Six months later, Henein, along with the Egyptian writer Anwar Kamel, the Italian anarchist painter Angelo de Riz, and thirty-four other artists, writers, journalists, and lawyers, signed the manifesto “Vive l’Art Dégénéré!” (“Long Live Degenerate Art!”) that would inaugurate Art et Liberté, a short-lived but influential artists’ collective based in Egypt that is the focus of an illuminating exhibition currently at the Tate Liverpool, in Britain, covering the years 1938–1948. Printed in Arabic and French, with a facsimile of Guernica on its reverse, the declaration was a direct challenge to the previous year’s Nazi-organized exhibition “Entartete ‘Kunst’” (“Degenerate ‘Art’”), which presented art by Chagall, Kandinsky and other modern artists, largely Jewish, that the Nazi Party deemed decadent, morally reprehensible or otherwise harmful to the German people.

Internationalist in orientation and opposed as much to fascist-endorsed art as to the Egyptian academy’s own nationalist-minded aesthetics that resurrected ancient symbols in the name of “Egyptianness,” the group declared that it was “mere idiocy and folly to reduce modern art… to a fanaticism for any particular religion, race, or nation.” Surrealism—in its rejection of tyranny in any form and by championing uninhibited freedom of expression—was a fitting counterpoint that the group believed could also be harnessed to bring about social change.

Members of Art et Liberté at their second exhibition of independent art, Cairo, 1941. The Younan Family Archive/Thomas Lang

Though Art et Liberté was universalist in its philosophical convictions, the writing and visual art produced for the group’s five exhibitions and multiple publications—of which more than a hundred works and a similar number of archival materials are on display at the Tate—responded to specific Egyptian concerns. The Egyptian group’s work was no mere imitation of that of André Breton and his associates in the Parisian Surrealist scene, which tends to be regarded by critics as the movement’s one and true home. Rather, Egypt had its own distinct history and a style of Surrealism that, some argued, stretched into its ancient past. Painter, writer, and founding member of Art et Liberté Kamel el-Telmisany responded to public criticism of the group that it was contaminating Egyptian culture with European perversions: “Many of the Pharaonic sculptures… are surrealist… Much Coptic art is surrealist. Far from aping a foreign artist movement, we are creating art that has its origins in the brown soil of our country and which has run through our blood ever since we have lived in freedom and up until now.”

He and the painter and writer Ramses Younan criticized Dalí and Magritte as too premeditated, and the practitioners of automatic writing and drawing as insufficiently socially-engaged. They instead advocated for what they called Free Art, or Subjective Realism—an active mining of the unconscious fused with local imagery that would be familiar to Egyptians, but not fetishistic or nationalistic (a crime that Henein leveled against the Contemporary Art Group that succeeded Art et Liberté). The results were eclectic, as often Expressionist in style as overtly Surrealist, and occasionally humorous, such as Étienne Sved and Abduh Khalil’s irreverent parodies of Pharaonic symbols, which included transforming a pyramid into a chaise lounge.

Abduh Khalil: Untitled, circa 1949.

Egypt in the late 1930s was a nation already deeply divided, with fascism’s growing appeal and Britain hindering any opportunity of national autonomy. As war approached, its economy stalled and poverty increased sharply as thousands of troops from across the Commonwealth descended on the country. The disturbed times found expression in images such as the bloodshot eye embedded within a mass of bulbous tentacles in Laurent Marcel Salinas’s Naissance (1944); the hirsute tree in Samir Rafi’s Nudes (1945) standing before faceless men and women either dead or running from an unidentifiable threat; and the naked girl, lost both to a pool of flames and a menacing giant, in Inji Efflatoun’s Girl and Monster (1941).

The presence of 140,000 soldiers in 1941 in Cairo alone caused a surge in prostitution in the capital, which was replicated in other major cities like Alexandria. This prompted a number of the artists shown here to depict emaciated and fragmented female bodies in paintings devoid of either eroticism or moralism. In Anwar Kamel’s untitled nudes, the women’s organs and bones appear visible through their skin as the earth seems prepared to swallow them. El-Telmisany’s Untitled (Wounds) (1940) is even more devastating: two figures, a naked woman and a clothed androgynous person, are bound together by each having a bloodied hand nailed to a tree, which may be a symbolic reference to the coarse violence of a transactional sexual encounter or the effects of sexually transmitted diseases. Others, such as Rateb Seddik’s haunting Liliane Brok et son orchestre aveugle (1940) and El-Telmisany’s Nude with Arm (1940) suggest raw corporeality in the paint itself, which, as in many Egon Schiele portraits, often appears, close up, like thinly-smeared feces or congealed blood.

Younan’s 1939 untitled painting evoking Nut, the goddess of the sky, exemplifies Art et Liberté’s unique interpretation of Surrealism and subtle use of Egyptian cultural symbols. Though typically covered in stars and bent onto her hands with the world contained inside her arched body, Younan’s female figure looks contorted by physical abuse—perhaps at the hands of one of the figures walking into the distance of the De Chirico-esque empty, arid landscape. Younan’s figure lacks any trace of Orientalist exoticism and nativist myth-making, unlike British Surrealist Roland Penrose’s 1938 drawing Lee as Nut (modeled nude by Lee Miller, the American photographer, friend of Art et Liberté, and Penrose’s lover) and his follow-up Egypt (1939), in which Nut envelopes a dreamy and inviting desert scene—both of which hang nearby. Despite Penrose’s relationship with the group, these works convey the difference between those entranced, even unconsciously, by Egypt’s imagery and those, like Younan, who had no interest in romanticizing his country.

Ramses Younan: Untitled, 1939. H.E. Sheikh Hassan/M. A. AL Thani Qatar.

As curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath emphasize in their captions throughout the exhibition, Art et Liberté exemplified Surrealism’s global cosmopolitan character—after all, Dalí, Ernst, and many other prominent participants were not French. The group disrupted rigidity and calcification of any sort—whether of the Egyptian academy or of their fellow artists, such as those who, in 1946, founded the Contemporary Arts Group that Henein soon denounced as bolstering what he considered the tyranny of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalism. As Henein said of Nasser, “new Fascists in uniform” had taken control once again.

The anti-authoritarian ethos of the Art et Liberté group has lived on: the contemporary Egyptian graffiti-artist and muralist Ammar Abo Bakr, a critical voice during the 2011 revolution, paraphrased a quote from Henein in a recent piece in Berlin honoring the activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh who, in 2015, was shot by police during a peaceful protest: “Revolution without despair nor hope.”

“Art et Liberté: Rupture, War and Surrealism in Egypt (1938–1948)” is at the Tate Liverpool through March 18, 2018.

Feature image, top: Marcel-Laurent Salinas: Birth, 1944. Marcel Laurent Salinas Estate/Image courtesy

By Charles Shafaieh, Reprint from The New York Review of Books, 3 February 2018, © 1963-2018 NYREV, Inc.