MUSKEGON, Mich. — Common Ground, the Muskegon Museum of Art’s (MMA) current exhbition of African American art, combines works from three regional Michigan collections: the Muskegon museum, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA), and the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA). Since last fall it has been on a tour of those cities, all of which have high percentages of African American residents. Flint, in particular, has a majority black population, whose disenfranchisement has received international attention recently due to the poisoning of the city’s water supply.
Like the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), the museums in those three cities have worked for several decades to collect and exhibit art that reflects their populations’ racial and ethnic demographics. Because these institutions lack the wealth and prestige of their siblings in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and other places, the collecting process has been gradual, the scale of works acquired is relatively modest, and their achievements haven’t garnered headlines. The slow, organic development of these collections stands in contrast to the recent explosive growth in major museums acquiring African American art, as reported in the New York Times last November.
The lower profile of works in Common Ground is especially evident when compared to the visual brio of the show from the Rubell Family Collection that was recently presented at the DIA (and opens in mid-March at the Cincinnati Art Museum). Furthermore, many of the artists in Common Ground lived and worked decades ago: their extant pieces are more traditional in terms of format and materials and potentially fewer and farther between. Some of them are also regionalists who never achieved the high profiles of the artists now recognized by the Times and the Rubells.
Yet Common Ground will open the eyes of visitors, African American and otherwise, who might not realize how deep the roots of art by black painters and sculptors in this country actually run. The exhibition features about 60 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper that span some 200 years of American history, from the very early 19th century through the present. It’s divided into five themes that link to issues tackled by many black artists: “Gaining Access,” “New Self-Awareness,” “Political and Social Expressions,” “Examining Identities,” and “Towards Abstraction.”
The earliest piece on view is a small portrait, painted circa 1810 by Joshua Johnson. The MMA acquired it in 1998, when Dr. Anita Herald, a long-time advocate for diversity in the museum’s collection, located it and helped rally a group of local patrons to contribute to its purchase. Typical of Johnson’s work, it depicts a white subject, a man named Thomas Boyle. The challenges that Johnson faced because of his race are clearly explicated by a display of scans of his manumission papers, placed next to the painting’s more traditional wall label.
Joining Johnson’s painting are small oils by Edward Mitchell Bannister and Grafton Tyler Brown, all of which provide material evidence of the artists having gained at least some access to the world of professional training and recognition. But the standouts in the section are a classically styled figural sculpture by Edmonia Lewis and a large oil painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner.
Relative to other pieces by Lewis, this one, “Marriage of Hiawatha” (1892), is small —about 30 inches tall. (It was acquired by the Kalamazoo museum in 2010.) It was carved from what’s likely Carrara marble that Lewis would have obtained during time spent in Italy. An artist of African American and Native American descent, Lewis here addresses a subject who was invented by an Anglo-American poet to fit into narratives about a noble and vanishing race. It thus becomes a testament to her own heritages and an ironic commentary on the convoluted measures that white culture has taken to live with the destruction it wreaks. In spite of such baggage, however, the work is a tender depiction of conjugal love.
Tanner’s “The Holy Family” (1910) has long been a centerpiece of the Muskegon collection. It was purchased in 1911, one year prior to the museum’s opening to the public, at the time representing the institution’s commitment to buying contemporary art. Since the late 1960s, when museums were first prodded to reflect social diversity, it has come to be viewed as part of a collection of African American art and the work of an artist who chose to live in France, rather than face race-based persecution in the United States. Measuring about 35 by 40 inches and painted in soothing blues and greens, it depicts father, mother, and infant in an interior that’s decidedly Middle Eastern — a reference that counters Westernized depictions of Biblical subjects, and one that Tanner took pains to achieve.
The exhibition presents the next theme, “New Self-Awareness,” as growing out of the impact of the New Negro and Negritude movements. This is evidenced in two other works from the Muskegon collection — Richmond Barthé’s “Feral Benga” and Loïs Mailou Jones’s “Cabaret Singer.” Cast in 1937, the Barthé was purchased by the museum in 1940, with the intention that it serve as the kernel of a new sculpture collection. Given that Jones also lived and worked in Paris in 1937, her undated pastel portrait might be from the same period, although it was not purchased until 2005. The subject of Barthé’s piece is François Benga, a native of Senegal who often partnered with the American dancer Josephine Baker in sexually charged Parisian nightclub acts between the wars. The fully nude and sensuously swooning figure is especially charismatic, given the undeniable homoeroticism — a dimension of Barthé’s work that’s only recently begun to receive critical attention. The Jones portrait conveys a sense of powerful, individual personality, but without sexual overtones.
Bigger artworks enter the field in the third section, “Political and Social Expressions,” likely because of their intended rhetorical function. Hughie Lee-Smith’s large, stark 1987 canvas “L’Apres Midi” is a surreal expression of alienation. Acquired by the Muskegon museum in 2012, it depicts a boy striding past a row of cast concrete blocks that are placed along a beach. He swings a blanket that’s the same dark blue as the nearby water. The boy’s frozen gesture takes on a note of defiance, but nothing really is happening here; all seems stopped in time. Like other examples of Smith’s most powerful paintings, this one weaves a spell that’s sad and vaguely sinister.
This section also features two works by Elizabeth Catlett. The first is a 1981 cast of her iconic bronze head “Glory,” the second a linocut of the same subject: the dancer Glory Van Scott. The bronze is probably Catlett’s best-known sculpture and justifiably so, thanks to the beauty of her subject and the simplicity of her portrayal. The linocut is a fuller-figure image, deftly delineated with an economy of means that rivals Matisse.
Both were acquired after Dr. Herald challenged the Muskegon museum to better reflect its community. Most of the acquisitions made since that moment in the late 1990s reflect an impressively diverse range of support for African American art, including from artists. For example, after the MMA added works by Detroit artist Charles McGee — also represented here by an expressionistic portrait painting from the Flint collection — he suggested to Felrath Hines’s widow, Dorothy Fisher, that she place some of her late husband’s pictures with the Muskegon museum. As a result, she made a gift of works reflecting Hines’s various approaches to abstraction.
I don’t know the history of the Flint and Kalamazoo collections well enough to say if they’ve been built as organically as that in Muskegon. My sense from Common Ground is that Flint officials have gone about their acquisitions more strategically, with an eye towards artists who are readily identified with the contemporary market. If that’s the case, however, it’s a strategy that has been in place for over a decade, as the span of acquisition dates here suggests. This microcosmic sampling includes:
- One of Chakaia Booker’s phantasmagoric tire sculptures, which seems to be writhing and sliding off of its pedestal, dated 2001, acquired 2002
- A silhouetted vignette by Kara Walker — a linocut rather than a cutout, and small enough to be framed under glass — dated 1997, purchased 2005
- A small, half-figure sculpture by Kehinde Wiley, cast in marble dust and resin, dated 2006, purchased 2007
- A vivid screenprint of a quilt by Mary Lee Bendolph of Gee’s Bend, commissioned by the FIA in 2010
- A downright elegant, tone-on-tone wall assemblage by Thornton Dial, dated 1994, acquired 2013
These works appear, among others, in the last two segments of the show — “Examining Identities” and “Towards Abstraction” — and it’s here that the exhibition’s goal of teaching history comes into overt conflict with its potential for visitors to learn by observing and considering visual relationships. I realize that abstraction or art without a more explicit subject matter can be tricky to place in exhibitions whose purpose is engaging with identity. But taking abstraction out of chronological context and treating it like an alien approach to black American art-making — as Common Ground does — distorts the story being told here.
For example, much of Hines’s art, which appears in the final section, predates many of the figural works on view. The quilts that the Bendolph print reflects — also shoehorned into the last part of the show — have been made for generations as an expression of cultural identity. Even within the context of the more understandable chronological narrative of the exhibition, rich potential relationships get lost. Wiley and Booker belong to different generations, but they’re both producing art now. If their pieces were placed in closer proximity, the visitor could more easily see how his “Bust of St. Francis of St. Adelaide” and her “India Blue” say all kinds of things about sculptures’ relationship with pedestals — the latter (Booker) looking like it wants to escape from its perch, the former (Wiley) incorporating its own little pedestal, while being placed, jewel-like, inside a vitrine.
Or what if the Wiley and Edmonia Lewis pieces were positioned nearer each other? After all, Wiley makes references to often highly fictionalized and heroic depictions from the past; so does the Lewis. But Lewis made her work herself, whereas Wiley does not. How might that realization affect the way visitors think about the process of making art, how much of it is about idea and how much about execution?
Two artists represented in Common Ground also have works currently on view in the MMA’s permanent collection galleries, where they’re shown in a context that’s (purposefully) much broader than the exhibition. What holds this constantly rotating space together is that works are placed in jostling formal relationships with one another. The vivid coloration and patterns of a painting by Winfred Rembert highlight the similar elements in Edward Hopper’s nearby New York restaurant scene — even as the painting’s subjects also complement each other. For the sake of still recognizing their cultural roots, however, the Rembert and other works by African American artists are given labels that identify them as such.
Creating formal groupings that divorce objects from their origins goes against most of the tenets of new art history and curatorial practice — but it also permits fresh perceptions that free works from pigeonholing. Common Ground is a worthwhile and eye-opening exhibition. But even within its strict focus on identity, it could have been more creatively organized — more encouraging of artistic dialogue and less interested in a unidirectional telling of history.
Common Ground continues at the Muskegon Museum of Art (296 W Webster Avenue, Muskegon, Michigan) through March 20.