The formidable sculptor Elizabeth Catlett is having her first solo exhibition in New York City since her debut at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1971. The show, at Burning in Water, is aptly titled Waking Up in Glory.
Catlett, who died at the age of 96 in 2012, had an impressive and successful six-decade career. But while her work has been exhibited at major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, her art is only beginning to receive the deeper attention it deserves. Most recently, you might have seen Catlett’s sculpture of a raised fist, “Homage to my Black Sisters,” appear as the signature work for the Black Radical Women exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
Catlett began sculpting her distinct feminine forms out of bronze, wood, and marble when she enrolled at Howard University in the 1930s. At the time, European modernism was the style of the day, which Catlett incorporated into her practice, combining it with an attendant interest in traditional forms of African art. Following her graduation from Howard, she was resolute in pursuing a career in art, and was accepted into a graduate program at the University of Iowa.
At Iowa, Catlett found a mentor in the painter Grant Wood. As an exponent of the regionalist approach to creating art, Wood encouraged Catlett to draw inspiration from “what she knew.” As the story goes, she took this advice to heart, but added her own twist: conceiving of regionalism as less of a physical place, and more of a personhood. Catlett was rewarded for this conviction, becoming the first ever African American woman to receive an MFA from the university.
The next major turn in her trajectory took place at the Art Students League in New York. There, under the guidance of the Russian sculptor, Opal Zadkine, Catlett was encouraged to infuse her figurative sculptures with more abstract elements. A great example of this influence can be found in “Torso” (2008), a swirl of marble evoking a woman’s midriff and one of the 12 sculptures which comprise Waking up in Glory.
In 1942 Catlett was granted a fellowship to study pre-Colombian sculpture in Mexico, but soon found herself working with Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), a Mexico City-based collective that specialized in murals and billed itself as a “workshop against imperialism…and a workshop for the liberation of all peoples.” This approach to art appealed to Catlett, who would spend the next several years working with TGP to create prints that furthered a progressive sociopolitical agenda. The TGP was believed to have ties to the Communist Party, and Catlett was placed on a watch list by the US government. She promptly renounced her citizenship, living the next 50 years of her life south of the border.
“Political Prisoner” (1971), one of her bronze sculptures on view at the gallery, depicts a woman with arms bound by cuffs behind her back. In Catlett’s typical manner, the physiognomy of the face resembles an African mask, revealing an expression that seems to communicate longing and wonder.
“There’s a body of literature that positions [Catlett] as essentially a modernist sculptor, with African art and mask influences,” Barry Thomas Malin, Burning in Water’s director, said on a recent walking tour of the exhibition. “But while Brancusi and people like that were taking the forms and dispensing with the context, Catlett got to abstraction through the form, while still also trying to pack all that context in, or at least not discard it.” The effect this had on the reception of Catlett’s work was that she “was way ahead of her time,” Malin continued, “and maybe now we’ve caught up to her.”
Elizabeth Catlett: Waking Up in Glory continues at Burning in Water (317 Tenth Ave, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 3.