Syncopated Rhythms: African American Art from the George and Joyce Wein Collection, Boston University


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Beyond the artists
On view at the Boston University Art Gallery, Syncopated Rhythms features works by African American artists, selected from the collection of jazz impresario George Wein and his late wife Joyce Wein. The artworks were created between the early twentieth century and today, but most are dated in the 1940s through 1970s. Artists represented include Romare Bearden, Allan Rohan Crite, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Faith Ringgold, Joseph and Beauford Delaney, Wifredo Lam, Elizabeth Catlett, and many others.
An exhibition catalog by scholars Patricia Hills and Melissa Renn provides insight into the works exhibited and an overview of each artist's professional life. The catalog makes evident that while all artists face obstacles to achieving success in an elusive and often low-paying career, for African Americans pursuing an artistic career before the 1960s, especially in the South, there were also racially-based hurdles. Many top-ranking art schools refused to consider black applicants, and more than one of the artists won a scholarship or award only to have it rescinded when the recipient's race became known. (This situation recalls the bad conditions that black jazz musicians faced in the segregated South in that era.) Fortunately, most of these artists received support from family and community, as well as encouragement from other artists. Many African American artists pursuing careers in the 1930s and 1940s found short-term employment with federally-funded arts projects. A number of them received grants to study in the U.S. or Europe from the Julius Rosenwald and Harmon philanthropic foundations, and they joined together for workshops and group shows. Many of the older artists went on to instruct and foster the careers of younger African American artists.
On the opening of Syncopated Rhythms on November 18, 2005, George Wein gave a gallery talk, in which he concentrated on the outlooks, goals, and stylistic approaches of the artists, as well as the relationship of their creations to jazz. At the age of eighty, Wein walked a little haltingly with a cane, but at the podium he was still the consummate presenter who has launched and shaped so many musical ventures, including the Newport and other jazz festivals. Wein was avowedly thrilled to present the exhibition at the university where decades ago he earned a bachelor's degree (in pre-medical studies) in the city where he grew up (in a near suburb) and launched his career (he started and ran the Storyville jazz club in the early 1950s). His wife Joyce also grew up, earned a college degree, and was involved in music (classical and jazz) in Boston. Before he talked about the art, Wein said that while he mourned his wife's death in private, he was in the gallery to celebrate the exhibition (which she helped arrange) as a tribute to her life, as well as to the artists who created the works.
Wein announced he was speaking without a script and expected the audience to help him improvise his lecture—an arrangement clearly enjoyed. He livened his talk with anecdotes from a life as impresario and collector, such as the adventures of acquiring paintings by the mercurial Miles Davis, who was a friend as well as performer in Newport Jazz Festivals and is the one artist shown who's also a major name in jazz. Another story involved sidestepping a fast-talking art dealer's attempt to draw Wein into a bidding war with Bill Cosby, a personal friend as well as fellow collector of African American art. But when some audience members tried to engage Wein in discussions of musicians he'd worked with, record reissues, and other tangents related to his better-known pursuits, he brought the focus back to the artwork at hand and its creators.

He opened by making two points about the relationship between jazz and the artwork in his collection. One of his observations compared the position of a listener at a live jazz concert with that of a viewer at a museum or gallery. The well-behaved concertgoer is committed to, or "stuck with, the musicians on stage for the duration of the performance, whether or not the music holds the listener's attention. If the art viewer, by contrast, is bored or otherwise displeased with the painting in front of him, he can simply move on to the next work in a quest to find the art that speaks to him. Wein's observation and his obvious relish in the museum visitors' advantage immediately brought to mind the similarity to the position of the listener at an open-air music festival—say, the Newport Jazz Festival. The festival-goer can stop to catch a sample of an act and then decide either to settle in for some serious listening or to discreetly move on to the next tent to hear something different.

Wein's other observation was that many of the exhibition's artists preferred the jazz of an earlier era to more contemporary jazz, a situation he found paradoxical because he agrees with the common viewpoint that stylistic changes tend to emerge in visual art earlier than in music.

Beyond the artists' individual musical preferences, the show's title implies an intimate and elemental connection between the artwork and jazz. Wein addressed some topics he's obviously used to discussing: how visual art can represent rhythm and other jazz elements, whether a painting or sculpture conveys the spirit of jazz only if its creator intends the connection, and how the works of African American artists in particular relate to jazz. As he described, visual art can convey the syncopation of jazz through artistic techniques as well as through subject matter. As a jazz musician creates syncopation through the timing and volume of sounds, these visual artists stressed the offbeats through selection and position shapes, colors, and textures. These artists often express a syncopated feel by using a style such Social Realism, Surrealism, or Abstract Expressionism, that seems offbeat compared with the more common representational style, in graphic arts achieved with the chiaroscuro technique in which the artist creates a three-dimensional effect by using gradations of light and dark).

Richard Yarde, Savoy, 1991. Watercolor on paper. 41 1/2 x 29 5/8 in. (105.4 x 75.3 cm). © R. Yarde.

Jazz-related subjects clearly feature in some of the works in the show. Richard Yarde's painting Savoy (displayed above), shows a pair of swing dancers flinging themselves joyously from the legendary club's floor, the energy intensified by the contrast of black, red, and brilliant yellows. Yarde (born 1939) grew up in Boston and received bachelor's and master's degrees in art from Boston University, where he now teaches. Savoy grew out of Yarde's large-format installation on the legendary club that he presented in New York, where veteran dancers of the Savoy interacted with the art. In this painting, the poster-like figures appear solid from a distance, but a closer looks shows that the artist created the image with many uniformly placed, short brushstrokes, suggesting movement to a regular beat. Wein pointed out that Yarde has used a tile-like grid for the background to suggest a musical meter.

Noted artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) painted New Orleans Farewell (1974), the first work by an African American artist that the Wein's purchased, after having already collected a number of works by European artists. Bearden's work is a colorful collage depicting a traditional New Orleans funeral with a brass band. (In talking about this work, Wein digressed briefly to recall his and his wife's attraction to the culture of New Orleans, his initial involvement in creating a new jazz festival there, his suspension of involvement because of discrimination by a hotel against his African American wife, and his eventual success with the event that became the Jazz and Heritage Festival.)

Bearden was raised in Harlem by parents involved in civil rights and the arts. He studied art at Boston University and New York University. Bearden was inspired and guided by the early modernist painter Stuart Davis, who listened to jazz and consciously strove to reflect it in many of his largely abstract paintings. Bearden won awards that included a Guggenheim fellowship to write a book on the history of African American art. Active in the Civil Rights movement, Bearden co-founded the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Cinque Gallery. Bearden gained increasing notice as a visual artist, and for a time he also wrote lyrics to popular songs (for example, "Seabreeze by Billy Eckstine). In the 1960s, Bearden started making series of collages of colored paper, painted photostats and other material, that celebrated African American culture, especially music.

Norman Lewis (1909-1979) is strongly represented in the show, allowing insight into the artistic development of this major painter. Several of these paintings depict musicians and listeners. Lewis grew up Harlem, started art study early, and was noticed and encouraged by established artists. In the 1930s, he was a member of a group of African American artists and writers, and he co-founded the Harlem Artists Guild and helped set up an arts school. He worked on Federal arts projects and taught art at several schools in New York.

During the Depression, the politically left-leaning Lewis worked in a Social Realist style, a representational style that focuses on scenes of social injustice, poverty, and other hardships suffered by many members of society. During the 1940s, his paintings started becoming more abstract. Lewis's Harlem Jazz Jamboree (1943) is a colorful jumble of faces, hands, and instruments in a style that's somewhat abstract and expressionistic in its flattened shapes and simplified modeling. Its dark background with strongly outlined shapes in light colors seem to reflect emotions more than physical appearance, and dislocation of objects, which intensify the sense of excitement, physical vibrancy, and camaraderie of the performers and listeners. Lewis's Street Musicians (1945) treats a similar subject more abstractly, with phantasmal and masklike figures and shapes, and except for a golden face playing a clarinet in the center, more ambiguity about the musical roles, and the later painting's palette concentrates on darkened shades of basic colors.

Through the 1950s, Lewis's increasingly abstract style used geometric shapes and colors that suggested people and objects. His paintings of the 1960s and 1970s are abstract but still suggestive of crowds of people, such as the Carneval with curved clusters of paint daubs in bright rose and blue. In pointing out Lewis's more abstract works, Wein said that many or most of the artists wanted their creations ultimately to "transcend the category of African American art—to be considered and understood simply as art.

In addition to jazz, many works treat other subjects related to African American experiences, perceptions, and concerns. Faith Ringgold's combined painting and quilt Matisse's Chapel: The French Collection Part 1: #6 (1991) is part of her series of narratives featuring fictional characters based on the artist's own family. This colorful work shows a dream-based scene of an extended family gathered in the (real-life) chapel designed by Henri Matisse, framed by a handwritten account of the grandmother's account of her ancestors' forced journey to America on a slave ship.

Charles White, Skipping, 1960. Crayon on paper. 33 1/2 x 26 in. (85.1 x 66.1 cm). © Charles White Archives, 1960.

The paintings of Charles White (1918-1979) reflected the artist's aim of conveying the reality and gravity of African Americans' lives as they pursue everyday activities. White's widely-respected draftsmanship makes his painting of two girls playing jump-rope, Skipping (displayed above), intensely lifelike. At the same time, its monochrome color and stark composition without background highlight the children's concentration, suggesting a purpose beyond mere play.

An arresting depiction of racial discrimination is given in Bus (1941), painted by New York artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) in response to his first visit to the segregated South. Rendered in a simplified, poster-like style, the painting shows a city street with a bus in which the white passengers sit in front and the black passengers have been relegated to the rear.

Oliver Johnson, Louis Armstrong, 1977. Oil on paper. 27 x 22 in. (68.6 x 55.9 cm). © Oliver B. Johnson—Gallery Felicie, Inc.

Pointing out Oliver Johnson's painting Louis Armstrong (displayed above), Wein said that while the artist worked from a photograph of the great jazz musician, he captured a contemplative side of Armstrong rarely seen onstage but familiar to those who knew him privately. In answer to a question about the artist's inscription "Attica Prison at the bottom, Wein explained that Johnson (born 1948) did take up painting while incarcerated, and his artistic activity and the eventual recognition of his works and gallery sales helped him change his life. Wein also mentioned that Wynton Marsalis is very fond of the Armstrong portrait and intimated that he might leave the painting to him.

Among the handful of sculptors represented in the show is the noted Elizabeth Catlett (born 1915). Her sculpture Torso (1997), forms a streamlined woman's torso carved from red eucalyptus, highly polished to show the rich brown-red color and wood grain that complements the shape. As well as wood, Catlett casts sculptures in bronze. Raised in Washington, D.C., she started her study at Howard University, where she was introduced to African sculpture. She also earned a master's degree from the University of Iowa, where artist Grant Wood encouraged her to her unique artistic voice. After more study in New York, winning a sculpture prize, and teaching in the South and New York, Catlett received a Rosenwald Fund fellowship, with which she moved to Mexico with her husband, artist Charles White. She studied with Mexican muralists Rivera and Orozco, and worked and taught sculpture in Mexico City. After she and White divorced in 1947, he moved back to the U.S., while she stayed in Mexico City to sculpt and teach art, marry and have children with a Mexican printmaker, and become a Mexican citizen.

Active in leftist politics, she was harassed by the Mexican government in the 1950s and denied a visa by the U.S. for a few years. In the 1960s and 1970s, she used her art as well as speech to promote civil rights for African Americans. In the early 1970s Catlett resumed exhibiting her work in the U.S., and she still works today, spending part of her time in Mexico and part in New York.

Another artist influenced by African art is Wifred Lam (1902-1982), a well-known painter of Chinese and Afro-Cuban heritage. (Wein said he stretched the exhibition's category to include the Cuban Lam.) Lam studied art in Cuba and in Spain, where in the 1930s he fought for the Republic in Spain's civil war. Lam moved to Paris, where he met artists Picasso and Matisse. Lam took up the Cubist style, which had been established by Picasso and others in response to the flat-planed, multiple-viewpoint art of Africa. Lam also embraced Surrealism, and in 1940 he illustrated a book for Surrealist movement leader André Breton. With inspiration from the Négritude movement, which celebrated the culture of Europeans of African descent, when Lam returned to Cuba in the early 1940s, he rediscovered and studied the traditional Afro-Cuban beliefs and Santer—a practice of his mother's family, and also attended voodoo rituals in Haiti. Lam developed a style that combined Cubist and Surrealist elements with a strong influence of Afro-Cuban culture. His Untitled (1943), painted on burlap and mostly monochromatic except for a little red, shows angular shapes with many pairs of eyes that include features of plants, animals, and vertebrae.

Several of the paintings follow a style often called Primitive or Naive, which features everyday or rustic subjects rendered with seemingly unsophisticated manner that often includes simple and flat-looking figures, thin or crudely applied paint, and unrealistic proportions. Yet, these works represent artists of varied backgrounds and motivations. Southern self-taught artist Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980) took up art well along in life when a spiritual revelation, like those that had led to her to take up religious preaching and social welfare projects such as child care, inspired her to start painting. Sister Gertrude turned out many paintings depicting her religious convictions and revelations, in an expressive style with bright swatches of paint. Her Saturday Evening 1971 depicts her seated in front of two young-appearing men in tuxedos that her handwritten comments in the background identify as God and Christ.

A present-day artist using a Primitive style is self-taught New Orleans painter and muralist Bruce Brice (born 1942). Brice depicts real people and events in flat, brightly colored pictures that include fantastic elements as well as real people and events. His A Look at Sister Gertrude Morgan shows the older artist involved in artistic, social welfare, and spiritual activities, including a celestial battle with bright-red, horned demons.

Palmer Hayden (1890-1973) also used a Primitive style, but from a different artistic background and sensibility. Hayden left his small-town beginnings in a riverfront town near Washington, D.C., to study and work in New York City and Europe. He became an accomplished painter of landscapes, but in the 1930s he started painting scenes of the everyday lives of African Americans. Finding these works more personally meaningful and artistically expressive, he decided to dedicate himself to this type of subject, painting in a deliberately naive style. The exhibition includes Hayden's 100th Cavalry Trooper (1939), in which a black soldier on horseback on a country road is rendered in a simplified style with muted colors, reminiscent of early American decorative art.

After Wein's presentation, the audience turned enthusiastically to view or revisit the exhibited works. The gallery floor buzzed with excited conversations about the art, such as the woman in front of the Faith Ringgold work who shared explanations and artist's background with interested bystanders.

This viewer was struck by the number of works that included a theme of duality and project the vantage point of someone with outsider status. Some works suggested a self divided between emotional and self-protective, or between retiring and assertive. For example, the two girls portrayed in White's Skipping might be taken for two attitudes or aspects of the same child, one boldly looking outward and the other inward.

Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-1999) made the theme of alienation—in general, as an artist, and as an African American—a theme for most of his work. Lee-Smith grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where he studied art, honing his technique in composition, and was also involved in artistic dance and music. After developing a career as a painter in New York, in the 1950s Lee-Smith moved from using a social realist style, often depicting children in desolate surroundings, to a surrealistic approach, usually showing one to three adult subjects. His Man with Balloons (1960) shows two men standing on a deserted walled platform; at the right is a black man holding a tied bunch of pink and blue balloons, while far behind him at the (compositionally dominant) center stands a white man. From behind the platform on the left rises some kind of equipment that looks like a multi-armed crane dangling cables. The picture evokes many questions and possible interpretations, for example: What is the relationship between the two men? What is the equipment beyond the platform—an amusement park ride, to go with the balloons? Or is it something less benign—perhaps a construction crane controlled by the white man at the center?

Bob Thompson, Untitled (Pink and Blue Figures), 1962. Oil on canvas. 30 1/2 x 38 1/2 in. (77.5 x 97.8 cm). © Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY.

A striking work with an element of duality is Bob Thompson's painting Untitled (Pink and Blue Figures) (displayed above). Thompson (1937-1966) painted in a representational but expressionistic style, with flat shapes bright non-natural colors often in striking combinations. After growing up in Kentucky, Thompson studied briefly at Boston University and then went to Provincetown where he was strongly influenced by his study with expressionist Jan Müller. Thompson developed his career largely in New York, where he was close to the Beat circle of artists and writers, including Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Thompson was also an avid jazz listener, frequenting the Five Spot club.

In 1959, Thompson was involved in two of the first performance art events called Happenings. In 1960, Thompson received a fellowship that allowed him to spend three years Paris and Spain, working and studying older and modern European art. Thompson had a productive and promising career when it was sadly cut short by death from a drug overdose. In Untitled (Pink and Blue Figures), the two figures face each other in profile. The left-hand figure looks female and resembles a harpy, while features of the right-hand one are less distinct. A strong optical effect is created by the juxtaposition of the dominant colors, light pink and deep blue. The pink figure has features and hair that suggest African descent, while the blue one's race is less clear. A viewer of this painting might wonder: What kind of beings are these figures, and what is their relationship? Do the two figures, while perhaps not entirely human, have a racial identity, and if so, what does that signify?

As Wein pointed out, the works in Syncopated Rhythms were created by artists seeking universality. In my view, history shows that the public's perception of a work of art as simply art—rather than a particular kind of art—is subject to change, and that the artists represented in Syncopated Rhythms have contributed to that change.

Syncopated Rhythms is on view until January 22, 2006. Admission is free; the catalog is $25. For hours and directions, see the Boston University Art Gallery site, www.bu.edu/art/. To learn more about George Wein's professional and personal history, see to his recent memoir Myself Among Others: A Life in Music.

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