In the sweep of American art history, the brilliance of African American art and its practitioners has too often been overlooked. As recently as the late twentieth century, when America’s place in world culture was dominant and with New York well established as the country’s cultural capital, the benefits of those triumphs were still routinely denied to artists of color.
Times have changed, with more works by African American artists now on view in galleries and museums. Moreover, America’s current political environment makes art by African Americans profoundly relevant, as relevant, perhaps even more so, than at any other time in our history. But representation of these artists in the context of marketability has not kept pace. Though artists of color have been gaining recognition and critical respect over the recent decades, their work continues to be undervalued in the market. This, too, is poised to change.
Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden, Richard Mayhew, Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson and Charles White have all earned a proud place in the larger panorama of American Art history. Their work is now the collections of major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution and many others in the United States and abroad. Like all artists who struggle for recognition, it took commitment and grit to get there. But in the case of these artists, it also took unwavering courage to survive the slights and disregard too long accorded them by the custodians of American culture.
These 5 iconic artists were among the generation who cracked the wall of white indifference to art made by African Americans, creating openings for today’s artists of color to crash through. Furthermore, the cultural importance of these five artists has helped to develop an expanding market for African American art. Though still financially undervalued, this developing market serves to strengthen the importance of African American art economically as well as its relevance culturally. This encouraging environment provides acquisition and investment opportunities for general art admirers, collectors wishing to enhance their holdings, and for newcomers to the art market.
Each of these artists has earned their place in the sweep of American art not just through their obvious talent and their commitment to an artist’s life, but also through their resolute belief in the beauty and legitimacy of African American culture. For Faith Ringgold (born 1930), belief in her cultural legitimacy was twinned with her commitment to the fight for women’s equality. As a young black woman with a newly minted Master of Fine Arts Degree from the City University of New York in 1959, Ringgold faced a daunting art world still dominated by the white male angst of Abstract Expressionism. In 1963, with the Civil Rights Movement ascendant and the Women’s Movement on the horizon, Ringgold developed a personal visual vocabulary expressive of African American and female experience. From this new consciousness Ringgold went on to execute some of her most important works; among them, the twenty-painting cycle The American People, and later, the extraordinary body of work known as the Story Quilts. With these and other series, Ringgold proved to be not just a master image maker, but a master storyteller. Her narrative works synthesize Ringgold’s command of the formalities of art and weds them to African American and women’s traditions.
A founder of the art activist group The Spiral, Romare Bearden (1922-1988) took the African American community’s anger at the daily denial of their rights and reformulated it as passion. Bearden’s love for his people and their culture—the snappy urbanity of Harlem, the dirt roads of the rural South, the lushness and mysticism of the Caribbean—led him to interpret African American life and anger as creative, both in struggle and in joy. His series of lithographs of musicians, including the important works “Bopping at Birdland,” “Louisiana Serenade” and “Tenor Sermon,” are homages to a black creative spirit which not only survived oppression but thrived as music. Bearden’s collages, assembled from bits and pieces of the real world—torn scraps from magazines, advertisements, etc., and often worked with elements of drawing or swaths of paint—reflects the fractured reality of African American life but an underlying realism binds the composition and thus the life together. Confident in his African American identity, Bearden was therefore unafraid to incorporate art’s worldly traditions of elegant composition, fine draftsmanship and color theory. Together, they earned him the regard as one of the finest collagists America has ever produced.
Painter Richard Mayhew (born 1924) is more concerned with the essence of reality than its facts. Mayhew’s emotional and spiritual connection to the natural world results from his dual ancestry as African American and Native American: his father was African American and Shinnecock; his mother, African American and Cherokee. The strong spirituality central to African American and Native American cultures inform not only Mayhew’s paintings, but also the process by which he creates them. In a 2009 interview, Mayhew describes his process as “being in a trance” and being “inside the painting” spiritually as his brush moves across the canvas. Thus, his landscapes are visions of nature’s spiritual truth rather than its factual details. Moreover, as a young man in New York in the 1950s, the freedom of Abstract Expressionism appealed to Mayhew, its “action painting” process allowing him take the strengths of his formal art training and release them into emotional and spiritual experiences he revealed through paint. Mayhew’s work, unlike many of his contemporaries, did not specifically address African American life, but he was nevertheless committed to the activism shared by his colleagues of color in bringing Civil Rights issues to the fore. As a member of The Spiral, Mayhew was part of the discussion about the role of African American art and artists in American culture.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (1940-2015) created art born of the African concept of Sankofa, the act of reaching back into the past, retrieving its essence, and bringing its richness into the present. Robinson’s art is thus an art of memories: the large memories of a culture, the intimate memories of a family. Influenced in childhood by the stories of her great-aunt Cordelia, who had been born into slavery, Robinson grew up steeped in the lore of Africa, African Americans, and the contemporary stories of her close knit family and Columbus, Ohio neighbors. It’s not surprising, then, that in addition to her formal art training, the materials for Robinson’s drawings, paintings, sculptures and artist books are the everyday materials of memory: buttons and cloth used by her mother; a mixture composed of mud, animal grease, twigs, clay and glue which her father called “Hogmawg;” and scraps retrieved from friends and neighbors. What emerged from these odds and ends was an art that digs deep into cultural memory. Among Robinson’s many awards and grants, a 1979 grant from the Ohio Arts Council enabled her to travel to Africa to experience the culture of her ancestry first hand. Sketching, drawing, recording the people of the continent and the sites of the slave trade, it was during this trip when Brenda Lynn Robinson became Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson. The name, Aminah, meaning faithful, was an honor given her by a religious leader in Egypt. Robinson’s body of work includes the important “People of the Book” series inspired by her trip to Israel, and the extraordinary “Poindexter” series depicting contemporary African American life. Robinson’s oeuvre still speaks to us, her art maintaining—even strengthening—its relevance in today’s cultural environment.
Social Realist Charles White (1918-1979) employed elegance of line and richness of tone to create images of raw political and social power. The exquisite beauty of White’s paintings and works on paper draws us in with their appeal to our finer senses even as they school us in the often hard reality of African American life in the twentieth century. White said he made art to “say what I have to say” and “fight what I have to fight.” Art was is voice and his weapon. Growing up in a hardscrabble neighborhood of Chicago, and accompanying his mother, even as a toddler, to the houses she cleaned for white families, White became aware at an early age of the differences between the lives and opportunities for black people and white. Instilled with this social conscience, White’s formal art training at the Art Institute of Chicago, and later at New York’s At Student’s League, enabled him to bring the realities, both harsh and joyful, of African American life into acute focus, penetrating the mind of the viewer. The beauty of his line and tone attracts our attention; the power of his imagery demands our conscience. After his World War Two Army service, White furthered his commitment to the art of Social Realism during his two year stay in Mexico in the late 1940s, where he worked with Mexico’s renowned socio-political muralists and created lithographs at Mexico City’s Taller de Graphica. Returning to the United States, White was honored with his first New York solo show. The show was mounted by ACA in 1947, one of the very few American galleries to exhibit the work of African American artists. Among the notable works in the show were the iconic “Two Heads,” and the majestic “General Moses.” As a result of this important exposure to the New York art establishment, in 1950 the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased White’s ink-on-cardboard “Preacher” for their permanent collection.
All of the artists in ACA’s upcoming exhibitions of work by African American artists—Ringgold, Bearden, Mayhew, Robinson and White—have been given major market exposure at ACA Galleries early in their careers. The gallery is proud to have been pivotal in bringing the work of these artists to wider attention, and to contribute to their national and international acclaim. The investment value of these artists is poised to follow.