Originally created 04/18/99

Black artists' works restored for exhibit

NEW YORK -- One painting was covered with soot, the artist's name invisible. Restored, the image of a black butler working as a free man before the emancipation of slaves now shines from the canvas.

A mural of blacks who changed history had been rolled up for decades, creased and cracked. The huge 1940 canvas by Charles White, Progress of the American Negro, now has a new life at the entrance to the Studio Museum in Harlem.

The paintings are part of To Conserve a Legacy, a 200-work exhibit from six historically black American colleges -- art repositories for generations of black Americans who had been excluded from the cultural mainstream.

The show is part of a $1.3 million project that resulted in the restoration and documentation of 1,400 works belonging to the half dozen schools. As a result, students learned conservation techniques to which few had been exposed.

"I wondered why there were so few minorities in conservation," said Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, co-curator of the exhibit.

The exhibit's other main curator, Richard Powell, said the art reflects the modern American experience, "but it's not the story of American art you will get from a museum like the Whitney," the New York City museum specializing in American works.

"These are colleges founded after emancipation, and their concept was that of freedom."

The show documents the price of that freedom.

A section titled American Expressionism shows the naked body of a lynched black man, his head twisted to one side, a noose around the broken neck. The 1936 wooden sculpture by Nat Werner hasn't been exhibited very much because the image is so graphic.

Another in-your-face painting, John Biggers' Old Coffee Drinker from 1945, depicts a man in tattered clothes with his toes sticking out of huge ragged shoes. He clutches his cup with world-weary stoicism.

Mr. Biggers' "wasn't interested in things pretty, but in the guts and grime," Dr. Powell said of the canvas, which had been rolled up for years in the artist's Texas garage.

Other artists fascinated with the education of a newly freed people -- in everything from agriculture to traditional academics -- are exhibited in a section called Training the Head, the Hand, and the Heart.

A series of photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston, believed to be the first female press photographer, shows students at Hampton College, where blacks and American Indians were both trying to enter American society.

Another pioneer educational institution for blacks was Tuskegee University in Alabama, established in 1881 by Booker T. Washington. The fine-art collection he contributed to the school is part of the exhibition.

Many of the artists tapped into European traditions, while telling a quintessentially American story. "Young African-American artists began looking at their world using European techniques," Dr. Powell said.

He pointed to a marble sculpture in neoclassical style, Forever Free, whose heady liberation spirit is very American -- a woman kneeling by a standing man, his broken shackles raised above his head. The sculptor was Edmonia Lewis, who was half black and half Indian.

"These are canonical pieces in African-American history," Dr. Powell says of the art that is part of a section titled Forever Free: Emancipation Visualized.

Much of the exhibition highlights such artists as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Horace Pippin and Henry Tanner, but the schools' holdings also include work by artists of other ethnic backgrounds.

From Fisk University come paintings donated by Georgia O'Keeffe, who also gave to Fisk some photographs taken by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz.

And the avant-garde work of the late Josef Albers is displayed along with a geometric painting by William T. Williams, a prolific contemporary artist still working in New York.

The exhibition that started at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts was organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., and the Studio Museum, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Amid the pain of history, the exhibit offers much visual pleasure. A 1934 night street scene by Archibald Motley, Black Belt, is a palate of vivid colors depicting a festive crowd.

In addition to Fisk, Hampton and Tuskegee, the art comes from Howard University, Clark Atlanta University and North Carolina Central University.

As a result of the project, funded by sponsors including AT&T and the Ford Motor Co., students helped revive works such as Elizabeth Catlett's Negro Woman, whose wooden face had fallen off. The subject's high cheekbones are again illuminated by eyes made of onyx.

And the students breathed new life into the 1858 portrait of the Baltimore butler by Thomas Waterman Wood from the Howard collection.

"It was covered in soot, the frame was green. And we only saw the artist's signature after cleaning," said Dr. Powell, chairman of the art history department at Duke University.

The show remains at the Studio Museum until July 11, then travels to five of the universities as well as the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Art Institute of Chicago.


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