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A Master’s View of Life : Virtuoso Muralist John Biggers Is Given a Major, Deserving Retrospective

TIMES ART CRITIC

Imagine finding a lost piece of your own past. Say you run across a completely forgotten composition you wrote in high school. Not only does it stir up a hive of honeyed nostalgia, you’re additionally delighted that it got an A. Discovering the art of John Biggers is a lot like that.

He’s a veteran African American artist based in Houston and Gastonia, N.C., whose work is surveyed in a full-dress, five-decade, 127-work retrospective visiting the California Afro-American Museum in Exposition Park. Called “The Art of John Biggers: View From the Upper Room,” it was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia. Its guest curator was art historian Alvia J. Wardlaw of Texas Southern University, where the artist taught for more than 30 years.

With backers like that, Biggers can hardly be classified as an unknown, but judging by the list of lenders, he is largely a regional hero.

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The work itself offers every intrinsic reason for being better-known. Biggers is a virtuoso draftsman, designer and muralist. The lost pieces of the past he brings us are the days of the WPA, Regionalism a la Thomas Hart Benton, the great Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and social realists from Paul Cadmus to Ben Shahn.

The youngest of them was 20 years older than Biggers. In terms of the genealogy of art fashions, Biggers should have been a Pop artist or, at the very least, an Abstract Expressionist. Since he clearly has the ability to do anything he wants, why was he not more trendy?

In subject, Biggers’ oeuvre is about the community of black people. Until the ‘50s it limned sharecroppers and the urban poor. Then he traveled to Africa and absorbed the life and rituals of its people into his art.

Even when the work depicts anguish, Biggers’ art is largely celebratory. Many of his murals memorialize the accomplishments of his race, such as “The History of Negro Education in Morris County, Texas.” The work is dignified and devoid of rancor or self-pity. But by employing the art styles of the Depression era, he evokes their call for social justice.

He was born in Gastonia in 1924, son of a schoolteacher and minister, the youngest of seven. Hard times triggered a great black migration north, but the family decided to stick it out. Biggers’ dad died as John turned 13, which didn’t make life any easier. Black schools seem to have become a kind of surrogate father to the boy. In 1941, he enrolled at the Hampton Institute to train as a plumber. Luckily, a sympathetic teacher, Viktor Lowenfeld, encouraged his art and included his mural “Dying Soldier” in a student exhibition he organized for the Museum of Modern Art that opened in 1943. Biggers was just 19 and serving in the Navy.

Even today, the preparatory drawings for “Dying Soldier” are remarkable. The first panel shows an infantryman dying in a tangle of barbed wire. There’s an almost psychotic intensity to the image of a youth with his short life passing before him. One of the remaining panels shows the memory of an unwelcome teenage pawing of a girl in an alley. In his last moment of life, even such mixed memories seem precious.

It sets the stage for an exhibition one views with the constant, admiring thought, “This guy is absolutely himself.” Early pictures like “Garbage Man” show the ghetto of black urban life in a way that manages to be funky, folksy, masterful, angry and amused all at once. Biggers became an artist who could tell a story with pictures in any style he chose. “Women Walking to Market” stylizes a row of African moms to bring out the humorous, sexy rhythm of their gait. African sculpture seems constantly on his mind, but he knows how to flesh it out so it appears both iconic and human.

In 1957, he made his first trip to Africa. The largest of the resulting works on view is nearly 9 feet wide and depicts a colorful “Jubilee: Ghana Harvest Festival.” Paradoxically, the work becomes more European in style. It’s very slick and borders on a kind of illustration. Instead of putting one off, however, the clear delight the artist seems to take in both the scene and his ability to render it so lucidly is infectious. It reminds you of those great Vernonese murals where bravura becomes an end in itself.

In the ‘60s, his portrait drawing of James Baldwin carries virtuosity beyond slickness into a realm that borders on the occult. More recent work like the “Shotgun” paintings crank the depiction of black life up to a virtually metaphysical melange of decorative design and sculptural form.

Biggers works in ways that lead other artists to grief. He gets away with it because his spirit is like that of a great jazz musician who just happens to be able to play anything on any instrument. He’s not showing off because everything is done in the service of the music of life.

* California Afro-American Museum, 600 State Drive, Exposition Park, through April 21. Closed Mondays. (213) 744-7432.


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