In an era of considerable curatorial excess, when most group shows come with elaborate themes, lofty statements of purpose and often unreadable essays, “African American Masters: Highlights From the Smithsonian American Art Museum” is distinguished by a refreshingly straightforward agenda.
One of five traveling exhibitions organized by the Smithsonian to coincide with the renovation of its headquarters in Washington, D.C., the show, now at the Long Beach Museum of Art, aims simply to share the gems of a fine collection with those outside its normal range.
There are no essays or scholarly analyses; the show makes no claim of being comprehensive. Each work has a short wall label, primarily anecdotal, but the presentation is otherwise unadorned.
The approach doesn’t simplify what is admittedly a broad and complicated subject, but rather gives the works room to speak for themselves, which they do with great potency.
Some of the works are political; some spiritual or personal. Some explore social life or history. Some are portraits; some landscapes. Some are cheerful, some contemplative, some melancholy or angry. The only real through line is a certain vivid quality, an energetic connection to life that, although rooted in a specifically African American context, tends to characterize master artists of any sort.
The earliest work and the only to reflect the romantic sensibility of the 19th century is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s exhilarating 1913 painting “Fishermen at Sea,” which depicts a modest boat cutting though vivid blue and green water, its bow raised to nearly vertical by the swell of a wave.
With the 1920s come the elegant portraits of James VanDerZee, a commercial photographer whose Harlem studio catered to that neighborhood’s emerging middle class and thus produced one of the most definitive documents of the Harlem Renaissance. In one photograph, we meet a beautiful young woman in a glamorous beaded dress, fine stole and gauzy, wide-brimmed hat; in another, a young man in a sharp suit and tie, his right thumb hooked urbanely in the pocket of his vest. Children of a new age, they beam with pride, hope and promise -- qualities that trace through most of the painting and sculpture from this period as well.
This pre-World War II work is characterized by a concerted focus on the nature of contemporary African American experience, urban and rural, along with an interest in the development of forms specifically suited to its expression.
The most spectacular examples are the deliriously energetic paintings of William H. Johnson, which outnumber those of any other artist included. Two of these are frenetic landscapes made in Europe and characterized by forms so full-bodied and vigorous that they appear to be gyrating, as if to music. The others are scenes of everyday life in black America -- “Early Morning Work,” “Going to Church,” and “Street Life, Harlem” are three titles -- rendered in a bold, flat, cartoonish style, archetypal works that nonetheless encapsulate the feeling of genuine, lived experience.
Other urban scenes from this period -- Allan Rohan Crite’s painting of women and girls gathered along a row of light-dappled park benches, Joseph Delaney’s view of a bustling Penn Station, and his brother Beauford Delaney’s portrayal of figures around a bonfire in a park -- have a similarly buoyant, enthusiastic energy.
Depictions of rural life are equally stirring, though somewhat more subdued -- tempered, perhaps, by the none-too-distant history of slavery and the contemporary difficulties imposed by the Depression. Malvin Gray Johnson’s 1934 painting of two young boys in bare feet and denim overalls is an especially memorable example, as is Robert McNeill’s 1938 photograph of a man perched high atop his plow, silhouetted nobly against the sky.
The sculptures from this period -- busts by Augusta Savage, Sargent Johnson, and William E. Artis, as well as a lovely 33-inch bronze figure by Richmond Barthe -- apply the same interest in authentic African American experience toward representations of the face and body, evoking the forms of ancient Egypt and tribal Africa to emphasize the distinctive beauty of black features.
A similar impulse characterizes James A. Porter’s gorgeous bust-length portrait of a man in a Senegalese soldier’s uniform (thought to be Senegalese dancer Francois Benga), whose strong features, thoughtful expression and easy posture give the impression of his being exceptionally pleasant company.
Two flat, collage-like paintings by Jacob Lawrence -- compelling works, though not his best -- serve as a bridge into the postwar era, where the optimism of earlier decades dissipates and a political undercurrent enters in.
The two most memorable paintings from this period -- a melancholy, Hopper-esque landscape by Hughie Lee-Smith called “The Stranger” and a fantastically strange biblical scene by Bob Thompson, “Descent From the Cross,” -- turn away from social life to explore more personal and spiritual sentiments.
The photographs of Roy DeCarava -- another highlight -- do capture the social spirit of the time, but though the amplification of very personal details: the awesome resolve on the face of a young freedom marcher, the tenderness between a couple dancing into shadow, the dignity of a young woman in a pristine white graduation dress crossing a New York sidewalk littered with rubbish.
In keeping with art historical shifts, the 1970s bring a number of strictly abstract works -- Felrath Hines’ 1976 “Yellow and Gray” is the most striking -- and the late 1980s and 1990s an element of self-conscious political critique. Among these works are Thornton Dial Sr.'s “Top of the Line (Steel),” a painfully convoluted mass of wood, metal, rope and paint, made shortly after the Los Angeles riots of 1992; Melvin Edwards’ welded steel sculptures, which are made from tools and farm implements but resemble weapons (these drew gasps of appreciation from several young boys in a passing school group the day I saw the show); and on the feminine end of the spectrum, a quilt by Faith Ringgold evoking numerous Harlem Renaissance luminaries.
This end of the show is patchier than the beginning, with a few less-than-memorable additions and several notable omissions, but such is to be expected without the benefit of 50 years’ hindsight.
“African American Masters” was intended to be a crowd pleaser -- to inspire -- and thus it sidesteps many of the heavier, less savory issues lurking behind so many of the works. That said, it is inspiring; and in keeping curatorial interference to a minimum, it still leaves room for interested viewers to look deeper.
‘African American Masters’
Highlights From the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Where: Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Open till 8 p.m. Thursdays.
Ends: Nov. 28
Price: $5 adults, $4 students and seniors
Contact: (562) 439-2119