Elizabeth Catlett, a sculptor and printmaker who was widely considered one of the most important African American artists of the 20th century despite having lived most of her life in Mexico, has died. She was 96.
Catlett, whose sculptures became symbols of the civil rights movement, died Monday at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, said her eldest son, Francisco.
Her imposing blend of art and social consciousness mirrored that of German painter Max Beckmann, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and other artists of the mid-20th century who used art to critique power structures.
From the start of her career, Catlett “was part of a broad political milieu” that encompassed artists of many ethnicities who were committed to social justice, Melanie Anne Herzog, who wrote the 2000 biography “Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico,” told The Times in 2005.
Catlett’s decision to focus on her ethnic identity, and its association with slavery and class struggles, was bold and unconventional in the 1930s and ‘40s, when African Americans were expected “to assimilate themselves into a more Eurocentric ethic,” art curator Lowery Stokes Sims said in a 1993 National Public Radio interview.
Confident that art could foster social change, Catlett confronted the most disturbing injustices against African Americans, including lynchings and beatings. One of her best-known sculptures, “Target” (1970), was created after police shot a Black Panther; it shows a black man’s head framed by a rifle sight.
But she also made far more hopeful statements with lithographs and sculptures of Harriet Tubman, a slave who led others to freedom, and Sojourner Truth, a slave turned abolitionist. Catlett often returned to the enduring theme of mother and child, and her 1946 series of prints called “The Negro Woman” reflected the heroic dignity she saw in her subjects.
“I wanted to show the history and strength of all kinds of black women,” Catlett told the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times in 1992. “Working women, country women, urban women, great women in the history of the United States.”
Catlett’s early work was grounded in a figurative style that gave way to Cubism as she moved on to semi-abstract sculptures, which she came to prefer after studying the form as a graduate student in the late 1930s.
The American South and African American history remained prominent in her sculptures. “Black Unity” from 1968 shows a burnished mahogany fist on one side and African mask-like visages on the other. “Homage to My Black Young Sisters” from the same year is a red-cedar abstract of a woman with raised head and fist.
The two simple, stylized pieces “became not only symbols of a movement, but also Catlett’s own signed missive that her head and heart were rooted deeply in the struggle,” Lynell George wrote in 1999 in The Times.
Usually in print form, Catlett also portrayed African American male subjects — factory workers, middle-class men in jacket and tie, and prominent cultural figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
After moving to Mexico in the 1940s to study ceramics, she remained committed to African American causes but also took up the struggles of Mexican workers. She referred to “my two people” and sometimes blended their physical features in her art.
In Mexico City, she quickly found artistic soul mates in the Taller de Grafica Popular, a collective known for mass-produced posters supporting populist causes. She gained a level of acceptance she never knew at home and married fellow workshop artist Francisco Mora in the late 1940s.
“There’s a different attitude toward art in Mexico,” she said in the St. Petersburg Times interview. “As an artist you’re greatly admired rather than looked at as something strange.”
Even after becoming a Mexican citizen in 1962, she continued to champion progressive black causes. Her lithographs from the late ‘60s include images of Malcolm X and Angela Davis, two leading social activists of the time.
“Elizabeth Catlett is part of a history of protest art in America,” Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, director of the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., said in a 2005 Times interview. “She made statements in her art about the human condition, about social justice and injustice.”
The collective’s left-leaning political affiliations partly led the U.S. government to declare Catlett an “undesirable alien” in 1959, when she was briefly held in a roundup of Americans living in Mexico who were suspected of communist activity.
Throughout the 1960s, she was denied a U.S. visa, a development that — combined with her race — made her a relatively obscure figure in mainstream American art.
The granddaughter of freed slaves, Catlett was born April 15, 1915, in Washington, D.C. Her father was a math professor who died before she was born, and her mother worked as a truant officer.
Turned away from the Carnegie Institute of Technology because she was “colored,” Catlett earned a bachelor’s degree in art in the mid-1930s from Howard University, a historically black institution.
She joined the Works Progress Administration, the Depression-era program that employed many starving artists, and was exposed to Rivera and his fellow Mexican muralist Miguel Covarrubias, whose politics influenced her future works.
Catlett taught art at a North Carolina high school for a time but was discouraged by the inequality in pay between black and white teachers. She left for what is now the University of Iowa, earning a master’s in fine art in 1940.
Faculty member Grant Wood — best known for “American Gothic,” his 1930 painting of an Iowa farm couple — mentored her. He encouraged Catlett to do as he did and use her culture and community as the subject of her art.
“I’d never been around white people in all my life except to fight with them,” Catlett later said of Wood’s unexpected support.
For her graduate thesis, she sculpted “Negro Mother and Child,” which won first prize in the 1940 Columbia Exposition, a Chicago exhibit of African American artists.
When she was named chairwoman of Dillard University’s art department in New Orleans in 1940, African Americans were not allowed in the park surrounding the New Orleans Museum of Art. Catlett got around the prohibition by having her students bused to the museum door.
In 1941, Catlett became involved with the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago, a magnet for progressive African Americans. She met artist Charles White there and after they married they moved to New York City.
She joined the faculty of the George Washington Carver School, a community learning center in Harlem run by progressives and radicals. At Carver, her “conviction that her art should be directed to the masses of working people took root,” Herzog wrote in the Catlett biography.
By the late 1940s, the artist was in Mexico City and soon divorced from her first husband.
Through the print-making collective, she came to know Mora when he offered to teach her Spanish. He died in 2002.
She is survived by their three sons, Francisco, a jazz musician; Juan, a filmmaker; and David, an artist; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
In 1959, she became the first woman to chair the sculpture department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a position she held until retiring in 1975.
When the Studio Museum in Harlem staged a major exhibit of her art in 1971, the State Department granted Catlett a visa after receiving an outpouring of petitions on her behalf.
The exhibit bolstered Catlett’s growing reputation as a leading artist and voice for African Americans. Many other exhibitions followed in the U.S. and Mexico, and her work is collected by major museums.
When the California African-American Museum exhibited her work in Los Angeles in 1999, Catlett told The Times: “Seeing all those people sends a message that maybe I’m doing a little bit of what I wanted to do, which is to bring African American people into museums. And I really believe that if it is something they can relate to, they will come.”
Rourke is a former Times staff writer. Nelson is a Times staff writer.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report from Mexico City.