Curator’s Musings ~ Modern Heroics: 75 Years of African-American Expressionism at the Newark Museum
Building on the Museum’s historic role as a leader in collecting and exhibiting art by African-American artists, Modern Heroics: 75 Years of African-American Expressionism at the Newark Museum features 34 works of painting and sculpture by leading modern and contemporary artists. Using the permanent collection to trace a period of time—from the 1940s to the present—the exhibition is comprised almost entirely of selections from the Museum’s permanent collection of American Art. Some highlights of Modern Heroics include large-scale paintings by Norman Lewis, Purvis Young, Emma Amos, Bob Thompson and Mickalene Thomas, among others; and sculptural works by Chakaia Booker, Thornton Dial, Kenseth Armstead and Kevin Sampson.
The Newark Museum is known for its very early and sustained support of African-American art and folk and self-taught art; Modern Heroics draws from both of these notable collections. Mythical and universal subject matter, the bold use of color, expressive brushwork and a direct engagement with materials are some of the themes that Modern Heroics explores. Approximately half of the works on display—several of which are exhibited for the first time—have been created by self-taught artists. Combining works from the permanent collection with those by living artists who may not be represented at the Museum allows us to bring new perspectives to the permanent collection. This process of exhibiting and collecting in tandem has allowed the Newark Museum to grow from a collection of a single work by an African- American artist in 1929—Ossawa Tanner’s The Good Shepherd, (1922)—to a collection that today numbers more than 360 objects.
In 1931 Newark hosted an exhibition dedicated to African-American art for the first time —a group exhibition organized by the Harmon Foundation, one of the earliest supporters of African-American art. From 1944 onward, the Museum has organized numerous original group shows of African-American art, an exhibition program that serves to showcase Newark’s rich holdings and to bring new artists into the growing collection. Modern Heroics traces a lineage of expressionist strategies from Beauford Delaney’s small, vigorously painted The Burning Bush (1941) to Mickalene Thomas’s monumental collage painting Landscape with Camouflage (2012). Delaney’s work refers to the Old Testament passage in which God appears to Moses as a burning bush. The artist conveys the divinity and the drama of the story by depicting the sky, the bush and the surrounding landscape united in a surging, multilayered abstract form. Similarly, a number of other paintings in the exhibition combine conceptual and narrative approaches, relying on expressive distortions of the human form to set a mood. For instance, in Purvis Young’s description of the street life of his Miami neighborhood, the artist conveys emotion through the expressive gestures of his abstracted figures.
Many of the other artists represented in Modern Heroics have strong connections with Newark and with the Museum. In fact, several were either born in Newark or live and work here, including Chakaia Booker, Dmitri Wright, Kevin Sampson, Gladys Grauer and Shoshanna Weinburger. Beauford Delaney—whose 1943 gift of the drawing Portrait of a Man helped to build the collection—and Norman Lewis are two of the older generation of artists who have historical connections to the Newark Museum. In 1944 and 1971, Lewis lent several of his paintings for exhibitions at the Museum. In 2004 a group of works by Lewis entered the Museum’s permanent collection through the bequest of Irene Wheeler, two of which are on view in Modern Heroics, including the large-scale oil painting Carnival (1957).
—Tricia Laughlin Bloom, Ph.D., Curator of American Art
This article originally appeared in Dana magazine, an exclusive benefit for Museum members. For additional information or to become a member, visit newarkmuseum.org.
Saturday, October 15, 2016, (9:30 am–3 pm)
Modern Heroics: Revisiting African-American Art at the Newark Museum
This one-day symposium will bring together scholars of African- American art and artists from the exhibition. Speakers will include Lowery Stokes Sims, Curator Emerita, Museum of Arts and Design, and Leslie King-Hammond, Graduate Dean Emeritus and Founding Director of the Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Hrag Varntanian, Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic will moderate a panel discussion featuring artists from the exhibition. For more information, visit newarkmuseum.org.