Some of the Art Notes of A Solitary Walker: On Richard Powell’s Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century and Other Great Artists

By Daniel Garrett

Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century by Richard J. Powell, Thames & Hudson, 1997
501 Great Artists, General Editor Stephen Farthing, Quintessence/Barron’s, 2008

I have been reading Richard J. Powell’s study Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (Thames and Hudson, 1997), a book I first encountered several years ago: it’s a history of black diaspora visual culture, with a focus on African-American painting, sculpture, photography, and film, though it also comments on culture in Africa, the United Kingdom, and the Caribbean. ..It is a great opportunity to reflect on art of different kinds…

I. Notes on Looking

I think that when I first began to visit galleries and museums regularly, I would spend as much time reading as looking at the art: the art descriptions, whether in sheets of descriptions and lists or wall labels, were read for whatever information or insight they might give.  I could spend three hours or more at a museum, seeing each thing, reading about each thing, and leave exhausted, my eyes red, my legs stiff.  It took time—maybe years—for me to begin to relax, and just look at the art, allowing what was interesting to hold my attention, and what was not as something I could pass quickly and guiltlessly.  If I wanted more information than what was on the canvas—if I had an additional question—then I would read what was available.  What caught my attention during one visit might be the same thing that attracted me during the next visit—or not.  My visits became much shorter, more frequent, more entertaining, more intellectually engaging.  I thought more about what I was seeing, and I felt a greater transmission of energy from the work to me: the work of Rembrandt, Cezanne, Monet, Thomas Eakins, Gauging, John Singer Sargent, Picasso, Edward Hopper, Wilfredo Lam, Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns, Eric Fischl, many others.  I could be held by a small detail or a large vision, a face, a figure, a landscape, a color or a form, an atmosphere or a mood.  Finally, seeing art became as much a spiritual as aesthetic experience.  It can be hard to convey that to people for whom art is an alien enterprise.  When you recommend art, they can respond as if you are advocating education, pretension, or tedium, rather than pleasure.  That is very sad, but understandable.  Looking at art can be a strange experience, whether or not you have taken classes in art.  Each piece is different, each thing may be telling you something unique; and so many of our responses are conditioned by habit.  Being open is key.

There are artists I like but would like to know more about: among others, Jan Van Eyck, Paulo Uccello, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Albrecht Durer, Antonia da Corregio, Paolo Veronese, Annibale Carraci, Diego Velazquez, Claude Lorraine, Canaletto, Joshua Reynolds, Goya, Jacques-Louis David, J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, Theo Gericault, Eugene Delacroix, Adolph Menzel, Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, Gwen John, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, Robert Delauney, Max Ernst, Rufino Tamayo, David Smith, Sigmar Polke, Chris Ofili, Jenny Saville, and Shirana Shahbazi.  (Many of these artists can be seen in 501 Great Artists, from project editors Victoria Wiggins and Chrissy Williams and editors Rebecca Gee and Lucinda Hawksley, under editorial director Jane Laing and general editor Stephen Farthing).

II. Art & Trash

How much reality can art hold?  The late sixteenth-century Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio drew from life and painted that, even included known figures in mythological scenes, with some of his work getting disapproval for its realism.  Gustave Courbet painted peasants at a country funeral, A Burial at Ornans (1849), a scene of surprising and simple dignity.  Marcel Duchamp, in the early twentieth century, signed a readymade urinal R. Mutt, and called it art.  Robert Rauschenberg put pieces together, some of which might have been considered garbage, in what were called “combine” pictures or sculptures.  In the quest for beauty, is what used to be left out of art, the mundane and the trashy, what is real, what is true?  Or is the essence, the ideal, the accomplishment of virtue against ordinary and great odds, the true?  Is the presence of what had been absent in previous times the content that makes modern art real, and true?  Is the garbage now perceptible in art—whether painting and sculpture, film, music, or literature—what makes art more recognizable and relevant, or much less meaningful?

Serious art, often made for a selected few rather than a large mass, has often struggled with how much fact, or truth, to let in.  It can be interesting to note what happens when revelations reach a popular level.  Watching The ChangeUp (2011), a movie with Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, directed by David Dobkin, I was compelled to think again about comic vulgarity in popular film.  In the movie, two friends, one a businessman married with children, and the other a drug-using most unemployed actor, envy the stability or freedom in the other’s lives, and after a quirk of magic, each man’s personality or spirit wake up in each other’s bodies.  Bateman has mastered the ordinary part of a capable and professional, middle-class man who is not particularly self-assertive, and Reynolds, often an attractive go-getter, is proving himself able to take on an increasing range of roles, as here, as a dopey, flaky man.  The film, which contains some realism about adult responsibility and immature laziness, contains a lot of humor regarding the body, not only in terms of sexual references but with what used to be called toilet humor (there are several toilet scenes in this movie).  Of course, I thought of other films with a similar sensibility, in which what used to be unsayable now seems a great reason for, or strategy in, doing a film: Seth Gordon’s Horrible Bosses (2011), in which Jennifer Aniston plays a dentist that harasses her assistant with graphic sexual language; and the Farrelly Brothers’ Hall Pass (2011), in which wives give their husbands permission for short-term cheating (during the course of the film we are presented with contrasting full-frontal male nudity—showing male genitals used to be taboo).  All three films allow a certain slippage, a certain ambiguity, in how the men relate to each other’s bodies (in Horrible Bosses, there is a brief talk about whom would be the most rape-worthy in prison; and in The ChangeUp, after the men change bodies, each notices intimate things about the other’s body, and one says he is tempted to kiss his own male member, and later the other masturbates while inhabiting his friend’s body).  It is the kind of consciousness that would not exist without feminism and the gay liberation movement, but, while absorbing the rewards and mining the humor, pays no significant regard to political consciousness.  The thing is, these movies offer scenarios that many people can relate to: they are situation comedies of work and love focused on attractive people entering middle age and confronting the choices they have made; and they cannot be said to be merely superficial or exploitative—but the vulgar humor in them is a great part of their power and appeal.

While allowing for the use of waste in art and entertainment, what are we giving up?  While applauding or laughing at all this shit, what are we doing without?

III. Drawing

I looked at a video from North Light of artist Joy Thomas teaching how to draw the clothed figure a few days ago: she spoke about and demonstrated the importance of selecting a good model with appropriate and diverse changes of dress, and establishing the allowed time for a portrait (three hours?); of preparing the paper with charcoal dust (sprinkling, rubbing it in); of isolating the space on the canvas that the artist wants to use; of sizing the figure and transferring one’s measurements to the canvas (a ruler or a pencil can be used to establish a canon–say how many human heads go into the total human figure from top to bottom, left to right: it’s about seven or eight, depending on the effect one wants–ordinary or heroic); of identifying the structures in the portrait to be painted (the lines, the circles and squares, the shifts in form); and beginning with a preliminary sketch to warm up (something that can be easily erased with a certain kind of cloth); of trying to capture just enough detail to suggest the figure and allowing the viewer to complete the picture; of the importance of “marking” the positions of the model (with charcoal or with removable tape) before she or he takes a break, etcetera.  It was an illustration of how much thought and work goes into art, even into a simply drawn portrait.

IV. Note on “Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century”

I have been reading Richard J. Powell’s study Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (Thames and Hudson, 1997), a book I first encountered several years ago: it’s a history of black diaspora visual culture, with a focus on African-American painting, sculpture, photography, and film, though it also comments on culture in Africa, the United Kingdom, and the Caribbean.  It is a remarkably detailed and thoughtful discussion of both aesthetics and politics, but I really appreciate the illustrations of paintings, sculpture, and photographs from films, such as William H. Johnson’s contemplative, handsome self-portrait (page 48); Aaron Douglas’s graphic mural in tribute to Harriet Tubman, a blue and gray communal scene in which a woman holds up a broken chain (page 65); John Robinson’s self-portrait, in which his head and shoulders are surrounded by paintings, his profile and consciousness are inseparable from, and possibly indecipherable without, his work (page 86); Rose Piper’s simultaneous abstract and representational painting, “Slow Down Freight Train,” a stark depiction in which a red-shirted, black-trousered man looks out on a dark landscape (101); Bob Thompson’s jazz celebration, the colorful and idyllic “Garden of Music” (104); Raymond Saunders’ 1972 painting “Jack Johnson,” which features the famous boxer as a figure of near impenetrable blackness, and seems to predict the future work of Jean-Michel Basquiat (123); Sam Gilliam’s large red and black work “Lion’s Rock Arc,” which could be an explosion of roses or blood—or simply paint (126-127); Edward Clark’s abstract, mathematical “Ife Rose” (134); and Barkley Hendricks’ finely controlled, realistic (and witty) nude self-portrait called “Brilliantly Endowed” (153).  I like the talent, intelligence, and imagination in the work—and the same is true of the sculpture and photographs from film.  Edna Manley’s sculpture, a pale solid figure with a raised arm, “Pocomania,” from 1936, again a work that combines the abstract and representative, remains impressive (page 72).  Idealistic is the head of poet George Lamming in Barbadian sculptor Karl Broodhagen’s somewhat rough looking piece (88); and instantly recognizable is Martin Puryear’s work (165).  I love film, so the photographs from Cabin in the Sky (page 93), Black Orpheus (111), Looking for Langston (210), Sugar Cane Alley (217), and Daughters of the Dust (219) are easily seductive.  The man in a tuxedo walking toward a second naked man suggests desire, and possibly compulsion, as well as elegance and power, in the photo from Looking for Langston; and there is family and female strength and cultural pride in the group portrait of three women from Daughters of the Dust.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  The commentary on art above originally appeared on the pages of his internet site The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker.