The first thing you’ll notice about The Hewitt Collection of African American Art exhibit at MoAD is how good the signage is. I had to keep reminding myself to look at the art because I was so caught up in what the artists had to say. For example, there’s this from Charles H. Alston:
More often than not, the painting tells one what it is going to be. All of my paintings start very abstractly. I just throw some color on the canvas, push it around, and then sit back and relax and look at it, and various patterns become suggestive.“
It’s an important reminder that process is often more messy, difficult to define and intuitive than the product may suggest. In contrast with non-artistic endeavors where planning is everything, the polish of accomplished artists can often be the fruit of years of experimentation with the acceptance of failure as a possible outcome.
It’s quotes like Alston’s that baffle when faced by a work like his Woman Washing Clothes (images from National Civil Rights Museum website). The picture is nearly all curves, the lines of the kettle a reflection of the stooped body. Alston exploits the curve for all it’s worth, using it as the natural indicator of motion, more suggestive than any “speed lines” you might find in a cartoon panel. The picture moves: the position of the hands one slightly above the other, kneading, completes the illusion. It has that element of freshness that you see in studio concept art that somehow gets lost in translation by the time it becomes the finished work. And yet, the picture is so well composed that it doesn’t seem cropped from a larger scene. It fits the panel perfectly and the large shapes of kettle, legs and arms are balanced by the detail of the kerchief where the squiggles depicting black and white print whirl and circle one another like fish in a pond.
Ernest Crichlow, like Alston, was a beneficiary of the WPA, which the former is quoted as calling on his signage “the greatest stimulant the American art scene had ever had.” Traces of the WPA’s work being still evident at a number of San Francisco sites, making such claims seems less remote to us in the Bay Area, but it helps confirm what Conservatives always like to play down: that the New Deal was instrumental in reviving a nation’s sense of its potential, aside from its attempts at economic stimulus. Crichlow’s work nearly dominated by visit, encompassing as it does so many styles and demonstrating mastery in them all. Woman in a Yellow Dress, a collage with tempera on paper, refuses to fall neatly into any movement or school, the planes of the face nearly crossing over into the Cubist, yet still realistic enough to be individual. Like in the work of Klimt, the dress is nearly abstracted, decorative, yet again somehow suggesting of uniqueness, detailed. The effect is a powerful interplay between place and portraiture.
The theme of waiting is explored exhaustively. There is what I expect is one of his most recognizable works, a child’s face behind a chain link fence, as well as any number of postures suggesting resignation mingled with varying degrees of expectation. My favorite is Woman in a Blue Coat, which at first seemed to me a depiction of weariness. After coming back to it several times, there is perhaps a trace of a bemused smile there as well. Crichlow’s subjects, caught in inaction, suspended between two states, remind the jaded how fascinating it can be to give your fellow bus and train commuters a good stare.
Jacob Lawrence’s Playing Records will catch your attention. It’s different from everything else on exhibit. Three men huddle around a record player as if for warmth. The work is composed of steep black lines on white, making the middle character resemble something carved from a mountain’s face. Indeed the group comprise something like a landscape behind the spinning vinyl, immobile, entranced each in their own way by the music. The face of the one on the right is dominated by his huge sunglasses, the curl of a grin just peeking out of the right hand border. The one on the left, eyes closed, is somewhere between dozy bliss and sleep. The buttons on the sleeve of the one in the middle, his long cigarette and trail of smoke add that final touch of suspension: all three are lost completely in the sound and steady revolutions of the vinyl before them.