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Arts & Culture

SAMA's 'Collects' a treasure trove of lesser-known African-American artists

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Jacob Lawrence, Street Scene, 1937 (detail). From the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Foundation for the Arts.

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black athlete to play on a major league team. At the time, black musicians had been playing jazz in clubs from New Orleans to New York for decades, and post-war Europe was offering new opportunities for musical artists of color. But in the visual arts, black artists weren't widely acknowledged by fine art museums until the 1980s, when Jean-Michel Basquiat made the transition from street artist to the avant-garde. He wasn't the first African-American painter with chops. "San Antonio Collects: African American Artists," now on view at SAMA, presents works on loan from local collectors Harriet and Harmon Kelley and Irene and Leo Edwards. The exhibition, curated by SAMA director Katie Luber, rectifies popular assumptions that black artists are newcomers in the American art world by tracing two centuries of art work — from the beginnings of the 1800s to the present.

The Kelley Collection focuses on the early years: from the beginning of the 19th century to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s. The earliest work in the show, Portrait of a Gentleman, is an 1805 painting by Joshua Johnson. Johnson worked in Baltimore, his patrons were largely abolitionists. Placed next to works from the museum's permanent collection, it seems merely the next in a series of early 1800s portraits: dark, sober, a bit stiff, professional. Other early works on view are by less well-known artists like Nelson Primus and Grafton Tyler Brown, who travelled out west and worked in the landscape tradition. These painters worked for a white clientele and made paintings that blended into the popular tastes of the time. One of the most accomplished was Philadelphia's Henry O. Tanner. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with Robert Aitken, and went to Paris where he picked up an international style. His Market Place, 1910, a scene from Morocco, is a masterpiece that intimates later developments in abstraction, showing his interests and abilities in early modern painting.

Later works in the show document the heady decade of the '30s, the fruitful exuberance brought on by the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and the Harlem Renaissance. "Nowhere else in the country are you going to see works of art that are this great — great American paintings, by African-American artists," said Luber. Portraits by Norman Lewis and Joseph Delaney show the new sophistication and affluence of the time, while a painting by Jacob Lawrence, Street Scene, 1937 — depicting a black man being pummeled by two figures, one in a hood, while a white woman looks on — is perhaps more naive stylistically, but a masterful work. Other white and black figures complicate the scene, making the social culpability of violence ambiguous.

The Edwards Collection, including photography and other media, picks up in time from the Kelley Collection. A 1929 photograph, The Barefoot Prophet, by James Van Der Zee, shows a bearded figure in an archaic setting including a carved wood chair, candlesticks, and table. Decades latter the Harlem photographer was rediscovered and he took portraits of Basquiat and Bill Cosby in the 1980s and '90s in the same studio with its Victorian appointments intact.

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