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From Challenge To Triumph: African American Print & Printmaking 1867–2002

Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts | November 8, 2002-February 22, 2003

Sometimes beautiful gems are found in unlikely places. You might have to break out of your routine, your rut, your groove, and visit places that are outside the "mainstream," or off your cultural "grid." If you're lucky you have an opportunity to discover rare treasures. As an enthusiast who spends a lot of time visiting galleries and museums, not only in Manhattan, but especially in Brooklyn, I've done my share of art recon missions. This time I hit pay dirt.

From Challenge to Triumph, African American Prints & Printmaking 1867–2002, curated by Blake T. Kimbrough and Melvin A. Marshall, is an exhibition that delights the eye with its beauty, stimulates the mind with its historical perspective, and warms the heart by introducing many lesser-known artists to a wider audience. There are of course examples of works by well-known African-American artists like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Sam Gilliam, but also wonderful works by perhaps less famous, but no less talented artists like John Wilson and Margaret T. Burroughs. Time for a personal disclosure. I'm an artist who loves prints, owns my own press, and has studied printmaking intently. I've always been impressed by good technique, bold design, and solid craftsmanship. Printmaking occupies a unique place in the art world universe. Because of its economical materials, and its capacity to produce multiple editions, it has an appeal to artists and collectors of more modest means. Historically there's a correlation between the printed word and the printed image. Somehow the printed black line captures a narrative spirit, a magic storytelling ability that isn't present in other media. Artists as diverse as Hogarth, Goya, Daumier, and Blake have all used prints to express their views on morality, society, and politics. Maybe good and evil are best depicted in the intense contrasts of black and white, and there are no richer blacks than those achieved by a master etcher.
From Challenge to Triumph is designed with a very succinct historical progression, beginning with the earliest "free" artists who struck out on their own to establish themselves as artists and artisans. In the process they overcame cultural and academic barriers. Succeeding periods include the "New Negro Renaissance," the Depression and Works Progress Administration, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and '70s. The number of outstanding prints on view is too vast to list here, but I'll try to highlight a few of special interest. The earliest print in the show is "The Iron Clad Mine" (1875) by Grafton Tyler Brown. Like many 19th century prints, this lithograph is a commercially produced panorama used to promote real estate around the mine in Rough & Ready Nevada. Though not a fine art print per se, it does show the great competence and skill of a journeyman lithographer. "Going to Church" (1942) by William H. Johnson (an artist whose tragic life story is worthy of a Ralph Ellison novel) is worth the trip to MoCADA itself. This color print is executed in a technique called silkscreen pochoir. The bold design of the central figures, a wagon load of family members being pulled by an ox with blue horns over fields of geometric stripes, has the flatness of collage, and combines elements of the most advanced cubistic abstraction with a narrative of the humblest down-home scene. There is a ruggedness with clumps of ink at the edge of forms, scumbling, and imperfections in the printing that allows underlying colors to show through, giving this print the calculated urgency of Johnson's best paintings. A visitor from Boston pointed out a small print by Allen Rohan Crite from his Black Madonna Series (1934 –1937). Crite (born 1910), still alive and working in Boston, recently was the focus of a community outreach program to help him maintain his home and studio in his advanced years.

Ingenuity and innovation are also a part of this history. Dox Thrash (got to love that name) was the co-inventor of the "carborundum" etching, a technique that is used by artists worldwide. "Boats at Night (late 1930s) shows the large vibrant areas of black and the soft gradations of shade that make this technique popular. Shocking ironies are aroused by Ernest Crichlow's 1938 lithograph "Lovers." A voluptuous young black woman sits on the lap of a white hooded figure. There is a look of resigned ambivalence on her face as she's gripped around her waist by her suitor. Her outreaching arm, bent over her head, may be pushing the masked face away rather than touching it with affection. This is a wonderful example of a metaphorical use of the black and white medium. A portrait of "Martin Luther King Jr." (2002) by the above mentioned John Wilson, is a dynamite etching. The head is modeled in subtle shades that transition from pearly gray to rich black the likes of which would give Rembrandt goosebumps. The detailing of the face and head are contrasted with the heavy massed lines of the jacketed shoulders and torso, giving the composition a strong abstract thrust. The mixture of techniques includes etching, aquatint, drypoint, soft-ground, chin collé, and spitbite, and masterfully demonstrates the means of intense expression. "Bob Blackburn" is the subject of Ron Adams lithograph. His muscular arms and powerful hands are pictured as he proofs a litho. Printer's tools, rollers, ink cans, and brushes surround him. Meanwhile, a cane holding connoisseur views samples of the finished product on the brick wall of the studio. Blackburn (who is represented here by his own abstract print) is a New York institution. The founder of the Printmaking Workshop, Blackburn received a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1992, and has given generations of New York artists a place to experiment and perfect their printmaking skills.

 From Challenge to Triumph is a world class show. MoCADA is a Brooklyn delight, and deserves to be a regular stop on everyone's art list. The Museum is located at 281 Stuyvesant Street, Brooklyn.



James Kalm


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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