Represent: 200 Years of African American Art at PMA

The tip of the iceberg

Represent: Two Hundred Years of African American Art, covering works by American artists in the past 200 years, is fun to view. Impressively, the 75 works by 50 artists are from the museum’s permanent collection of more than 750 works of art by African American artists.

The colors surround you: Moe Brooker’s “Present Futures” (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

A striking portrait head in charcoal of Martin Luther King Jr. by John Woodrow Wilson, 1981, greets the viewer and sets the tone of the exhibition. It portrays King in a moment of quiet introspection, a leader probing all facets of his commitment.

Entering on the left, you first will encounter works by African American artists with varying degrees of training. Some pieces, such as the footed silver cup by Peter Bentzon, are sophisticated objects by skilled craftspersons. Others, such as the jugs with faces molded in the clay, are primitive expressions but worthy of the collection.

Obviously, Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Annunciation is on view. Painted in 1898 and purchased by the museum in 1899, it was the first work of art by an African-American artist in the museum’s permanent collection, and the first one purchased by any major American museum. Following a few years of classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Tanner moved to Paris. The French influence is seen in his composition, subtle tonality, and reflected light in the painting.

Abstraction and representation

Horace Pippin is represented by the painting The End of the War: Starting Home (1930-1933). Be sure to look carefully at the artist-created frame embellished with symbols of war. Martin Puryear’s sculpture Old Mole (1985) is installed in front of an ample background that permits the work to be studied both as an abstract form and as a representation of an animal.

Two paintings by Jacob Lawrence, born in Atlantic City, were timely comments on national affairs: The Libraries Are Appreciated (1943) from his Harlem Series and Taboo (1963) on interracial marriage. Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach 2 (1990) was produced here in Philadelphia at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. It is a seemingly simple view of a summer scene, but look again: You will gain insight into the lives of many fellow citizens.

Moe Brooker’s Present Futures (2006) is a gestural, abstract expressionist work of saturated colors that seem to come forward and surround the viewer. You want to stay right in front of it, studying the color harmonies and contrasts. Untitled (1999), by Charles Burwell, is a striking vertical, linear composition surmounted by contrasting curvilinear forms that seem to float in harmony despite the rather threatening mass to the right. The quiet rhythm of this composition is most impressive. To Weave through Time (1979) by John E. Dowell Jr. is an impressive abstract painting that seems radiant in its purity. The background strokes of thick, white paint are interspersed by thin blips of green tinged with red. It is the epitome of abstract beauty.

Two centuries of portraits

Figurative works predominate, beginning with the silhouettes of members of Charles Willson Peale’s family, after 1802, attributed to Moses Williams, up to the glitzy portrait of Ray Charles by Chuckie Williams and Miss T (1969) by Barkley L. Hendricks, the famous image of an African-American woman in the 1960s, the decade of protest marches and political activism.

The most recent works in the exhibition are six 2010 etchings by Kara Walker from the series An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters and Carrie Mae Weems’s Untitled, From the Kitchen Table Series (2011 print from a 1990 negative).

The final painting in the exhibition is Rift (2005) by Odili Donald Odita. Seven feet high by nine feet wide, it is an abstract design making visual any form of division, psychological, political, or economic. It’s a masterful expression relevant to each of us and the world.

This exhibition creates a fascinating survey of 19th- and 20th-century art. Since the works in the show represent only a fraction of works by African-American artists in the collection, I am looking forward to viewing many sequels, including new works, as well as encountering more of these works on exhibition in the galleries as part of the permanent collection. This is our history.

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