Sunday, June 25, 2000

Curator labors for love


Man behind Taft's African-American art show reluctantly chooses a few must-see pieces

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        R. Kumasi Hampton tells the story about painter Henry Tanner:

        “He was the first black student at the Philadelphia Art Academy and probably the most talented student there at the time. So much so that faculty doted on him and other students got jealous.

        “One night they came in to his room, dragged him outside and tied him to an easel, like Christ on a cross.

[photo] R. Kumasi Hampton
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        “And that's not the worst thing some of these artists dealt with.”

        These artists are the men and women who created the works making up The Great Migration: The Evolution of African American Art, 1790-1945 at the Taft Museum through Oct. 22.

        Mr. Hampton, 44, single, living in Corryville and a doctoral candidate at Cincinnati's Union Institute, was guest curator. He's also an art historian, specialist in the history of aesthetics, an art critic and detective.

        Detective?

        “The real work and effort of this exhibit was finding pieces that were scattered among different collections. There was research, phone calls, more research, more calls, that's why the process took three years.”

        The result of three years' detective work is an exhibit that Mr. Hampton describes as “a broad range of emotions showing sadness, illumination, life's difficulties” in 49 works borrowed from 19 public, private and corporate collections.

        Organized chronologically, it's paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs from as early as 1790 (portraits by Joshua Johnston, a freed slave working in Baltimore) to as late as the 1940s (photos by Vera Jackson and Gordon Parks).

        “I think we did it. Everybody is here,” Mr. Hampton says, pausing in front of an almost life-size portrait of Nicholas Longworth done by Robert Duncanson

        And even though he's been dead since 1872, Duncanson, the African-American painter who lived here in the mid-19th century and painted the murals inside the Taft, is the exhibit's reason to exist.

        “Our goal was to assemble works that would coalesce around Duncanson's career and show its very important place in the broader context of African-American art. Everyone knows Duncanson was the best landscape painter in the West, but they don't know the great African-American artists who came before and after him.

        “And people forget that Cincinnati, a major center of the abolitionist movement, has a long history of successful African-American endeavors. It was a hotbed of African-American artistic endeavors, but more than that, too.”

        Artistic endeavors are what this show's all about. Some are local endeavors, such as Duncanson, Georgia Beasley and Geneva McGee, some are national but with local ties.

        Right now, though, Mr. Hampton is squirming. He has just been asked to walk through the gallery and narrow down the 49 works to a handful of must-sees for, say, people running in on their lunch hours.

        “Ouch. I love them all. This is going to be hard ...

        • “Here, this Tanner (“Two Disciples at the Tomb”). It's him at the absolute top of his game. Tanner at his most luminescent. It's inspirational. You can stand here, spend a few minutes contemplating it and feel the serenity. I'm not certain, but I'm pretty sure that's his wife kneeling. Another thing about Tanner, he was in Cincinnati before he moved permanently to Paris and taught many of the artists in this show.

        • “These two Joshua Johnstons (portraits of John Spear Smith and Mary Buchanan Smith) shouldn't be missed either. Look at Mary, how he seated her in front of an open window and painted the landscape behind her. It's conventional English portraiture style, but look at the detail.

        • “Norman Lewis was a giant talent (“Composition No. 1”). I visited his studio and I'm close to buying one, but there's that budget squeeze. His works on paper go for about $6,000, paintings are $12,000 to $18,000. Early on, he was a cubist, but he evolved into abstract, the first African-American to do so. He didn't sell well when he was alive, but in the last 10 years he's become very popular. It's sad that he had to support himself with odd jobs.

        • “Edmonia Lewis. She studied at Oberlin but there was a scandal. It was alleged that she gave aphrodisiacs to classmates. She was expelled, beat up and left in the snow. After she was found innocent at trial, she moved to Boston, then to Rome and became one of the elite of the art world. Her father was an African-American and her mother a Chippewa, which explains the very accurate detail. Her faces are more neoclassical and she was criticized for that, but the detailing on the clothing is absolutely authentic.

        • “James Porter (“Primitive (African) Bathers”) was from Columbus and one of the first African-Americans to say that black artists should work in all styles, not just what they called the Negro tradition. See how his background is almost Cezanne while the figures are pure African in style.

        (Here a short pause and a lament: “This is difficult. I want to say every last one of them. Here, look at this ... ”)

        • “This is Horace Pippin (“Christmas Morning, Breakfast”), one of the first African-Americans to be purchased by the Met. His arm was shattered by a bullet, so to paint he had to hold the brush and use his other hand to move his painting hand.

        • “Just two more — the Jacob Lawrence (“The Birth”) and Romare Bearden (“The Agony of Christ”) the two most heavily collected African-American artists today. I guess you'd call them the heavy hitters, but so many of these artists were. All of them, really.”

       



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