Collecting African American Art

Kerry James Marshall (American, born 1955), Vignette (Wishing Well), 2010. Color aquatint etching with drypoint, chine collé, and hand coloring, plate. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Felton Gibbons Fund. © Kerry James MarshallIn the bicentennial year of 1976, the Princeton University Art Museum held its first exhibition on African American art, Fragments of American Life, which featured works by six contemporary painters: Romare Bearden, Joseph Delaney, Rex Goreleigh, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, and Hale Woodruff. These artists were championed by Harlem Renaissance philosopher and critic Alain Locke in his seminal book The Negro in Art (1940). Consisting entirely of private loans, this exhibition was curated by Princeton faculty member John Ralph Willis, the renowned scholar of African and Islamic history, former president of the recently founded Program in African American Studies, and honorary secretary of the University’s chapter of the Alain Locke Society. Distinctively modernist, the paintings reflected Locke’s injunction to black artists to demonstrate and celebrate the African roots of black life in America.

In 1976 the Museum owned precisely two works by African American artists, one of which is the vibrant collage by Bearden featured in the current exhibition Hold: A Meditation on Black Aesthetics, curated by Nijah Cunningham. Incorporating several private loans, most of the twenty-one works on display have been selected from more than one hundred acquired by the Museum during the past two decades—a multifold increase signifying a commitment to expanding this area of the collections across a range of media but most robustly in prints, drawings, and photographs. While their sensitivity to light limits their display in the collections galleries, these objects are frequently utilized in precept classes held in the Museum’s study rooms, where faculty and students engage with and explore original works of art.

In acquiring prints and drawings by African American artists, the goal has been to provide a rich cross section of figurative and abstract images that explore the black experience from a variety of perspectives, past and present. Raising the viewer’s political and social consciousness is the motivating force behind portraits of such iconic figures as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Angela Davis by Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, and Wadsworth Jarrell (see cover illustration), all of whom sought to reach broad audiences between the 1940s and 1970s through murals and prints. By comparison, works by contemporary artists such as Glenn Ligon, Emma Amos, Howardena Pindell, and Kara Walker involve more conceptual investigations of cultural, gender, and racial identity, drawing upon a variety of sources encompassing childhood memory, hairstyles, and antebellum history.

Growing this area of the Museum’s collections is clearly a work in progress, with many names needed to fill what Kerry James Marshall has alluded to as the “vacuum in the image bank”: the historical invisibility of the African American experience that he makes visible in his large painted narratives. In the recently acquired Vignette (Wishing Well), Marshall situates a black couple in an imaginary landscape inspired by the French eighteenth-century Rococo. Virtually unseen in McCormick Hall forty years ago, African American art is now a dynamically evolving presence in the Museum and the springboard for multidisciplinary conversations.

Laura M. Giles

Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings