Elizabeth Catlett: In the Image of the People

by Melanie Herzog




1. Much of the research for this essay was done initially for my Ph.D. dissertation, "'My Art Speaks for Both My Peoples': Elizabeth Catlett in Mexico" (University of Wisconsin, 1995), and for my book, which contains a fuller treatment of Catlett's life and art; see Melanie Anne Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico (University of Washington Press, 2000). See also Samella Lewis, The Art of Elizabeth Catlett (Hancraft Studios, 1984); and Elton Fax, "Elizabeth Catlett," in Seventeen Black Artists (Dodd and Mead, 1971). Catlett discusses her early years in audiotaped interviews with Glory Van Scott (Dec. 8, 1981), Clifton Johnson (Jan. 5 and 7, 1984), Camille Billops (Oct. 1, 1989), and Melanie Herzog (June 14 and 15, July 6, and Dec. 1, 1991, and Jan. 3 and 4, 1993) and in handwritten manuscripts for lectures and slide presentations; audiotapes of Clifton Johnson interviews and manuscripts in Elizabeth Catlett Papers, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana. Partial transcriptions of the Van Scott and Billops interviews can be found in"Elizabeth Catlett: Sculptor, Printmaker," in Artist and Influence, vol. 10, edited by James V. Hatch and Leo Hamalian (Hatch-Billops Collection, 1991), pp. 1­27. I thank Elizabeth Catlett for making available to me the audiotapes of these interviews.

2. Interview with Melanie Herzog, June 14, 1991; interview with Glory Van Scott (note 1), p. 2. On the Howard University art department, the first established at an historically black university, see Keith Morrison, Art in Washington and Its Afro-American Presence: 1940­1970 (Washington Project for the Arts, 1985).

3. Lewis (note 1), p. 15. See also Elizabeth Catlett, "Responding to Cultural Hunger," in Reimaging America: The Arts of Social Change, edited by Mark O'Brien and Craig Little (New Society Publishers, 1990), p. 244.

4. See Alain Locke, "Chicago's New Southside Art Center," Magazine of Art 34, no. 7 (Aug.­Sept. 1941), pp. 370­74; also Commission on Chicago Landmarks, South Side Community Art Center, 3831 South Michigan Avenue (The Commission on Chicago Landmarks, 1993). For Burroughs's perspective on the South Side Community Art Center, see "Margaret Taylor Burroughs Interviews, 1988, November 11 and December 5," interview with Anna M. Tyler (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1988); Margaret Goss Burroughs, "Chicago's South Side Community Art Center: A Personal Recollection," in Art in Action: American Art Centers and the New Deal, edited by John Franklin White (Scarecrow Press, 1987), pp. 131­44; and Margaret T. Burroughs, "Saga of Chicago's South Side Community Art Center (1938­1943)" and "Remarks: South Side Art Center, 40th Anniversary, June 17, 1981," in The South Side Community Art Center 50th Anniversary, 1941­1991 (South Side Community Art Center, 1991).

5. On Chicago's literary renaissance, see Robert Bone, "Richard Wright and the Chicago Renaissance," Callaloo 28 (Summer 1986), pp. 446­68; also Craig Werner, "Literary History: Early Twentieth Century," in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William L. Andrews (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 453­56. On Chicago's black visual artists, see Daniel Schulman, "'White City' and 'Black Metropolis': African American Painters in Chicago, 1893­1945," in Chicago Modern 1893­1945: Pursuit of the New, edited by Elizabeth Kennedy (Terra Museum of American Art, 2004), pp. 39­51; Bernard Goss, "Ten Negro Artists on Chicago's South Side," Midwest: A Review 1, no. 2 (Dec. 1936), pp. 17­19; and Willard F. Motley, "Negro Art in Chicago," Opportunity 18, no. 1 (Jan. 1940), pp. 19­22 and 28­31.

6. Little documentation is available on the history and activities of the Carver School. On Catlett's work at the school, see Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett (note 1), pp. 36­40; Lewis (note 1), pp. 18­20; Fax (note 1), pp. 22­24; and various interviews.

7. From a lecture by Catlett at Wooster College, Ohio, Nov. 10, 1981; handwritten manuscript in Elizabeth Catlett Papers, Amistad Research Center; quoted in Thalia Gouma-Peterson, "Elizabeth Catlett: The Power of Human Feeling and of Art," Woman's Art Journal 4, no. 1 (Spring­Summer 1983), p. 50; see also Catlett (note 3), pp. 244­45.

8. See, for example, Alain Locke, "The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts," in The New Negro: An Interpretation, edited by Alain Locke (1925; rpt. Arno Press, 1968), pp. 254­67.

9. See Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins and Shifra M. Goldman, In the Spirit of Resistance: African-American Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School/En el espíritu de la resistencia: Los modernistas africanoamericanos y la Escuela Muralista Mexicana (The American Federation of Arts, 1996), particularly Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, "African-American Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School/Los modernistas africanoamericanos y la Escuela Muralista Mexicana," pp. 27­67. See also Alison Cameron, "Buenos Vecinos: African-American Printmaking and the Taller de Gráfica Popular," Print Quarterly 16, no. 4 (Dec. 1999), pp. 353­67.

10. By the mid-1950s, hundreds of groups were named on the Attorney General's list; see Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Books, St. Martin's Press, 1994), pp. 151­53. HUAC drew broad public attention beginning in 1947 with its investigations of presumed Communist sympathizers in the entertainment industry; see Allan M. Winkler, "Hollywood and HUAC," in The Cold War: A History in Documents (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 46­50. On anti-Communism in the United States, see Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 1492­Present (HarperCollins, 2003), pp. 425­37; also Winkler, particularly his chapter "The Anti-Communist Crusade," pp. 45­69.

11. On the Taller de Gráfica Popular, see Helga Prignitz, TGP: Ein Grafiker-Kollektiv in Mexico von 1937­1977 (Verlag-Seitz, 1981), also published in Spanish as El Taller de Gráfica Popular en México 1937­1977, trans. by Elizabeth Siefer (Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, 1992). See also TGP Mexico: El Taller de Gráfica Popular: Doce años de obra artistica colectiva/The Workshop for Popular Graphic Art: A Record of Twelve Years of Collective Work, edited by Hannes Meyer (La Estampa Mexicana, 1949), and Dawn Ades, "The Taller de Gráfica Popular," in Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1820­1980 (Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 181­93.

12. El Libro Negro del Terror Nazi en Europa/The Black Book of Nazi Terror in Europe (Editorial El Libro Libre, 1943), p. 320; for a list of contributors to this volume, see Prignitz, El Taller de Gráfica Popular (note 11), pp. 397­98; see also TGP Mexico (note 11), p. 8.

13. See David Alfaro Siqueiros, No hay mas ruta que nuestra, talleres gráficos núm. 1 (Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1945); also Elliot Clay, "Siqueiros: Artist in Arms," Masses and Mainstream 4, no. 4 (April 1951), pp. 60­73.

14. Estampas de la Revolución Mexicana, 85 grabados de los artistas del Taller de Gráfica Popular (La Estampa Mexicana, 1947). This portfolio consists of original prints by the sixteen members of the Taller de Gráfica Popular. A numbered edition of 500 was printed for international distribution; an additional fifty numbered with roman numerals I through L were not for sale.

15. See Paintings, Sculpture, and Prints of The Negro Woman by Elizabeth Catlett (Barnett-Aden Gallery, 1947), the catalogue for Catlett's initial exhibition of her Rosenwald project that was published as a single folded sheet. Later exhibitions and prints from this series titled by Catlett in subsequent decades display some variations, notably the use of "Black" instead of "Negro." For a fuller discussion of this series, see Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett (note 1), pp. 56­66.

16. Richard J. Powell, "Face to Face: Elizabeth Catlett's Graphic Work," in Elizabeth Catlett: Works on Paper, 1944­1992, edited by Jeanne Zeidler (Hampton University Museum, 1993), p. 52.

17. Catlett discussed her response to segregated transportation in New Orleans in an interview with Clifton Johnson, Jan. 5, 1984. See also Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett (note 1), pp. 24­25.

18. Stuart Hall, "Cultural Identity and Diaspora," in Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, edited by Jonathan Rutherford (Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), p. 222.

19. Stuart Hall, "Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities," in Culture, Globalization, and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity, edited by Anthony D. King (State University of New York at Binghamtom, 1991), p. 49.

20. Interview with Melanie Herzog, June 15, 1991.

21. Powell (note 16), p. 53. On Catlett in Mexico, see also Melanie Herzog, "Elizabeth Catlett in Mexico: Identity and Cross-Cultural Intersections in the Production of Artistic Meaning," International Review of African American Art 11, no. 3 (Summer 1994), pp. 18­25 and 55­60.

22. La presa was one of eight TGP prints made for a conference on the Mexican government's Hydraulic Resources Program (El programa de recursos hidráulicos del gobierno de México), and it was included in an exhibition sponsored by the Frente Nacional de Artes Plásticas and the Secretaría de Recursos Hidráulicos in 1952.

23. Sharecropper was published in 1957 as Cosechadora de algodón in a special edition of the journal Artes de México devoted entirely to the history and work of the Taller de Gráfica Popular in commemoration of the workshop's twentieth anniversary. The issue also included a transcript compiled by Raquel Tibol from conversations with members of the workshop; see Artes de México 3, no. 18 (July­Aug. 1957). See also Kenneth G. Rodgers, "Elizabeth Catlett," catalogue entry in Richard J. Powell and Jock Reynolds, To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Phillips Academy, Addison Gallery of American Art; and Studio Museum in Harlem, 1999), pp. 181­83; and Melanie Herzog, "Elizabeth Catlett," catalogue entry in Elizabeth Seaton, et al., Paths to the Press: Printmaking and American Women Artists, 1910­1960 (Kansas State University, Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, forthcoming). In accord with the TGP's philosophy and practice, early prints of Sharecropper were not editioned. I am grateful to Ellen Sragow for kindly sharing information with me on the history of Catlett's Sharecropper.

24. Elizabeth Catlett, interview with Clifton Johnson, Jan. 7, 1984. See also Karl M. Schmitt, Communism in Mexico: A Study in Political Frustration (University of Texas Press, 1965), pp. 140­42; and Prignitz, El Taller de Gráfica Popular (note 11), p. 142. Prignitz cites conversations with various Taller artists who were denied entry to the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.

25. For Catlett's talk at the National Conference of Negro Artists, see Elizabeth Catlett, "The Negro People and American Art," Freedomways 1, no. 1 (Spring 1961), pp. 74­80; reprinted in part in Lewis (note 1), pp. 97­101. On her exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, see Elizabeth Catlett: Prints and Sculpture, foreword by Elton Fax, commentary by Jeff Donaldson (Studio Museum in Harlem, 1971). In this catalogue her 1947 exhibition of The Negro Woman at the Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington, D.C., is now titled The Black Woman.

26. On Catlett and the Black Arts Movement, see Mary Schmidt Campbell, "Part I: The Civil Rights Movement-An Awakening," and "Part II: A Turbulent Decade," in Tradition and Conflict: Images of a Turbulent Decade, 1963­1973 (Studio Museum in Harlem, 1985). On Catlett's woman-centered perspective, see Freida High Tesfagiorgis, "Afrofemcentrism and Its Fruition in the Art of Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold (A View of Women by Women)," Sage 4, no. 1 (Spring 1987), pp. 25­32, reprinted in The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, edited by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (Icon Editions, 1992), pp. 475­85.

27. Elizabeth Catlett, handwritten manuscript for lecture and slide presentation, New Orleans Museum of Art, Oct. 15, 1983, p. 2; in Elizabeth Catlett papers, Amistad Research Center.

28. See "Veinte años de vida del Taller de Gráfica Popular," Artes de México 18 (July­Aug. 1957), n. pag.; Prignitz, El Taller de Gráfica Popular (note 11), pp. 418­19; and Herzog, Elizabeth Catlett (note 1), pp. 101­04. Intended for publication in the newspaper Freedom, published by Paul Robeson from 1950 until 1955, the series was never published.

29. Quoted in Lewis (note 1), p. 26.


About the author

Melanie Anne Herzog is professor of art history and director of women's and gender studies at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, and is an expert on Elizabeth Catlett.


Resource Library editor's note:

The Art Institute of Chicago receently announced the acquisition of five new prints by renowned artist Elizabeth Catlett, which will be on view in the exhibition Legends and Legacy Award: Elizabeth Catlett, November 13, 2005, through April 23, 2006, in Gallery 141. This exhibition focuses on Þve new acquisitions from Catlett's early career, including three works from the celebrated series I Am the Black Woman. It also recognizes Catlett as the Þrst recipient of the Art Institute's Legends and Legacy Award, an honor bestowed by the museum's Leadership Advisory Committee. Legends and Legacy Award: Elizabeth Catlett is organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, and is curated by Mark Pascale, associate curator of prints and drawings.

The above essay was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on December 20, 2005 with the permission of the Art Institute of Chicago. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Art Institute of Chicago directly through either this phone number or web address:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Chai Lee of the Art Institute of Chicago for help in connection with reprinting of this essay. Readers may also enjoy these earlier articles and essays:

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these earlier articles and essays:

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TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Elizabeth Catlett: Sculpting the Truth. A 28 minute L&S 1998 documentary profile of the prominent sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, whose work in wood, stone and terra cotta Is inspired by women of the world. Her exceptional sculptures of mothers, workers and children have placed Catlett as an Important figure In the pantheon of African-American artists. "Attributing her art directly to difficulties in life she faced as a black woman, Elizabeth Catlett sculpted "the truth" with flawless technique from wood, stone, and terra cotta. This video provides a personal look at the life and sculpture of Catlett. It shows her working in her studio while explaining and describing her art and life. Faith Ringgold adds commentary." ISBN 1-882660-14-5 Elizabeth Catlett: Sculpting the Truth is a video available through the Sullivan Video Library at The Speed Art Museum which holds a sizable collection of art-related videos available to educators at no charge.

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