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African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum


African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, featuring noted works including American photographer Gordon Parks' renowned photograph of Muhammed Ali, opens at Cheekwood Museum of Art June 28-Septempber 7, 2003.

"What people will see here," said Cheekwood senior curator Celia Walker, "are images that have become icons."  Most of these works have only been seen in art history books, according to Walker, and have rarely traveled outside of Washington, D.C. "These are pieces that people will recognize," said Walker. (left: Robert McNeill, New Car (South Richmond, Virginia), from the project The Negro in Virginia, 1938, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase.)

 "We are very pleased that the Smithsonian has made it possible for people in our region to see this extraordinary exhibition of African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum," said Cheekwood Museum Director Jack Becker.  "And, we are especially pleased to host these great artists whose work has become an important part of American art history."

The exhibition contains 61 paintings, sculptures, and photographs celebrating the achievements of African American artists in the 20th Century.   Masters included in the exhibition are Richmond Barthé, Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks and Renée Stout, among others. (left: Romare Bearden, Empress of the Blues, 1974, acrylic, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Purchase in part through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment.)

The show opens with pioneer works created in the early 20th Century when African Americans were actively discouraged from becoming artists.  Some, like Henry Ossawa Tanner, chose to leave the United States to find artistic freedom.  Others, like James VanDerZee and P.H. Polk, stayed to document African American life in the North and South. (right: William H. Johnson, Cafe, about 1939, oil on paperboard, Smithsnian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation. )

A great strength of the exhibition is the number of important works from the Harlem Renaissance through the Great Depression and into the 1940s, according to Walker.  Masters of the period are represented by their signature works, including Palmer Hayden's The Janitor Who Paints, (c. 1937); Lois Mailou Jones' Les Fétiches (1938); William H. Johnson's Café (1939-40) and Augusta Savage's Gamin (c 1929).

"These portrayals of life in New York represent some of the most outstanding works produced during the great flowering of the arts," according to Walker.  For Tennesseans, a highlight of this group is two significant works by Knoxville-born Joseph Delaney. (left: Jacob Lawrence, The Library, 1960, tempera of fiberboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc.)

Over one-third of the exhibition is devoted to modern and contemporary art by today's well-established artists, ranging from early works by Alma Thomas and Jacob Lawrence to recent examples by Sam Gilliam and Betye Saar.  Works not to be missed, according to Walker, include Gordon Park's photograph of Muhammad Ali and Faith Ringgold's fabric interpretation of the Harlem Renaissance.

According to Ms. Walker, Cheekwood is extremely pleased to be able to follow the recent successful exhibition, Young America: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, with this acclaimed exhibition.  "It is a great honor for us to be able to show works of such high caliber in our region," said Walker.

African American Masters:  Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of five exhibitions featuring the Museum's collections, touring the nation through 2005.  The tour is supported in part by the Smithsonian Special Exhibitions Fund.


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