Art Review: "African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond" at the American Art Museum

A new show reveals the Smithsonian’s unparalleled collection of work by African-American artists.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Renée Stout's "The Colonel's Cabinet." Photograph courtesy of American Art Museum.

Opening, as it does, on the heels of the Corcoran's "30 Americans" and the National Portrait Gallery's "The Black List," it's tempting to write off the American Art Museum's new exhibition of African-American art as a less glitzy, less contemporary alternative. Don't. Despite its slightly clunky title, "African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond" proves that not only is the American Art Museum's collection of African-American art the largest in the world, it's also undoubtedly one of the richest.

Of the 100 or so works by 41 artists on display in the museum's first-floor gallery, around half have never previously been shown in Washington, and 10 are new acquisitions. Organized by senior curator Virginia M. Mecklenburg, the show arranges items by theme, so a 1966 painting of a sharecropper by Benny Andrews hangs close to two 1940s oils of workers by William H. Johnson and a set of black-and-white photographs of Virginia laborers by Robert McNeill. Other themes include spirituality, urban life, childhood, and the experiences of women. Grouping the paintings this way forces the viewer to think about the subjects more closely: Andrews's sharecropper is seen only as a pair of legs from behind, as if viewed from the perspective of a child, while one of McNeill's subjects sports overalls that have been pristinely patched countless times by an invisible pair of hands.

The grace and beauty of each of the subjects in the show is striking. Two photographs by James Van Der Zee, who chronicled the Harlem Renaissance of the '20s and '30s, capture their subjects in eveningwear, gazing wistfully into the camera. His female subject clutches a tatty bouquet; a male grasps a leaf between two fingers, the other thumb in his vest pocket. Although their postures are all starchy formality, their faces are both expressive and enigmatic. In her 1940 self-portrait, Loïs Mailou Jones wears a similar look, one that's at once both reserved and telling.

There are some well-known names here (Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Richmond Barthé, Sam Gilliam), and the number of artists with local connections is surprising (and gratifying). But the less-familiar names in the show deliver some equally striking works, such as Baltimore photographer Roland Freeman's shot of laundry outside an apartment on South Capitol Street: white shirts hung in graduating size from tiny to vast, vaguely resembling a series of Klan hoods. Renée Stout's "The Colonel's Cabinet" is one of the most thought-provoking pieces in the show, consisting of a Persian-style rug, a chair, and a cabinet of curiosities collected by a fictional colonel on his travels. Items range from the familiar (a dagger with an ornately beaded sheath) to the grotesque (jars of what appear to be pickled body parts). By reflecting on an outsider's understanding of foreign cultures, Stout's work is a notable counterpoint to the clarity of the rest of the show, and one of the most explicit expressions of a feeling of "otherness." Nevertheless, by positioning the chair towards the cabinet, she invites us to examine it for ourselves and draw our own conclusions, and with a show of this thoughtfulness, there's plenty to deduce.

"African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond" is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through September 3. For details, visit the museum's website.