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Cast-iron stereotype: Iron Baseball Bank, J.& E. Stevens Company (1888).

Affirmations and Provocations

By Nadine Wasserman

Through the Eyes of Others: African Americans & Identity in American Art

New York State Museum, through Jan. 6

In 1990 the art historian Guy McElroy organized a major exhibition for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., called Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940. This was a seminal exhibition at a time when scholars and curators were shaking up the academic canon with the concept of multiculturalism. A couple years later Fred Wilson’s groundbreaking installation Mining the Museum changed the way museums thought about their collections and their displays. Almost two decades later, a show like Through the Eyes of Others feels dated. It’s not that the topic isn’t important, but this show brings nothing new to the subject and it fails in its attempt to “juxtapose 19th century views of American life with contemporary interpretations by African-American contemporary artists.” Contemporary African-American art is too diverse a topic to be represented by a total of seven works by such greats as Faith Ringgold, Elizabeth Catlett, Margaret Burroughs, Hale Woodruff, Lorna Simpson, and Whitfield Lovell. Given the limitations of this exhibition it would have been a much stronger show had the curator focused on the strengths of the Fenimore collection.

The art and artifacts included in the exhibition are organized into several categories. This is an unfortunate strategy. Rather than enhance the objects in each section, the categories merely serve to underscore the incoherence of the entire exhibition. Nevertheless, the objects speak for themselves and there are quite a number of gems throughout.

Many of the 18th- and 19th-century paintings are outstanding. The earliest, the Van Bergen Overmantel, was painted circa 1733 and is attributed to John Heaton. It depicts the Van Bergen farm in Leeds, N.Y., with the Catskill Mountains in the background. Not only does it show the farm’s Dutch-style buildings and various animals, but it also shows its inhabitants and visitors. In addition to the family members, there are other European American settlers, African-American slaves, white indentured servants, and Native Americans interspersed throughout the scene. It is a snapshot of life in colonial America. A very different sort of peopled landscape is Town Scene from 1880. This oil on glass is also rendered in a primitive style but is particularly flat and quite eccentric. The spatial relationships between horizon, people, and buildings are peculiar and surreal. The figures are of arbitrary sizes, and are all stereotypes. Some are recognizable, like “mammy” or a “picaninny,” while others are caricatures of the black middle class. It is odd and offensive but also quite mesmerizing.

While some artists intentionally depicted African-Americans in derogatory fashion, others painted portraits or showed African-Americans more sympathetically. There are several American primitive portraits in the show. One depicts Augustus Jones, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia; and another, attributed to the well known portrait painter William Mathew Prior, shows William Whipper, a Philadelphia business owner. While these are more typical of commissioned portraits of the 19th century, two others nearby portray people of no great means. One is titled Aunt Effie and was painted by Charles Winfield Tice. It is a dignified portrait of a woman who had probably been born into slavery or bonded servitude. Next to her is a similarly sympathetic portrait of an unidentified child by Phillip Thomas Cole Tilyard. This last one echoes the many works by Edward Lamson Henry included in the exhibition; he often used unidentified African-Americans as models.

Even more compelling is a portrait of Elizabeth Fenimore Cooper in which her butler, Joseph Stewart, can be seen diminutively in the background framed by a doorway. Unlike the paintings nearby that use anonymous African-Americans merely as props, in this one, Stewart is clearly identifiable but unquestionably marginalized. It falls somewhere between portrait and derision. Similarly, the large carved commemorative portrait of Reverand Campbell, commissioned by Allan Pinkerton, is at once a tribute and a mockery. It is a fascinating counterpoint to the photographic studio portraits, also circa 1880, at the other end of the exhibition.

In addition to painting and sculpture there are historical documents sprinkled throughout the exhibition such as broadsides, an original copy of Frederick Douglass’s The North Star (Vol. 1, No. 1) and also a copy of his Narrative. There are interesting examples of toys and folk art such as cigar store figures and an “Afro-Carolinian” face jug. But not to be missed are the group of large Farmers’ Museum banners that tell the tale of the murder of the Van Nest family by Bill Freeman. Painted in a primitive, flat style, they are gruesome, grotesque, and visually stunning. Rather than an accurate portrayal of events, they exaggerate Freeman’s “blackness” and change the ending so that he is hanged when in reality he died in jail. In essence they are perfect examples of the way race was, and still is, a provocative topic.

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