“Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945–1965” at The Studio Museum

Paris Series 1966 #3

Ed Clark, Paris Series #3 (1966), acrylic on canvas, 60″ x 77″

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Long before Clement Greenberg dubbed it “the fountainhead of modern art” in 1961, Paris had set the standard by which world art was measured, providing a milieu deep with tradition and often populated by genius. Paris was also a lure for African-American writers, artists, entertainers, and musicians—a fact that had as much to do with race relations in the United States as it did with the cultural and social attractions of Paris. Luminaries such as Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and a host of jazz and blues musicians found in Paris an environment free from overt racism. It was, to be certain, not a color-blind society or one devoid of irony: the artist Palmer Hayden found that he was treated better by the French when he let it be known that he was an American. Yet Paris provided, as the painter Edward Clark wryly observed, a place where “one was hated as an equal.” This may sound like cold comfort, but it was a welcome change for American blacks inured to the indignities encountered at home.

Ever since Henry Ossawa Tanner settled in France in 1891 and enjoyed considerable success as a painter, black American artists have considered Paris an obligatory stage in their development. Explorations in the City of Light: African-American Artists in Paris, 1945–1965 presents the work of painters and sculptors who went to Paris after the Second World War. Paris was far from a city of light in 1945: food was scarce and amenities few. The city’s status as the center of world art was soon to be eclipsed by the accomplishments of the New York School, but Paris’s bohemian allure was intact enough to still attract talent from abroad. Seven Americans who made that pilgrimage—Clark, Harold Cousins, Beauford Delaney, Herbert Gentry, Lois Mailou Jones, Larry Potter, and Barbara Chase-Riboud—are featured in Explorations in the City of Light.

With the exception of Delaney, whose paintings have garnered attention in recent years, none of the artists featured in the exhibition is well known, even in art circles. But they have all created solid bodies of work and pursued not insubstantial careers that, in one way or another, have been spurred by Paris. Unfortunately, the exhibit never suitably shows just how Paris affected their art. With the exception of Mailou Jones, whose street scenes and landscapes are French more in subject matter than in style, none of the work on view is distinctly Parisian. The Abstract Expressionist-inspired paintings of Clark and Potter, for instance, are characteristically American, as is the welded-steel sculpture of Cousins. Gentry’s paintings of the Fifties and Sixties have more of the northern European flavor of the Cobra group, and while Chase-Riboud’s sculpture owes much to her friend Alberto Giacometti, its pessimism shares a stronger affinity with Britain’s Francis Bacon.

To confuse matters further, some of the artists are represented by work done in Paris during the Fifties and Sixties, and by recent work which may have been created there. Explorations in the City of Light doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, but a bit more focus would have helped. As it is, the viewer is left with the impression that, well, these artists loved Paris a lot. How that love informed their art, however, is left to conjecture.

The first works one encounters when entering the exhibition are Ed Clark’s thunderous paintings. With their large scale, strong colors, and gestural paint handling, they all but overshadow the work of Gentry and Chase-Riboud that shares the first floor of the Studio Museum. Clark’s canvases are aggressive, proficient, and somewhat predictable—pretty much what one would expect from a second-generation Abstract Expressionist who paints with a push broom. Writing about Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings of the 1950s, Jed Perl remarked that, at the time, “de Kooning-type Abstract Expressionism … was a dime a dozen.” He probably had paintings like Clark’s in mind. Yet Maple Red (1963)—the closest this show comes to a masterpiece—is anything but a dime a dozen; it’s the best painting I’ve seen in months. Vast swaths of paint, anchored by a granular pink brushstroke acting as a compositional fulcrum, overlap and interlock in an impossibly snappy way. (I’d wager that Clark couldn’t believe it himself when he finished the painting.) Imagine a Morris Louis who was less of a control freak, or a Julian Schnabel we could respect. Better yet, imagine that we get a chance to see a more discriminating group of Clark’s work in the near future; it could well surprise us.

In comparison to Clark’s paintings, Herbert Gentry’s expressionism seems quaint, especially the early paintings, which lump together Picasso, Appel, and Pollock with no great distinction. Gentry’s recent figurative paintings are colorful and cartoonish, intimating a vitality that is psychological and urban. Amid the Crowd (1990–91), with its heap of red and yellow figures and faces, could well be an homage to rush hour in New York City. But Gentry’s paintings are stiff, by-the-numbers Neo-Expressionism. Gentry’s figures take off from African masks and sculpture but not in any way that gives them life as painting. They are encumbered by uninspired drawing and the artist’s inability to create compositions that move the way he wants them to. Amid the Crowd is, finally, a pretty static painting. I wonder if Gentry might not be better off painting with oils; the relative inflexibility of acrylics seems to bog him down.

Of all the artists featured in the exhibition, Barbara Chase-Riboud was the last to go to Paris, having arrived there in 1961. Chase-Riboud’s recent work is academic neo-Dadaist assemblage of a political bent, the kind of thing that is regularly celebrated at venues like Exit Art. Her bronze sculpture of the early and mid-1960s, however, is accomplished and horrific. They depict deformed and disemboweled figures, often without heads, posed in hieratic postures. Plant Woman (1962), a spindly kneeling figure with a cast of an aloe plant sprouting from an orifice where its head should be, is a hellish vision worthy of Hieronymous Bosch. This is visceral sculpture and not easy to take, which, I suppose, is the point. But where does it lead? The talent that went into these pieces is evident, but it is talent in the service of a forbiddingly harsh and narrow world view. The one exception may be Walking Angel (1962), an amalgam of vertebrae, legs, and what appears to be a clam shell; it has a hallucinatory authority one associates with myth. Yet I wonder if what redeems it is less the sculpture itself than the ghostly halos of light that fall through Walking Angel onto the wall behind it.

Whatever else one might say about the work of Clark, Gentry, and Chase-Riboud, it does have presence, and the organizers of the exhibit were shrewd to lead off with it. In contrast, the second-floor galleries of the Studio Museum, taken up with the work of Cousins, Delaney, Jones, and Potter, are anti-climactic. This is due, in part, to the layout of the Studio Museum: the ground-floor galleries are open and spacious, the second-floor galleries squat, the installation flat. But it’s also due to the work itself, which has a hard time breaking out of a certain genericism.

Potter’s architectural abstractions, for instance, are painted in a manner that is evasive rather than painterly, but his was a career that would never reach maturity for the most final of reasons; he died in 1965 at the age of forty-one. Beauford Delaney lived to be seventy-eight years old, but his gifts as a painter seem never to have coalesced. His paintings, with their dense surfaces and caustic colors, are the work of a portraitist more interested in pure abstraction and an abstract artist who never went all the way. How else to explain Delaney’s portraits of James Baldwin and Marian Anderson—formidable personalities both— that convey all the sagacity of a cigar store Indian? Mailou Jones’s paintings of France are quizzical and charming, but the only time they come together as painting is in the bulky clusters of houses and foliage seen in the foreground of Untitled (Spéracédès, Alpes Maritimes, France) (1951).

The sculpture of Harold Cousins (1916– 1992), however, is interesting enough to make one curious about the rest of his work. Cousins is represented by examples from several separate series of sculptures, but all of it feels whole and learned. Anyone familiar with the notion of “drawing in space” will find himself instantly drawn to Composition (1951), a sculpture that reads like a three-dimensional transcription of Picasso’s The Kitchen (1948). It’s a sharp, smart piece of sculpture, as are, to a lesser extent, Bird Torso (1953) and Roi des Musiciens (1955). The two works from Cousins’s “Plaiton” series are less intriguing~dash\recalling, as they do, the bland solemnity of much abstract sculpture found in the lobbies of our public buildings—but his two figurative sculptures from the mid-1960s are not without merit. It is odd that so little is known about an artist of such obvious skill. Venturesome art historians and curators could do worse than begin to rectify this situation.

I recently overheard a critic say that if he spent a day visiting galleries or museums and came away having seen only two or three memorable works of art, then he considered it time well spent. This is a mighty thin criterion for judging exhibitions of art, and to say the same about Explorations in the City of Light would be to damn it with faint praise. The singular relationship between African-Americans and Paris will, I imagine, require a book to do it justice. Any exhibition that wants to explore the effect Paris has had on African-American artists working there will need a broader historical context and more discerning eye than this one. Explorations in the City of Light has too many dead spots for the viewer to gain any insight into its subject. But Clark’s Maple Red, Cousins’s Composition and, maybe, Chase-Riboud’s Walking Angel permit one to say that an hour or two at the Studio Museum for this exhibition is time well

© 1996 Mario Naves

Originally published in the March 1996 edition of The New Criterion.

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