Unknown Photographer, The Old Folks at Home (1900), cyanotype; courtesy The Studio Museum
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What a relief it is to take a trip uptown to the Studio Museum in Harlem for the exhibition To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges. The Studio Museum’s sober and even reverential approach to the works of art currently in its care is in contrast to the trendy fripperies found currently at MOMA.
The two hundred or so pieces on display are culled from the collections of Clark-Atlanta, Fisk, Hampton, Howard, North Carolina Central, and Tuskegee Universities. The show is a distinctly American one and includes a wide variety of figures like Georgia O’Keeffe, Josef Albers, Alfred Stieglitz, Arthur Dove, and Charles Demuth. The “conservative” aspect of the show refers not only to an artistic and historical consciousness, but also to a practical one: as one of the show’s initiatives, a training program for the preservation and rehabilitation of art has been instituted.
Such cultural cognizance is imbued with dignity —not just for the art on view, but (unsurprisingly) for the museum’s patrons as well. This deference was summed up by one of the museum’s guards—who, after all, spend more time with the art than anyone else: “This show is damn good, isn’t it?”
Given the grab bag nature of compilation exhibitions such as this one, there’s bound to be some damn good art betwixt the merely ordinary and the outright clunkers. Indeed, most of the paintings, sculpture, and prints found at the Studio Museum are accomplished, bland, and earnest. The majority of photographs are of interest primarily as historical artifacts, but, as such, their value is considerable.
Having said that, there are jewels to be found in To Conserve a Legacy. An anonymous photograph (c. 1920) of a school for farmers is an unforgettable image that transforms the documentary into an eerie kind of geometric poetry. Arthur Dove’s tiny Moon (1928), with its silvery and seemingly omnipotent title character, is one of the artist’s most intensely realized images.
William Henry Johnson’s Untitled (Farm Couple at Work) (c. 1941), whose sturdy forms and smoldering colors embody the ache of physical labor, shows this deservedly well-known painter at the peak of his creative powers. Playland (1948) by Jacob Lawrence is a typically sophisticated clustering of angular forms and jarring spatial juxtapositions; it concisely and affectionately exemplifies the cheesy allure and raucous ambience of an amusement park. These are but a few of the high points—works by Nat Werner, Charles Demuth, Barkley L. Hendrick, Leonard C. Hyman, and Alfred Stieglitz are also noteworthy. It is works like these that buoy To Conserve a Legacy and make it a heartening experience.
© 1999 Mario Naves
Originally published in the June 1999 edition of The New Criterion.