African American Art in the 20th Century

October 15, 2021–January 16, 2022

African American Art in the 20th Century presents forty-four paintings and sculptures by thirty-four African American artists who came to prominence during the period bracketed by the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights movement.

Drawn from the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, these works range in style from modern abstraction to stained color to the postmodern assemblage of found objects, and their subjects are diverse. Benny Andrews, Ellis Wilson, and William H. Johnson speak to the dignity and resilience of people who work the land. Jacob Lawrence and Thornton Dial, Sr. acknowledge the struggle for economic and civil rights. Sargent Johnson, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Melvin Edwards address the heritage of Africa, and images by Romare Bearden celebrate jazz musicians. Sam Gilliam and Felrath Hines conduct innovative experiments with color and form. This will be the only New York venue for the exhibition.

The featured artworks were created at significant social and political moments in America. Words of Howard University philosophy professor Alain Locke, novelist James Baldwin, Civil Rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and their contemporaries provided insight and inspiration. In response, these artists created an image of America that recognizes individuals and community and acknowledges the role of art in celebrating the complex and diverse nature of American society.

The accompanying exhibition catalog, African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond, celebrates modern and contemporary artworks in the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection by African American artists. The book, co-published with Skira Rizzoli in New York, is written by Richard J. Powell, the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University; and Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; with contributions from Maricia Battle, curator in the prints and drawings division at the Library of Congress.

 

African American Art in the 20th Century is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program, Treasures to Go.

Frederick Brown, John Henry, 1979, oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Gerald L. Pearson. © 1979, Frederick J. Brown.