Sistuhs: Four African-American Self-taught Artists

at Intuit, through June 26

George Josimovich: American Purist

at Robert Henry Adams Fine Art, through June 5

Wildly imaginative forms and colors and an utterly ingenuous sincerity characterize the 39 works by four African-American women at Intuit. In Sister Gertrude Morgan’s Spider Drake Driving Cows to the Butcher Pen, multicolored cows tread a pathway that seems an ascent to animal heaven; Morgan also wrote on her painting that Spider Drake–a commanding figure who appears to be pushing the cows along–is “singing one of his spirituals.” The colors are as bold as those in children’s art, but they’re used in a complex and thoughtful way.

Morgan (1900-1980) became a minister in the 1930s, traveling from Alabama to New Orleans to preach, and was called to be the “bride of Christ” in 1957. Her work was widely exhibited beginning in 1973, but her deepest commitment was to her preaching. In New Jerusalem angels are grouped around a cutaway image of a tall apartment building–perhaps a Jerusalem for our times. The angels’ bright red hair contrasts with their white robes and the blue sky, but even more striking is their similarity. Here, as in medieval art, the figures aren’t individuated even to the extent that Spider Drake is. Instead Morgan creates patterns: the angels repeat, as do the color schemes of the building’s rooms, which add yellow and blue to the angels’ white and red. At the same time, the irregularity of the forms suggests the vagaries of the artist’s hand. This is not a view of paradise made possible by Euclid filtered through Renaissance perspective but an eccentric, passionate vision.

New Jerusalem feels like a complete world, a self-sufficient universe. And the highly imaginative cityscape of Nellie Mae Rowe’s Hickory Dickory Dock suggests a modern city: we not only see a mouse next to a clock but a bird, a dog, two faces, a cutaway of a house, and abstract geometrical patterns that might represent other buildings. Rowe (1900-1982) was raised in rural Georgia but moved at a young age to Atlanta, where she worked as a domestic. In Hickory Dickory Dock she organizes a city’s clutter into a tightly knit pattern, and her colors–red, blue, and green–are both rich in contrasts and individually rich; their shine seems to declare her sincerity. Equally impressive is an untitled work showing birds and other animals: its sense of completeness comes from Rowe’s self-enclosed design, which arranges the other creatures around a central bird.

Minnie Evans (1892-1987) produced extraordinary spiritual images after she heard God tell her to “draw or die.” Many of her works are symmetrical: in Untitled (Two Faces, Corncopiae) her repetitions of eyes and floral forms–Evans worked in a botanical garden for many years–suggest balance, completeness, even perfection. In an untitled asymmetrical image showing two angels and many animals, the colors once again convey the artist’s conviction: their sensuousness suggests this really is paradise.

Bessie Harvey (1929-1994)–who married at 14 and spent the first part of her life raising her 11 children–started making sculptures after her mother’s death in 1974. She often painted faces–which she’d begun to see “in everything”–on the gnarled forms of brightly painted driftwood arranged to create rhythmic harmonies and clashes. Near the top of an untitled piece, eyeballs peer out from wood painted black, while the shapes in I’ll Take You There suggest a two-faced giraffe. Harvey’s faces seem to be fused with the wood or emerging from it, as if the wood were alive. Like the other women’s works, hers are direct translations of visions for which she’s merely the conduit.

If the visionary works in “Sistuhs” are focused on their messages, the paintings, drawings, and prints of George Josimovich at Robert Henry Adams Fine Art are as much about the viewer as about their subjects. Born in what is now Serbia in 1894, Josimovich moved to this country in 1908. He was influenced by modernism through the classes he took with George Bellows at the School of the Art Institute, by working with the German expressionist sculptor Herman Sachs, and by the time he spent in Paris in the 20s. Josimovich returned to Chicago in 1927, where he abruptly shifted styles. He moved away in the mid-50s and died in 1986.

Josimovich’s abstract view of a train yard in Illinois Central (1927) registers as a bewildering collision of forms. Diagonal lines suggest tracks, but big blocks of color undercut the illusion that one shape is in front of another, foreshortening the space and making it appear more cluttered. As one tries to piece together a scene from a series of contradictory relationships, the process of viewing becomes one of the work’s subjects: feeling lost, one is reminded how much the modern city is a haphazard construction that the mind organizes and articulates.

It’s not easy to make out the figure in Figure Composition (1927); more compelling is its paradoxical mix of straight-edged geometrical forms and similar shapes with wavy edges. The various edges and the way the forms tilt create an almost musical interaction–I thought of Stuart Davis’s abstractions–a provocative blend of balance and imbalance. This work is part of a discourse with other modern movements beginning with cubism, but you don’t have to know earlier art to appreciate its formal subtleties.