Alone in a Crowd

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through July 14

Since the Harlem Renaissance: Sixty Years of African American Art

at the Art Institute of Chicago, through August 25

By Bonita McLaughlin

I wonder if it was easier to be an artist during the Depression than it is today, given the way federal and state arts funding keeps decreasing as right-wing politicians refine their antiart posturing. Yes, times back then were hard, but at least the WPA was putting artists to work. Today it seems incredible that the government was actually paying people to make murals, easel paintings, sculpture, and prints. And what an impact the Works Progress Administration had: many successful artists got their careers off the ground while working for the WPA, countless public buildings were adorned with murals, and numerous community art centers, such as Chicago’s Southside Community Art Center, provided instruction for artists who couldn’t otherwise have afforded it.

MacArthur fellow Robert Blackburn, for example, first learned lithography at the Harlem Art Center in New York. One of 42 African-American artists included in “Alone in a Crowd,” a traveling exhibition of 125 prints from the 30s and 40s, Blackburn is represented by three lithographs. He was only a teenager when he made the enigmatic People in a Boat, but its gravity and confident draughtsmanship suggest the work of a mature artist. Several men sit crowded into a small boat; one leaning over the side thrusts his hands into the water. The men’s faces are mostly obscured by their hats and dark shadows: it’s hard to tell who they are, where they’re going, or why, but their prospects don’t look good–the sky above is overcast, and beyond the water there’s nothing but distant hills dotted by bare-limbed trees.

“Alone in a Crowd” presents many such somber, even melancholy scenes; two of the show’s most moving lithographs are especially bleak: Mother and Child, by Elizabeth Catlett, and Hope for the Future, by Charles White, Catlett’s first husband. The mother in Catlett’s print, with her sharply bent head and firm grip on her baby’s shoulder, seems to be grieving even as she shelters the child within her arms; a solitary leafless tree in the background further darkens the mood. Catlett’s graphic style–simplified blocklike planes of sharply contrasting blacks, whites, and grays–recalls African sculpture while her subject brings to mind the prints and sculptures Kaethe Kollwitz made of grieving parents during the 20s and 30s. White also places a dead-looking tree behind the mother and child in his Hope for the Future but adds a noose; this and the mother’s dejected pose–her shoulders drooping, she holds the baby across her lap in the manner of a pieta–make the title bitterly ironic.

In a talk she gave in May at the Art Institute, Catlett took exception to the show’s title. “How could we ever have felt alone?” she asked, then described the strong sense of community among African-American artists at WPA-funded centers in New York, Chicago, and at the Taller de Grafica Popular in Mexico City, where she, White, Margaret Burroughs, and others studied printmaking. But the catalog essay by Reba and Dave Williams, from whose collection the show is drawn, notes that “work by black artists…shows a loneliness not typically present in work by their white counterparts. Depression prints by African Americans often portray a single figure, while white artists told the same story with groups: groups of strikers, groups in bread lines, groups of unemployed in streets or parks.”

Images of community life do appear in “Alone in a Crowd”–among them Louise E. Jefferson’s Savoy Dancers, Richard William Lindsey’s Rehearsal in Swing, and Allan Rohan Crite’s lively I Love a Parade, one of the show’s few lighthearted images. But portrayals of solitary city dwellers are far more common. In Tenement Window Ronald Joseph (who like Blackburn learned printmaking at the Harlem Art Center) shows a woman seated at a window, gazing at the view of a brick wall. The drooping leaves of a nearby plant echo her weary pose. William E. Smith, whose striking woodcuts are alone reason enough to see this exhibit, documented the experience of unemployment: his Poverty and Fatigue presents a close-up view of a man slumped on steps, chin on chest, a harsh bright light delineating his cap, knees, and crossed, limp arms against the surrounding darkness.

In more than a few images the city assumes a dark, claustrophobic character. Aaron Douglas’s expressionistic etching and aquatint The Junk Man is so black it takes quite a while to distinguish the person seated in his cart from the rest of the sooty, deserted alley. In Carl G. Hill’s Paper Boy, large dark cars and tall office buildings nearly crowd the boy right out of the composition. Among the best prints in the show are Lawrence Arthur Jones’s finely rendered etchings of city scenes; his Worker Returning Home and an untitled piece (“Man Waiting”) are sensitive portraits of weary men lost in thought.

Even when they’re part of a group, individuals in these prints still seem to be alone. The Navy Yard worker whose gaze meets the viewer’s in John Wilson’s Street Car Scene is the sole African-American among a carful of passengers; and of several grim-faced passersby populating a narrow street in Crite’s Via Dolorosa, only a cat and one startled young man appear to notice the central figure there: Christ carrying the cross.

Like many artists of the WPA era, the majority of the printmakers in “Alone in a Crowd” worked in a realist style. One exception is William Henry Johnson; his semiabstract screen prints, with their bright colors and highly simplified flat shapes, look more like cut-paper collages than prints. The Williams’s catalog essay suggests that after 1938 Johnson deliberately abandoned his earlier “sophisticated expressionist art” to adopt a “pseudo-naive” style in order to find a market among New York collectors who favored the work of Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin. I don’t know enough about Johnson’s oeuvre to judge the truth of this assertion, but the prints in this show, which were all made after 1938, don’t look derivative. In fact, it’s refreshing to find an artist here not bound by the conventions of social realism. The violets, peaches, greens, and reds juxtaposed in Johnson’s Three Children cheerfully convey the little girls’ state of–well, little girlness. Though not a gritty portrayal of alienation and despair, the scene rings just as true as Jones’s Worker Returning Home or Smith’s Poverty and Fatigue.

The prints that hooked me each time I saw “Alone in a Crowd” were the Carborundum etchings by Dox Thrash. In this technique–which Thrash invented–the etching plate is first roughened with Carborundum (an industrial abrasive), then burnished; the process yields beautifully soft, smoky dark tones. And in Thrash’s hands these tones don’t merely describe the appearances of people or places, they wring the inner life out of them. The marriage of technique and subject in an untitled work (“Prayer Meeting”) is exquisite: it’s hard to say what’s more expressive, the figures’ upturned heads and hands or the swirling, turbulent masses of black ink.

A deeply felt empathy runs quietly through Thrash’s small but potent images. This is especially true of his Marylou, a portrait in “Since the Harlem Renaissance: Sixty Years of African American Art,” an exhibit of 29 prints and drawings organized by the Art Institute to complement “Alone in a Crowd.” Marylou is one of those unforgettable portraits in which every feature–the woman’s resolute mouth, strong cheekbones, dark, pupilless eyes, and troubled brow–conveys not just a likeness but the fullness of an individual’s life, her joys and sorrows.

“Since the Harlem Renaissance” includes a number of artists whose work also appears in “Alone in a Crowd.” Catlett’s 1970 color linocut Sharecropper, a riveting close-up view of an elderly woman, pulses with the energy of countless rhythmic cuts into the printing plate. Crite’s graphite drawing Barber Shop Politics offers a casual, intimate view of everyday life, as does Margaret Burroughs’s linocut The Birthday Party. One of the show’s standouts is Charles White’s large charcoal drawing Harvest Talk, which monumentalizes two field hands pausing in their work with its low point of view and the men’s larger-than-life hands and forearms.

Overall, however, the complementary exhibit suffers from a lack of cohesion, looking like a mishmash of disparate styles and themes. As the show travels quickly from the 50s through the 90s, fewer and fewer connections can be found between one piece and the next, and there’s not enough wall text to guide the viewer. Norman Lewis’s 1951 Green Bough–an abstract, lyrical image recalling Kandinsky and Klee–has little to do with Adrian Piper’s 1986 Vanilla Nightmare #2, an angry indictment of South African censorship, unfortunately rendered flaccid by lackluster drawing. And John S. Dowell Jr.’s 1981 calligraphic abstraction Together or Alone III bears no discernible relation to Kara E. Walker’s 1995 The Means to an End–A Shadow Drama in Five Acts, a puzzling set of cut-paper silhouettes that, according to the artist, deals with “illicit sex and violence…as the means by which freedom is attained.”

It’s a pleasure to see more work by some of the artists in “Alone in a Crowd,” but if the curators of “Since the Harlem Renaissance” had focused on African-American art of the 30s and 40s instead of trying to cover six decades, the show would have been a much more coherent and meaningful adjunct to the traveling exhibit. Instead, they try to cover too broad a period with too few works of art, and the show runs aground on its own ambition.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Reproductions of “Street Car Scene” by John Wilson; “Poverty and Fatigue” by William E. Smith; “Jitterbugs II” by William Henry Johnson.