It's called "Say It Loud," but this exhibition of art by African and African-American artists in the Norton Museum's collection speaks in a more subdued voice than its title suggests. Borrowing James Brown's 1968 lyric of black empowerment, "Say it loud/I'm black and I'm proud," the Norton takes some overdue steps toward sharing the many contributions made by black artists to the modern and contemporary visual art scene.
Wall text in the gallery by curator Cheryl Brutvan pledges the museum's "renewed emphasis on diversity," which bodes well for one of Florida's premier museums. The Norton is one of the few places in Florida for the public to view a Picasso, Braque, or Matisse. Collectors who retire to Palm Beach and donate works to the Norton may be a little slow to recognize the impact of game-changing works by artists from the African diaspora, who have clearly been sharing center stage in the larger American art scene for many years. This exhibition starts the Norton on the right path.
"Say It Loud" presents works by more than 20 artists that span many decades and media. Each individual work is just a snapshot, a mere glimpse into the career of an artist who may have undergone many evolutions. Some wonderful artists are represented here, and hopefully viewers will leave inspired to investigate the complete works and career twists of some of them.
The timeline of "Say It Loud" begins early in the 20th Century, during the Harlem Renaissance in New York. James Van Der Zee opened Guarantee Photo Studio there around 1918 and captured the emerging black middle class. The three works on display by Van Der Zee document the storefront of one of his first photo studios from 1915 and some smiling Harlem personalities immortalized by his lens. Gordon Parks, another gifted photographer, landed in Harlem as well. Despite encountering discrimination, Parks went on to photograph for Vogue and Life magazines for many years. See his "United States Gothic" from 1946 and several other works that capture the changes occurring in post-World War II America. These two elder statesmen broke many barriers to become beloved American artists.
Some artists who were early to digest modernist trends in European and American painting were Charles Henry Alston, Jacob Lawrence, and Bob Thompson. As the center of modern art moved from Paris to New York, Alston crafted elegant biomorphic abstractions on canvas while both supervising and painting murals for the Works Progress Administration's ambitious program of public art. Lawrence was a student of Alston's in Harlem, and he meshed his own ideas about "dynamic cubism" with the American narrative of black migration from the South to the North. His Man With Flowers is a complex formal arrangement of flat patterns, incorporating his trademark wood-grain motif and depictions of the humble tools of the woodworker that communicates the poignancy of wildflowers grasped in the hands of a man in worker's coveralls.
Thompson, active in the 1950s and early 1960s New York art scene, was a painter of lush figurative scenes. He participated in some of the earliest "happenings" in New York: live performance, often in gallery spaces — precursors to the performance art of today. Thompson hobnobbed with New York jazz musicians such as Charlie Haden and Ornette Coleman while translating themes of European master painters in a bold, uniquely American manner. His Bacchanal from 1963 shows multicolored figures cavorting in a landscape whose composition is lifted from classical Roman painting.
These early artists set the stage for the explosive art and cultural events of the 1960s and beyond. Al Loving and Sam Gilliam moved in the direction of lyrical and geometric abstraction. Faith Ringgold and Betye Saar use quilting, collage, and other handmade techniques to narrate the experiences of black women. The legacy of slavery and its subsequent chapter of black domesticity is ripe territory for contemporary artists like Kara Walker and Wille Cole, both of whose works in a variety of media, from sculpture and installation to wall murals and animation, deliberately use ambivalence about slavery to destabilize viewers, implicating all of us in history's sad episodes.
The life cycle of cloth — from design to sewing and quilting through ironing and patching — is the source of a rich artistic vocabulary for many artists in the exhibition. Jonathan Green depicts laundresses; Sam Gilliam's abstractions incorporate quilt fragments; Yinka Shonibare and Mary Sibande make life-sized mannequins; and most spectacularly, Nick Cave (the Chicago artist, not the Australian singer)has effectively invented his own art form with "soundsuits" — sculptures that are costumes for dancers and, at the same time, function as musical instruments.
The artists from abroad relate a different tradition from the American contingent in "Say It Loud." The exquisitely crafted photographs of Malick Sidibe from Mali and J.D. 'Okhai Ojeikere from Nigeria hint at the power of physical beauty and style to confer social status.
As good a primer as this show is, there are some notable omissions. Works by Kerry James Marshall and Jean-Michel Basquiat, two influential artists, are absent. Painter Alma Thomas died in 1978, but not before exhibiting her color field abstractions at the Whitney Museum in New York. Lorna Simpson is a remarkable artist who uses photography, video, text, and installation to present conceptual narratives about being female and black and who could be added to my wish list, as well as Robert Colescott, who died in 2009 — a deft painter who satirized American myths. Contemporary black artists at the top of their game are too numerous to mention, but Mark Bradford, one of the best painters working today, is represented here by a small portfolio of prints. The Norton should acquire a large work by Bradford, who converts cheap paper advertising posters from his community in South Central Los Angeles into sweeping topographies.
Perhaps Florida in the 21st Century can become another fertile territory for African-American art production and dissemination. For quiet Palm Beach County, the Norton offers up some enviable programming. On January 16, there's a gallery talk on the topic of photographer Gordon Parks' version of American Gothic, and on January 20, Ringgold speaks.
But the big draw will be the Norton's next opening — by celebrated photographer Annie Leibovitz. The museum acquired 39 images from the power photographer, whose own harrowing career exploits are as risky and daring as some of her celebrated photo shoots for American Express, Disney, and Vanity Fair magazine.
Since the start of her career in the 1970s at Rolling Stone magazine, Leibovitz has chronicled American culture heroes in brash ways that emphasize their idiosyncrasies, their vulnerability, and their sexuality — she gave celebrity a whole new look. Portraits of icons like Tom Cruise, Patti Smith, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Brad Pitt, the Reverend Al Sharpton, L'il Kim, and Sean Combs captured the confidence of the '90s and 2000s with bold colors and dramatic lighting.
Leibovitz's personal financial career experienced a catastrophic nosedive as her star ascended and she overspent on lavish photo shoots, travel, and ill-advised real estate investments. With retrospectives at the Brooklyn Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, a long relationship with cultural critic Susan Sontag, and a saga of financial crisis that involves figures of more than $20 million, this is a photographer's life and work that is like no other. The Annie Leibovitz show opens January 17.