Powerful show of African-American art at DIA
"Detroit Collects: Selections of African American Art from Private Collections," up at the Detroit Institute of Arts through Mar. 1, is a remarkably handsome tour through the work of black American artists, both famous and unknown.
If you can only make one big show this fall, this would be a darned good bet, and one you won't regret.
"This show is really focused on Detroit as a center for black creativity and genius," said Valerie Mercer, DIA curator and department head of the General Motors Center for African American Art, "and the support that gets here."
With work from 19 local collectors, Mercer has pulled together work that ranges from the very famous -- Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Carrie Mae Weems and Charles McGee -- to names that deserve more recognition than they might currently enjoy, like Robert L. Tomlin, Elizabeth Catlett and the 19th-century artist Robert S. Duncanson.
"Sometimes I picked work by artists I knew absolutely nothing about," Mercer said, describing her visits to local collectors' homes, "because that’s a nice challenge for me and my research assistant to find out about them, like Cledie Taylor's picture of 'Little Paul.'"
The "Little Paul" subject painted by Detroiter Robert Tomlin looks to be a young adolescent, not entirely thrilled about posing in a dressy, if over-large, sport jacket worn above jeans and sneakers.
"I couldn’t stop thinking about that work," Mercer said, adding, "I like images of pensive teens."
While most of the collectors represented here are black, like Deborah F. Copeland or Kevin J. and Karen Clermont Johnson, there are exceptions including Eugene A. Gargaro Jr., DIA board chairman, and his wife Mary Anne, as well as Richard and Jane Manoogian.
"It's a diverse group of collectors," Mercer said. "Initially we started off with a list of mostly African-Americans who collect African-American art, but at some point I heard from some collectors of European descent who wanted to contribute."
The range of "Detroit Collects" is a delight.
We progress from powerful portraiture like "Little Paul" or Elizabeth Catlett's African-inflected "Madonna" to one of Nick Cage's crazy "Soundsuits," to the severe, sculptural elegance of "Reliquary" by New Yorker Martin Puryear, who represented the U.S. in this year's Venice Biennale.
"Reliquary," which looks a bit like a squat obelisk, is a striking wood construction that reads from afar, for all the world, like stone.
"I remember seeing 'Reliquary' in a large retrospective at MOMA," Mercer said, adding that she was delighted to discover it in the collection of Gayle and Andrew Camden.
"Puryear’s one of my favorite sculptors, and one of most important contemporary artists. 'Reliquary,'" she added, "doesn't have a single nail in it. It's just wood fitted into wood." Mercer shook her head.
"How do you do that and get it right?"
One of the show's standouts is "A Fool There Was... Europe/Africa" by Robert Colescott, whose loose style, boldness and cheerful reframing of art-historical classics inspired a younger generation like Kehinde Wiley, who did President Obama's official portrait.
"Colescott was one of the first to be so outrageous, and to redo art history," Mercer said. Indeed, the artist, who died in 2009, reframed Van Gogh's "The Potato Eaters," Emanuel Luetze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" and Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon" (which the artist retitled "Demoiselles d'Alabama") by substituting African-Americans for whites in the originals.
(Going to be in Cincinnati sometime before the end of the year? That city's Contemporary Arts Center has a large, much-talked-about retrospective up through Jan. 12, "Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott.")
A particularly enigmatic canvas worth seeking out is "Girl Fleeing" by the late Hughie Lee-Smith, who spent a number of years in Detroit before moving on to New York.
A lot of Lee-Smith's paintings involve haunting images of children in broken-down neighborhoods, often in Harlem, like the DIA's "Boy with Tire."
But "Girl Fleeing," with its pretty young heroine running through what looks like a gulch beneath a factory, is particularly affecting.
"I liked the work as soon as I saw it" in the collection of Jerome Watson and Judge Deborah Geraldine Bledsoe Ford, Mercer said.
She added, "Like a lot of Hughie’s works, it’s kind of mysterious. You don’t know if that young woman is okay – you hope she’s fine, but you just don’t know."
Through March. 1
Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit
9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Thurs; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. & Sun.
Admission free to Wayne, Oakland & Macomb residents
All others: $14-adults, $9-seniors, $8-college students, youth-$6 (6-17 years); DIA members enter free