The Palmer Museum of Art’s “African-American Art from the Permanent Collection” exhibit doesn’t merely showcase black art, it documents history. Featuring items such as a photograph by “Shaft” director Gordon Parks and art by Penn State alumni John Biggers, the exhibit captures an important period in the region and country’s history.
The exhibit boasts a number of pieces from the early 1930s. Perhaps the most widely recognized is Parks’ famous take on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” titled “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.” The photograph portrays a black cleaning woman holding a mop and a broom against the backdrop of a large American flag. According to the exhibit’s curator, Joyce Robinson, the photo was meant to represent the racial segregation Parks encountered in the country’s capitol when he went there as part of his work as an artist for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal-era program.
Another New Deal agency, the Works Progress Administration, provided the funding and training that allowed a few of the other artists in the exhibit to develop their talent.
Before Charles White created the linocut that is part of the Palmer’s exhibit, he was a painter for the WVA. The linocut is actually on loan to the Palmer from Pattee Library, where it is part of the Viktor Lowenfeld collection. Before Lowenfeld taught art at Penn State, he taught at the historically black Hampton Institute, in Virginia. While at the school, Lowenfeld encouraged his art students (who were almost exclusively black) to study the works of Charles White.
“Here was a Charles White, who was working and making a living as an African-American artist in a time of racial segregation,” Robinson said. “One of Lowenfeld’s students, John Biggers, was greatly influenced by White’s depiction of African Americans.
“Going to Church” depicts several figures dressed up in their Sunday finest. It is a drawing that features realistic images of blacks during a time where stereotypes were widely used on stage and in print. Biggers eventually followed Lowenfeld from the Hampton Institute to Penn State, where his murals can be seen on the walls of the main entrance of Burrowes Building. Biggers faced many difficulties when he arrived at Penn State in the 1940s.
“He went into a barber shop and they refused to cut his hair because he was African American. There was actually a student rally on Old Main to protest that fact and to support John Biggers,” Robinson said. “This piece is important because it reminds us of a time in Penn State history that might otherwise be easy to forget.”