First an Outcast, Then an Inspiration

IN the fall of 1932, fresh out of high school, Elizabeth Catlett showed up at the School of Fine and Applied Arts of the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, having been awarded a prestigious full scholarship there. But she was turned away when it was discovered that she was “colored,” and she returned home to Washington to attend Howard University.

Seventy-six years later, the institution that had rejected her, now Carnegie Mellon University, awarded her an honorary doctorate in recognition of a lifetime’s work as a sculptor and printmaker. By then, after decades of living and making art in Mexico, she had become a legendary figure to many in the art world, to the point where some were even surprised to learn she was still alive.

But not everyone, and certainly not the far younger, primarily African-American artists included along with her in the show “Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation With 21 Contemporary Artists,” on view now at the Bronx Museum of Art. “A lot of people like her are just kind of myths,” said Hank Willis Thomas, whose gold-chain and cubic zirconia nod to both the abolitionists of the 19th century and to rappers, “Ode to CMB: Am I Not a Man and a Brother,” is in the show and shares with much of Ms. Catlett’s work a concern with the history of slavery and “the black body as commodity,” he said. “A lot of her work,” he added, “especially from the ’60s and ’70s, could pass as art of today.”

Ms. Catlett, now 96, is known for her work’s deep engagement with social issues and the politics of gender, race and deprivation. She started down this road during the Depression, when she participated in the Federal Art Project, and followed it consistently into the era of the activist Black Arts movement in the ’60s and beyond. Which is not to say she has focused on message at the expense of form: she prepared for her M.F.A. under Grant Wood at the University of Iowa (“he was so kind,” she recalled recently, and he always addressed her as “Miss Catlett”) and also studied in New York with the Modernist sculptor Ossip Zadkine and at the Art Students League, developing her own brand of figurative modernism in bronze, stone, wood, drawings and prints.
Though that style has often been compared to Henry Moore’s, her work has always been grounded in her perspective as a black woman and artist, ruminating on communal struggle, pride, resistance, resilience and history, particularly through her depictions of the female form.
The curator of the Bronx Museum show, Isolde Brielmaier, has juxtaposed 31 of Ms. Cattlet’s works with pieces by 21 other artists — less to point out her direct influences on them, Ms. Brielmaier said, than to explore resonances between the older artist and the younger ones. The idea, she added, was to make the show about “what all the artists are thinking, and to look at the past and the future.”

Ms. Catlett herself, who is back in New York this week for a panel discussion about “Stargazers” at the museum on Friday, demurs about her influence on later generations. (She is, however, clear about the most important advice she can offer an artist, she said during her previous visit to the city, in the fall: “Never turn down a show, no matter where it is.”) She has lived much of her life, after all, on the margins of an art history she and other artists of color were not invited to help write for a very long time.

In 1947, while on a fellowship in Mexico, she married the artist Francisco Mora, whom she had met through the Taller de Gráfica Popular printmaking collective. Their left-wing political associations did not endear her to the State Department, which declared her an undesirable alien when she took Mexican citizenship in 1962. This, on top of Ms. Cattlet’s race, contributed to her relative obscurity in the mainstream American art world.