Kelley Collection show provides wide view of African American art

In Ron Adams' 2002 lithograph "Blackburn," master printer and graphic artist Robert H. Blackburn is depicted pulling a print off the press and examining the image emblazoned on the paper while other copies of the work hang on the wall behind.

Not only is the beautifully executed, detailed piece part of "The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art: Works on Paper" now on view at the Sheldon Museum of Art, it defines the show that includes 55 pieces from the Kelley collection along with 30 more objects that belong to Sheldon.

Blackburn, the founder of New York's Printmaking Workshop, who collaborated with a who's who of mid-to-late 20th century art, is one of the biggest "names" in African American art. Adams, a superb draftsman, is lesser known but a talent to be reckoned with.

Works by both men found their way into the collection of San Antonio's Kelleys, who began buying African American paintings, sculpture and works on paper in 1987 and have assembled one of the country's most comprehensive private collections of the work.

The Sheldon show, organized by Landau Traveling Exhibitions of Los Angeles, is confined to works on paper, pieces that run the gamut from lithographs and etchings to watercolors and drawings.

They span more than 200 years in time -- from Grafton Tyler Brown's "Willow Glen Ranchero Residence of T.W. Moore, Pescadero, San Mateo County, California," an 1878 hand-colored lithograph landscape to work as recent as the present decade.

As required for any such traveling show, the exhibition has a solid sampling of the best-known African American artists.

They include etchings of Tangiers circa 1910-1913 from Henry Ossawa Tanner; a pair of Jacob Lawrence lithographs, one of "Carpenters," the other 1963's "Two Rebels," a black-and-white piece depicting police brutality during the Civil Rights era and a captivatingly hashed 1952 linoleum cut portrait of a "Sharecropper" from Elizabeth Catlett.

The Saar family is represented by its second generation, Alison Saar, whose "Black Snake Blues" from 1994 explores the stereotype of the sexualized African American woman, who lies on her side holding one of her breasts while a snake, ala Adam and Eve, slithers below.

Multiple pieces by Charles White include two of the most gripping works in the exhibition's "Social Justice" section -- a monumental etched portrait of "Frederick Douglass" and a one-color lithograph on yellow paper "Wanted Poster Service L-14" -- a takeoff of slave auction posters with two faces, one young, one older, dates "1619" and "19??" and an "X," a reference to the Nation of Islam's practice of substituting "X" for slave names, ala Malcolm X.

The exhibition, however, isn't entirely political/social. There are sections labeled abstraction, portraits, place and culture.

There are pieces that are cubist (Richard W. Dempsey's untitled charcoal and pastel planed view of a "thinker"), abstract (Sam Middleton's 1961 gouache) and a combination of realism and abstraction (Ben Long's "We Love, We Give, We Die, We Go Someplace").

The show also brings to view work by little known artists, such as Ike E. Morgan, who paints while in the Austin State Hospital, whose 1990 "Still Life" is gorgeous and kind of impressionist, a century later.

The exhibition is well-designed and smartly hung. For example, William H. Johnson's "Jitterbugs III," a pochoir (paint stenciled onto paper) of a pair of dancers, hangs next to Robert Colescott's "I Can't Dance," a lithograph that hits at another stereotype, with Eldzier Cortor's "Dance Composition #35" depicting three elongated female dancers in white dresses against an Art Deco-ish background on a nearby wall.

With 55 pieces, the Kelley Collection show will reward repeat visits. It's also one of those group exhibitions where you will "like" some pieces and not care for others -- the nature of the beast. It is well worth catching for the rare opportunity to see an assemblage of work by such a range of African American artists and also to put into context the Sheldon collection.

The Sheldon pieces, which are found in the exhibition's east gallery, include familiar works, such as Martin Puryear's large, black, gourdlike 2001 wooden sculpture "The Nightmare," a Kara Walker print and the "Emperor Jones" series by Nebraska graduate Aaron Douglas.

It also includes two works getting their first exhibition -- Barkley L. Hendricks' striking "Bid ‘Em In/Slave," a large 1973 painting of a woman clad in tank top, shorts and high boots with arms crossed over her chest where her shirt is inscribed "Slave" against a garish pink background, and "Untitled (Blue Waves)," a late abstracted piece that contains four interlocked figures from Harlem Renaissance artist Norman Lewis.

Those pieces as well as the Douglas series are among the works that have been acquired recently by Sheldon as director J. Daniel Veneciano builds the museum's African American collection.

Sheldon, a wall label frankly admits, is not yet capable of mounting a comprehensive exhibition ala the Kelley Collection show. But with each purchase, it gets closer to being able to do so and, more important, adds needed pieces and artists to its collection of American art.

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