Filling the Void: Two Centuries of Black American Art (1976)

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by Bridget R. Cooks, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History and Program in African American Studies, University of California, Irvine.

Chapter excerpt from Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, University of Massachusetts Press, forthcoming 2011. All rights reserved.

Two Centuries of Black American Art was the only historically comprehensive exhibition of art by Black Americans in American art museums. Organized by The Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, the exhibition traveled in 1977 to the The High Museum of Art at Atlanta, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and The Brooklyn Museum. Two Centuries received greater visibility and validation by the mainstream art world than any other group exhibition of work by Black artists. It also gave the general public the opportunity to become aware of and enjoy the depth and breadth of art made by Black people. Guest curated by Professor David C. Driskell while he was Chairman of the Department of Art at Fisk University, Two Centuries not only announced the presence of Black contemporary fine artists, but also shocked visitors and critics in attendance record-breaking numbers with its display of objects from several visual traditions that had previously been omitted from most accounts of American art.

This chapter analyzes what was at stake concerning the curatorial objectives, critical reception, and museological impact of Two Centuries, and focuses on three of the greatest challenges it posed to the art world. First, mounted in the commemorative year of the nation’s bicentennial, Two Centuries was positioned to fulfill a nationalist desire to demonstrate America’s progress regarding race relations on its 200th anniversary…Along with the LACMA exhibition Women Artists: 1550–1950 curated by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin earlier in the year, Two Centuries was poised to serve as evidence of the unity of the American people through the arts and the inclusive policies of the art museum along gender and racial lines. In reality, Driskell’s objective was not to confirm that racial equality had arrived in the art world. Instead, his charge was to break through the racial barriers of ignorance and willful exclusion that still existed in America’s most respected art museums even two centuries after it was founded. Through his curatorial vision, Driskell brought the art world up-to-date on the history of Black American art production beginning in 1750 (twenty six years before the nation’s birth) in a bold presentation of over 200 works of art by sixty three artists virtually ignored by mainstream American museums.

Two Centuries served as a corrective to the brazen devaluing of Black American struggle and creativity. Driskell argued for the inclusion of artwork by Black Americans in American art museums and art history. Known as “The Black Show” in Los Angeles during its planning stages, Two Centuries was a political insertion and Black affirmation into art history, art museums, and immediately into race relations in Los Angeles, which was still grappling with the devastation from the Watts Riots. Second, Two Centuries befuddled art critics, some of whom were faced with reviewing an exhibition of art by Black American artists for the first time. Although Two Centuries was an exhibition of American art, critics shifted from their regular approaches to it because their understanding of racial Blackness disqualified the show as an art exhibition. The reviews reveal several troubling reactions that demonstrate the critics’ discomfort with the presence of Black artists in the museum and express their critical limitations concerning definitions of Black ability. One critic complained about reviewing the show because he believed it contained too much social history and therefore did not belong in a museum. Critics also stated their annoyance at the exhibition for not showing enough of a Black difference from art by White Americans. Through these critical responses,Two Centuries forced a discussion of what was at stake in protecting America’s art museums from acknowledging national diversity and racial conflict as an American reality, and maintaining the hierarchy of White privilege on the gallery walls.

Third, Driskell challenged the racial category of Black itself. The exhibition included the work of renowned painter and naturalist John James Audubon. Although considered a White man, Audubon was actually biracial, born to a Black Haitian mother and French planter father in 1785. The inclusion of Audubon as a Black artist was considered by some critics and members of the public as a case of mistaken identity. Others understood Driskell’s claim of Audubon as a desperate attempt to boost Black American self-esteem. The point of showing that some White artists are Black, or at least as Black as they are White, was an important interruption into the mainstream art world to point out the historical interrelations between the races indicating the history of interdependence and oppression in our national body—a body that is interracial. The significance of this reclamation of Audubon into the Black body in 1976 challenged the myth of White superiority and exclusivity in the art world, and the tense racial politics in the cities in which the exhibition traveled.

Until 1976, evidence of Black American creativity and artistic production in mainstream museums had been sparse. Beginning with their exhibitions of art in the nineteenth century through private galleries and world’s exhibitions Black Americans struggled to be recognized as relevant to the art world. Black artists took advantage of every exhibition opportunity to prove themselves as equal contributors to the history of American art. Mainstream art museums did not begin organizing exhibitions of art by Black Americans until the late 1920s. Inconsistent in their acknowledgment of the quality and value of art by Black Americans and sporadically offered to the public, these exhibitions did not indicate the rich history of diverse artistic production by Black artists. Two Centuries filled the void of this omission of Black American artists in art history and museum history and pointed to the absences of artworks that had been discarded, devalued, and lost because of unequal standards of recognition….

Pressure from Inside and Outside

It all started in 1968 when LACMA, known then as the County Museum of Art, organized The Sculpture of Black Africa: The Paul Tishman Collection, an exhibition of the Tishman collection of African Art. At the time, most of the security guards at the museum were Black, but there had been no exhibition of art by a Black American artist since the 1935 exhibition of sculpture by Beulah Ecton Woodard in the institution’s previous formation as the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art…. Led by Sergeant William Knight, the guards organized to make the African art exhibition an event that would involve the Black communities of Los Angeles. Knight and twelve of the guards formed the idea for a Black Culture Festival to take place at the museum during the run of the exhibition. With approval from the museum administration, this group became the organizing committee for the festival to “commemorate the awakening of Black Culture and to encourage the Black Community to participate in more Museum activities.” A diverse group of Black Angelenos—students, artists, television and film entertainers, dancers, musicians, and others—got involved in the public programs and cultural festivities as a result of the guards’ efforts to seize upon the museum’s interest in Black Africans. In a strategy reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance, in which Black Americans capitalized on the art world’s fascination with African art to create a space for Black American artists to be recognized, the exhibition of the Tishman collection at the County Museum of Art provided such an opportunity for Blacks to pressure the museum to recognize Black American creativity and achievement in the city.

On December 28, 1968 more than 4,000 mostly Black visitors made the Black Culture Festival at the County Museum a celebration of African heritage and current achievements of Black Los Angeles. The exhibition and its programs opened the door for Black Americans to take a role in the County Museum of Art’s programming as the art of their homeland was featured at the museum.…

The guards were not the only ones involved in making a change in the exhibition programs at the museum. In 1969 two Black members of the museum staff, art preparators Cecil Fergerson and Claude Booker, began agitating for the presence of Black American artists in the museum’s exhibitions. Fergerson began working for the museum at age seventeen when what became LACMA was still a part of the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art in Exposition Park. In an amazing feat of determination and dedication, and the help of a successful discrimination law suit, Fergerson worked his way up the museum ranks from his initial janitorial position in 1948, to art preparator in 1964, and later to curatorial assistant in 1972. Claude Booker worked as one of the museum’s art preparators and artist in Los Angeles’ thriving Black art scene… Fergerson and Booker formed the Black Arts Council in 1968, an organization of Black staff, artists, and citizens concerned about the advancement of art by Blacks in Los Angeles. Booker was the President and Fergerson the secretary. At the time, the museum’s Board of Directors consisted of only Whites and the Black Arts Council served to represent the interests of the Black art and cultural community within the museum. The Black Arts Council was the activist component of a small but stimulating art scene for Black artists in Los Angeles. Annual arts exhibitions and cultural festivities became available in 1966 through the Watts Summer Festival and the Festival in Black…. Booker and Fergerson presented a proposal to the museum on behalf of the Black Arts Council for some of the city’s Black art activity to take place at the museum. The museum’s board of directors committed to a three evening lecture series focusing on Black artists, and a Black art exhibition...The three lectures were delivered in 1969.

The First Black Shows

In its history, LACMA has organized three exhibitions of work by Black artists. All three took place in the 1970s, the last of which was Two Centuries. The first exhibition was Three Graphic Artists: Charles White, David Hammons, Timothy Washington in the Prints and Drawings Galleries in January 1971.

As a show of appreciation to the artists and support for Los Angeles’ Black art community, the museum purchased one work by each artist for its permanent collection through Alonzo Davis of the Brockman Gallery, the Black-owned art gallery in Los Angeles.

In 1972, the Black Arts Council organized A Panorama of Black Artists, the second exhibition of work by Black American artists this time located in the museum’s basement Art Rental Gallery. The seventy six object Panorama was curated by Carroll Greene, Jr., notable Black curator and advocate for art by Black Americans, and supported by The Kress Foundation, a private organization dedicated to the preservation and study of European art in American museums. For the Black Arts Council, the exhibition was an opportunity to promote art by the fifty-two Black artists on view which included Hammons and White from Three Graphic Artists and funk and assemblage artists John Outterbridge. Noah Purifoy, and Betye Saar among others. Organized as a survey of contemporary work by Black artists in Los Angeles, each object was available to be rented or sold. The curators and administration of the museum considered the exhibition an experiment to gauge the public’s level of interest in Black American art for the possibility of a higher profile show to be held in the museum galleries.

Organizing Two Centuries

After Panorama, the Black Arts Council pressured the museum’s curatorial staff for nearly three years to organize a major Black art exhibition in the museum’s main galleries. On behalf of the curatorial staff, [LACMA] Director Kenneth Donahue reported to the Council that the curators considered the idea of a Black art show and rejected it. Finally, in April 1974, Deputy Director Rexford Stead sent a letter to Professor David Driskell, then professor of art at Fisk University, on the recommendation of Charles White telling him about the museum’s preliminary plans for a bicentennial “survey presentation of Black American Art from the Colonial Period to mid-20th Century” and requesting a formal proposal from him if he would be interested in serving as the guest curator...

[Driskell’s] plan for Two Centuries was simply to curate an exhibition that could represent the long history of Black American artists through various forms. As Stead stated in his Introduction to the catalogue Driskell’s charge was “to locate a broad-ranged group of works reflecting the efforts of the more significant black American artists from slave times into the mid-twentieth century.” Stead assisted the curator with what Driskell recalls was a spirited dedication to make the exhibition a success. Driskell selected art historian, civil rights activist, and accomplished actor Leonard Simon as his research assistant because of his comprehensive grasp of art history. Simon wrote the biographic entries for each artist and the object descriptions in the catalogue. Driskell traveled all over the country to select the objects for the exhibition. The dates of several of the artworks exceeded the 200-year limit of the exhibition because some of the artists wanted to be recognized for some of their more recent work. Driskell conceded to their request as long as they had proven themselves as artists by 1950. Two Centuries presented a history of the nation in the art by Black Americans that paralleled mainstream American art history but had been kept hidden. His exhibition created a canon of Black American artists and their work.