Art with a boogie-woogie beat
An exhibition in Boston highlights how music, particularly jazz, influenced African-American art.
Painting and music are kissing cousins, and nowhere is this more evident than in the worlds of African-American art and jazz. Both are indigenous American art forms, both grow from a desire to be heard and to express vitality and strength of purpose. Both depend upon the influences of African rhythms, visual and aural.
Art movements often find parallels in the music of their era, as Kandinsky and others of the Blue Rider movement found in the atonal works of Schoenberg.
African-American artists and musicians of the 20th century tended not to play by the rules of Western art, but followed their own drummer. Their vocabulary was often unorthodox, involving stylistic choices that would've been unfamiliar to mainstream audiences decades ago. Such innovations as syncopation - in which the normally unstressed musical notation is stressed - are now more agreeable to our ears, educated as we are by more than 50 years of blues, jazz, rock, and now hip-hop. It's easy to take such eclecticism for granted, but things weren't always this way.
An exhibition at the Boston University Art Gallery, "Syncopated Rhythms: 20th- Century African American Art From the George and Joyce Wein Collection," makes this case eloquently. The show is composed of 50 works, including paintings, sculpture, and fabric art from well-known African-American artists such as Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), Elizabeth Catlett (b. 1915), and Faith Ringgold (b. 1930). It also features two paintings by trumpet legend Miles Davis (1926-1991).
The subject matter runs the gamut, from street scenes to a Louis Armstrong portrait, from jam sessions and dance-hall boogie-woogie to the imagery of social protest. But because the Weins' taste in art was informed by a love of jazz (he studied jazz piano and later went on to found the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954; she wrote about jazz in college), the collection is most remarkable for its jazz-inflected art.
As a mixed-race couple in the 1950s (he is white, she African-American), the Weins provided an example of interracial harmony more than a decade before the Civil Rights movement took hold. By the couple's presence, and through George's entrepreneurial skills, the Weins paved the way for better integration of jazz clubs, and George is credited with helping jazz win recognition as a serious art form. (He continues as founder and CEO of Festival Productions; Joyce died in August.)
Among the most evocative of the pieces they collected is a delightful painting by Ernie Barnes (b. 1938) called "Song of Myself." In it, a black man, shirtless and with torn pants, strums his guitar with complete absorption. The figure is painted in an exaggerated, elongated manner reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton, but the integrity and self-sufficiency of the guitarist keeps the painting from seeming derivative in any way.
"It reveals ... the way that people who sang the blues, sang as a way of solving the blues," Barnes wrote of the piece, as quoted in the exhibition catalog. "I've become aware that music is an investigation of the black mind and reveals the inner world of what is really an oral culture...."
On a more exuberant note, Richard Yarde's 1991 watercolor "Savoy" depicts a scene that is more in concert with the white image of black dance in the era of the Savoy Ballroom in New York's Harlem. The dancers' energy is conveyed by the vibrant colors and lively dot patterns on a background of yellow squares. The repetition provides a sense of rhythm and counterpoint.
Far more unusual and unexpected an image is Minnie Evans's 1955 "Untitled: Woman's Head with Flowers" in crayon on paper. Evans (1892-1987) was a self-taught artist and descendent of Caribbean slaves, and a devoted Baptist. She drew inspiration from dreams and visions, as well as from biblical imagery and botanical forms. Evans's piece calls to mind a festival of Caribbean music and food, with dancing and bright costumes. But Evans could not really explain her art, any more than she could her visions. She was quoted as saying, "They are just as strange to me as they are to anybody else."
Like Evans, George and Joyce Wein might not have been able to explain why they chose each work in the collection, other than that the art moved them. Like the artists represented here, the couple was familiar with discrimination and negative assumptions. And like the artists, they sought to be true to themselves, regardless of labels. They were able to sashay past those limitations, caught up in the syncopated rhythms of jazz.
• The exhibition continues at the Boston University Art Gallery through Jan. 22.