Black art thrives at Harlem's Studio Museum

The Studio Museum in Harlem -- referred to by one major foundation as "the principal center for the study of black art in America" -- was founded 12 years ago to exhibit the work of black artists and to serve as the nucleus for a far-reaching art-educational system for the Harlem community.

It's been eminently successful -- so successful in fact that a major bank recently donated a large building to be converted into new quarters for the museum.

In addition to office and studio space, these new quarters will house the museum's permanent collection (which it intends continually to update, to give an increasingly comprehensive view of the black presence in the Americas), its new photographic wing, and its expanded film archives.

But it has never forgotten its educational responsibilities, one of the most important of which is its cooperative school program, in which the museum hires professional artists to teach in two school districts in Harlem.

Another major focus of the museum since 1972 has been its highly innovative Artists in Residence program: three talented young black artists, chosen annually from several hundred applicants, are given a stipend and studio residency for one year to devote full time during that period to art. Not only does this mean free studio space and the opportunity to become involved in museum activities, but also the chance to have their work seen by museum curators and major dealers.

Specifically, this includes a joint exhibition in the main galleries of the museum, an exhibition large and complete enough to give anyone interested a good idea of the range, nature, and focus of the work of these young artists.

I missed seeing the work of last year's residents, but have just seen what the current trio has been up to, and I'm pleased to report that they have done both themselves and the Artists in Residence program proud.

There is a wonderfully geological look to the art of Jacqui Holmes, as though her works -- books and fragments of books and sheet music -- had just been brought up from between lower strata of rock during drilling. Or had been picked up from the surface of the moon.

Fashioned from thick, richly textured handmade paper molded, gouged, and torn to resemble reconstructed and mounted pages from millenniums-old volumes and documents, these sumptuous and oddly elegant works would hold their own in any exhibition anywhere.

They are the kinds of things one should be allowed to touch and feel, for they seem capable somehow of transmitting the wisdom of the ages in the manner of relics and fossils. As the artist herself has written about her work: These are "books that hold a part of my being, my race, my femaleness, my human memory" . . . they "refer to a time past, future, and present."

That they certainly seem to do -- and they are extremely handsome and moving as well.

The art of Candace Hill-Montgomery, on the other hand, tends to be more pointed and socially directed. It bites with references to racial and social injustices, and yet achieves an overall formal unity that triggers compassion and a wash for deeper understandings rather than frustration and rage.

Although I appreciated the photographs documenting environmental sculptures she erected in the city in 1979, and the single-room installation, "92 Morningside and Remember Fred Hampton," I found her large photo-collage, watercolor, and mixed-media works the most invigorating of all her things on view. And of these, I responded most strongly to "An Unknown Relative" and "Tepee Town in Reserve."

Louis Delsarte specializes in fantasy and surreal images which create, in his own words, "an allegorical journey through life -- a kind of dream state." The majority of these charcoal and ebony pencil drawings -- and all of the watercolors -- reminded me vaguely of illustrations for a book not yet written.

Although the draftsmanship in these works is clear and authoritative, I wish that he had paid as much attention to the totality of the imagery as he paid to its details. But I suppose one can chalk that up to youth -- and to a strong talent not quite engaged as yet with its appropriate theme or subject.

Also on view is an excellent selection from the museum's permanent collection. Outstanding here are Romare Bearden's "Conjar Woman"; John Do'vell's exquisite watercolor, "Delicate Touch"; two of Robert Reed's sensitive watercolor studies, entitled "Beach No. 23" and "Beach No. 24"; and a group of remarkable photographs by the eminent Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee.

It all adds up to an exceptional set of exhibitions, running through Sept. 21 at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Fifth Avenue and 125th Street.

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