Rare exhibit of Afro-American works of art

EXHIBITIONS devoted entirely to the work of 20th-century Afro-American artists are relatively rare, and museums with significant and specialized holdings in such art are rarer still. The reasons given are that shows of this kind have only limited public appeal, and that few museum directors or curators are interested in assembling collections of this sort. Two who have, however, are Samuel Miller, director of the Newark Museum here, and Gary A. Reynolds, the museum's curator of painting and sculpture. Between them, they have helped their institution acquire more and better examples by recent black artists and have conceived and mounted a major exhibition of 20th-century Afro-American art.

Thirty-two painters, sculptors, and printmakers are represented in this show, which includes a 1920 oil by Henry O. Tanner, one of the earliest black American artists to receive serious recognition, and good to excellent pieces by such distinguished veterans as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Charles White, Faith Ringgold, and Sam Gilliam.

Other superior works are Nanette Carter's oil pastel ``Illumination No. 12,'' Alvin Loving's wondrously rich abstraction ``Untitled,'' Bob Thompson's wildly idiosyncratic ``St. George and the Dragon,'' and Bisa Washington's mixed-media wall hanging.

It all adds up to a fascinating and very worthwhile exhibition. Successful as it is, however, it really only whets our appetite for more and suggests that a truly full-scale and in-depth survey of black American art is long overdue. For those who think the necessary quality and interest might not be there, I suggest a visit to this show. It may be limited to black art of the 20th century and represent the collection of only one museum, but it should alert anyone who still has doubts that such a full-survey exhibition would be both an artistic and an art-historical event.

The Newark Museum also has a number of superb American Impressionist canvases on display, including examples by Cassatt, Hassam, Twachtman, Robinson, and Weir -- as well as ``Treasures From the Collections.'' The latter is a select sampling of outstanding acquisitions and ranges from a 12th-Dynasty Egyptian Middle Kingdom ``Coffin Board,'' from about 2000 BC, to a monumental ``Epa Mask,'' carved by the master Yoruba artist Bamgboye in 1920.

The museum will remain open throughout the summer. ``20th-Century Afro-American Artists'' closes Oct. 14, ``American Impressionism'' on Nov. 17, and ``Treasures'' on Dec. 31. Recent drawing acquisitions at the Whitney

There are those who insist that drawing has fallen on dark days in this century, forgetting entirely that Picasso was one of the best and most prolific draftsmen of all time and that in Matisse, Schiele, Mondrian, Kollwitz, Grosz, and several others we've had artists of genius and talent whose drawings will be admired for centuries to come.

What is true is that the tradition of rendering the figure according to physical and formal precepts and ideals first promulgated by the ancient Greeks and then given new direction by Leonardo, D"urer, Michelangelo, and Rubens has generally been set aside for a more direct approach to recording and animating forms and ideas on paper. This is due partly to modernism's predilection for two-dimensionality and improvisation and partly to the fact that drawing as it was practiced in the past has recently been perceived more as a skill than as an art. During the post-World War II period, a talent for drawing was viewed with suspicion, and those gifted with it were advised to suppress it or to channel it into more acceptable modes of expression.

Only during the past two decades or so has our perception of drawing widened sufficiently to permit the inclusion of more ``traditional'' approaches. Many talented younger draftsmen, as a result, are once again encouraged to follow their inclinations, and drawing is beginning to reassert itself as a fully independent art form.

No one has been more instrumental in bringing this about than Paul Cummings. Both in his capacity as adjunct curator of drawings at the Whitney Museum and in his various roles as editor, adviser, and writer on drawing, he has done as much as anyone to bring dignity and freedom of choice back to the independent draftsman.

``Drawing Acquisitions: 1981-1985,'' currently at the Whitney, was organized by Mr. Cummings, and gives some indication of the role he has played in broadening the museum's collection in this area.

It is an excellent and wide-ranging selection of over 90 works on paper by American artists added to the Whitney's holdings over the past four years. These include pieces in a wide variety of styles and media, ranging in time from Thomas Hart Benton's ``House in a Cubist Landscape'' of about 1915-1920, to Gladys Nilsson's 1985 ``E Z Runner.''

Of particular interest are Milton Avery's ``Lone Rock and Surf,'' which is as effective as any of his paintings; Robert Motherwell's ``Three Figures Shot''; Joseph Cornell's ``Weather Satellites''; Yvonne Jacquette's ``Searsport Harbor, Night, Horizontal''; and Joel Shapiro's two colorful pieces. The Whitney must also be pleased to have received nine drawings by Theodore Roszak from his estate, ranging from the powerful academic study ``My Violin Teacher'' to the fanciful ``Study for Airport'' and ``Starburst,'' and to now have six more drawings by Jackson Pollock.

At the Whitney Museum through Sept. 22.

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