Unearthing Fresh Viewpoints

Print collection offers a rare glimpse into black America during the Depression

`ALONE in a Crowd: Prints of the 1930s and 1940s by African-American Artists" is a welcome break from standard exhibits that show work by mostly male, white artists.

The exhibit is drawn from the collection of Reba and Dave Williams, and is on display here at the Equitable Gallery. It unlocks a piece of American history that has been hidden away for 50 years.

Sociology and political science provide windows into black history. But the history of Africans in America is better understood by looking at how African-Americans present themselves when making art. In the years covered by the exhibition, as black artists created new artistic vocabularies, subtle layers of self were revealed.

Many of the artists, such as Dox Thrash, Robert Blackburn, and Margaret Burroughs, built entirely new treasuries of images.

Early in this century, African-Americans seldom were visually represented in art works, and rarely had any control over that representation. Community art centers, sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Depression, gave African-Americans the means to pursue independent expression. Unemployed artists were put to work along with the rest of America.

The outpouring of creative energy under the WPA program produced the body of work that Reba and Dave Williams have sought out. Their collection numbers more than 3,500 prints by over a thousand artists. A selection from the collection is on permanent display on the office walls of Alliance Capital Management, an investment firm chaired by Dave Williams.

The Williamses write in the exhibit catalog that "much of the iconography of the 1930's-1940's prints by African-American artists was developed in the 1920's, during the `Black Renaissance' or `Harlem Renaissance,' the period of the first self-conscious cultural movement among African Americans."

The common themes and subjects of the prints include an emphasis on African heritage, the beauty of the black physiognomy, music, religion, and social injustice.

Participation of African-Americans in the military during World War II provided material for a number of artists. The lithograph "Muscles Mans the Guns, Voyage 13," done in 1947-48 by James Wells is based on an actual World War II event. Doris "Dorrie" Miller, an African-American messman aboard the USS Arizona during the Pearl Harbor attack, assisted his mortally wounded captain to shelter. He then took over the ship's machine gun, earning a Navy Cross for his heroism.

Wells's depiction of the dramatic scene (printmaking was his main genre) is powerful. As Dorrie fires at the attacking fighters, an icon-like halo of light surrounds his head, setting him apart in the otherwise dark and stormy scene.

Printmaking also provided a vehicle of protest for African-American artists such as John Woodrow Wilson.

His 1943 lithograph "Deliver Us From Evil" draws parallels between Nazi soldiers wreaking havoc on innocents in Europe and American capitalists prospering on the backs of the working man.

ACCORDING to the exhibition notes, some printmakers may have been influenced by Marcus Aurelius Garvey's New Negro Movement, which sought to use history to "substantiate the work of the race" and "manipulate ethnic symbols to critique Western civilization and revitalize the spirit of black people." In this vein, Allan Rohan Crite substituted African-American figures for white ones in traditional religious settings in many of his later works, including "The Five Joyful Mysteries," a suite of 11 prints mad e in 1947.

The exhibit includes several works by Robert Blackburn, founder of the Printmaking Workshop here in New York and winner of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1992. The impressionistic sky in his lithograph "Rooftops" captures the vibrant, energetic texture of the city.

Here in the American melting pot, the dominant impulse is often to forget, ignore, or rewrite history according to mainstream values. This exhibit proudly stands up and rocks the boat.

* `Alone in a Crowd' runs through Feb. 27 at the Equitable Gallery and The Newark Museum of Art. Its travels to the Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, Calif. (June. 4 to Aug. 1) and to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Britain (Oct. 5 to Dec. 19). In 1994, it will travel to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, N.C., and the Yale University Gallery of Art.

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