“Awakened in You:” The Collection of Dr. Constance E. Clayton
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
118-128 North Broad Street
Presently, the museum is closed due to the novel Coronavirus pandemic
February 21 to July 12, 2020
Museums around the world have garnered criticism for the lack of work by women and artists of color in their permanent collections. One institution that has sought to remedy this problem is the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), notably with the 2012 acquisition of Linda Lee Alter’s collection of 500 pieces by women, and now with “Awakened in You,” a remarkable set of 76 works by African American artists given by Constance E. Clayton, Philadelphia’s first Black school superintendent.
The collection represents over one hundred years of accomplishment by African American artists in a variety of styles and media, both two- and three-dimensional. These works once graced the home of Clayton and her mother Williabell Clayton, who died in 2004. The two began collecting the works during the early 1990s, —not long after the critic Maurice Berger, who tragically died last week as a result of the novel coronavirus, published his 1990 article “Are Museums Racist?” decrying the museum establishment’s underrepresentation of artists of color.
Included are landscape paintings worked in the academic tradition for which PAFA is known. An untitled 1885 seaside landscape by Edward Bannister (1828-1901), for instance, captures light and atmosphere in the manner of the luminist painters of the day, with shimmering details of sky and water. More recent paintings by Louis B. Sloan (1932-2008), such as the undated, untitled (field landscape with narrow sky), show the influence of abstraction in bands of gold, green and blue, within the genre of the plein air painting.
An influential teacher at PAFA, Sloan’s students included the late Barkley L. Hendricks, whose better-known paintings depict brash characters in flamboyant dress. In this show, Hendricks’ small, dreamy pastel and charcoal drawing Head of a Boy shows the artist’s quieter side.
Hendricks’ drawing finds psychological depth in the visage of a seemingly ordinary subject, and many of the collection’s other portraits do the same. In Dox Thrash’s untitled, undated painting of a man with red suspenders, the boldness of the eponymous clothing item, along with the red of the subject’s lips, reinforce his intense gaze. The angular face and glowing highlights of Loïs Maillou Jones’s Bus Boy (1943) lead us to wonder what drama might be in the young man’s life beyond his pedestrian occupation. Augusta Savage uses sculpture to depict a similar drama in the undated Gamin, a portrait of a boy with his head slightly cocked, staring intently into the distance.
Prints of every type and from every era are the backbone of this collection. Henry O. Tanner’s 1913 etching, The Wreck, evokes chaos at sea by breaking the scene into ghostly pointillist specks. James Lessane Wells’ 1938 woodcut, Sister,s melds abstraction and figuration by repeating the curvature of the women’s faces in a set of concentric rings of increasing size. And a 1995 Elizabeth Catlett lithograph entitled Blues Player shows a woman holding a guitar at a raking angle, the rhythmic zigzag of her limbs and sharp black-white contrasts of her clothing evoking the music’s bright sounds.
Prominent among the collection’s prints are two silkscreens by Jacob Lawrence. The flat interlocking shapes of Genesis Series and the noisy, rhythmic interplay of the books in Schomburg Library foreground color and shape as much as the named subjects these pieces depict. Veering further into pure form is one of the collection’s few fully abstract pieces, an untitled 1945 oil painting by Beauford Delaney, whose meandering yellow, blue and red bands mingle with circles, stars and more nebulous shapes in a roaring river of color.
The push to include more African American artists in museums takes many forms. One is racially- and politically-conscious shows like Thirty Americans, which recently closed at Philadelphia’s venerable Barnes Foundation—and whose very title spurs discussion of Black artists’ marginal citizenship in the art world. Awakened in You takes another approach. With its focus on keen observation of the world and the people in it—and with the sheer visual pleasure it brings—this show awakens deeply personal responses in the viewer. It draws us near to the world view of the artists who made these works, thereby drawing them toward a more central place in the academy.print