The Museum of Fine Arts Houston has a show up of works exclusively by African American artists in their collection.
It’s a potentially problematic curatorial idea—there’s not much of a theme here—and it opens the museum to accusations of perfunctory curatorial affirmative action. Times have changed, even since the last time the museum mounted such a show in 2004. When the current exhibit opened early this year (on cue for Black History Month), there were rumblings of criticism from some of the artists included. I spoke to a few of them, who described the show variously as “a nice gesture” and “unscholarly” and “a neat little box.” The artist and jazz historian Tierney Malone commented that the only unifying theme in the show is that “this group of artists just happen to share the same melanin.”
That’s the elephant in the room that Statements: African American Art from the Museum’s Collection fails to address. The show has some strong moments and nice surprises, but mostly it feels like the museum rummaged around in the attic for pieces that fit the criteria and left it at that. It’s a missed opportunity to deliberately consider how the artists have embraced—or rejected—the weight of (white) art history and the notion of ‘black identity’ in their work. Because that pendulum is forever swinging back and forth, between “black artists should make art about the black experience” vs. “there’s no such thing as African American art (a.k.a. The Negro-Art Hokum).” These were the two main lines of argument facing African American artists in the 20th century, and the debate continues today. But with Statements, the museum has eschewed any engagement with that debate, mounting a no-comment show with a somewhat haphazard chronological installation that has little meat on its bones by way of related programming, essays, or even wall text.
More than any other Houston museum, the MFAH has a checkered history with African American artists and audiences: when local hero John Biggers won the museum purchase prize in the Houston Artists Exhibition in 1950, he famously wasn’t allowed to attend the award ceremony because it was a white-only event. For a long time, Thursdays were the only day black people could attend the museum, which is how Thursday eventually morphed into the museum’s weekly free day.
But in more recent decades, Alvia Wardlaw, the museum’s former curator and director of the African American Art Advisory Association (known as 5A), organized major shows of Thornton Dial, the Texas painter Kermit Oliver, Harlem photographer Roy DeCarava, and, most famously, the legendary blockbuster Gee’s Bend quilt exhibition in 2002. (That show travelled to major institutions all over the country, and spawned a whole cottage industry of Gee’s Bend exhibitions, books, and merchandise.) When Dr. Wardlaw retired from the museum in 2009, the museum quietly allowed her position to lapse, implicitly arguing that there was no longer a need for a specialized curator in African American art. After all, if the notion of a show of African American artists from a collection seems “fusty” (as one curator from another Texas institution commented to me), then having a curator dedicated to African American art seems really fusty, particularly when you consider the new crop of young black curators taking jobs around the country.
But it has to be said that, for all its faults, Statements seems like a sincere attempt by the MFAH to attend to audiences, and show work, that have been overlooked in the past. Every artist in the show I spoke to said something along the lines of “I’m glad to see it, because it’s better than nothing.” And every time I’ve gone to see Statements, there have been both black and white visitors in the gallery, including one African American dad explaining works to his young children. This stuff does need to get out there. I just wish this particular show were better edited and more purposeful. And while there are enjoyable discoveries to be made in Statements, ultimately the show exposes some glaring weaknesses in the MFAH’s collection.
At the entrance is a large, recent Mark Bradford piece that was acquired last year. Bradford, the Los Angeles artist who made his name with massive canvases made from collaged, sanded street advertisements, has drifted towards more literal and didactic works in recent years. Circa 1992 references a sign posted by a church in Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King riots. I suppose it’s good that the MFAH finally has a large Mark Bradford, but I can’t help but wish they’d gotten one of his earlier, stronger, less obvious canvases, such as those in the collection of The Broad and the Fort Worth Modern.
Inside the galleries, the show is organized more or less chronologically, beginning with a small bronze figure from 1935 by Richmond Barthé and ending with a room of relatively recent works by contemporary artists.
Among the early works, there’s a muscular sculpture of a crouching mother cradling her child by John Biggers. I was previously only aware of Biggers’ murals and paintings, and the way he conjures a painful tenderness out of rough terracotta is an unexpected highlight of this gallery. I was also glad to see the museum’s three “lynch fragments” by Melvin Edwards. This ongoing series of small steel wall pieces are Edwards’ best work, and in the MFAH’s elegantly balanced examples, the artist forces chains and tools into grimly austere little masses. (Edwards’ retrospective at the Nasher Sculpture Center in 2015 is a show the MFAH should have hosted, given that the artist is a graduate of Wheatley High School in the Fifth Ward in Houston.)
Other early standouts include a handsome vase by Carroll Harris Simms, who founded the ceramics department at Texas Southern University and was instrumental, along with Biggers, in establishing that school’s art department. And a long-exposure photograph by Roy DeCarava from 1952 hauntingly depicts a dead end both figurative and literal: a poorly lit, narrow firetrap of a hallway in a tenement building.
The centerpiece of Statements is a large, masterful Thornton Dial painting, one of six the museum owns. Titled Roosevelt: A Handicapped Man Got the Cities to Move, it’s Dial at his best, with a dense surface of applied objects and cans all thickly covered with impasto paint. It’s a powerful, bravura, angry piece of art. Dial’s trademark tiger (which is said to represent the struggles of African Americans encountering life) weaves throughout the image, and masklike faces scattered around the canvas evoke the emotions of those struggles.
I loved two elaborately beaded necklaces by Joyce J. Scott (which came into the museum’s holdings through the fantastic Helen Williams Drutt collection of jewelry). One of them, titled The Sneak, depicts six figures either engaged in, or witnessing, domestic violence. The subject matter may be a downer, but Scott’s colorful beaded three-dimensional figures popping off the surface of the necklace, like weapons stabbing into the wearer’s personal space, suggest a furious, ornate armor.
The photographer Earlie Hudnall Jr.’s images of Freedman’s Town and the Fourth Ward in Houston in the 1980s are also great. Hudnall had the vision and gumption to capture what is now a memory in the city’s architectural history, when poor shotgun houses stood in the shadows of downtown skyscrapers. (Given its strength in photography, I would love to see the museum mount a major show of documentary photographs of Houston.) I also appreciated the pairing of Tierney Malone’s Jazz Studies III: Stereo alongside the oddly engaging Gift of God Bar by Jean Lacy, a Dallas artist whose surrealist collage of sin and redemption is something of a revelation. Both works invite close looking, in Malone’s case through the use of collaged snippets of text about jazz, and in Lacy’s, through the intricate narrative involving a bar and a brothel—or is it heaven?
Lacy’s inclusion highlights one of the show’s major flaws: the lack of strong work by women artists. Where is Carrie Mae Weems? The museum owns a few pieces by her. The museum also has a delicate Howardena Pindell collage I’d like to see, but it’s not on view. Missing from the MFAH’s collection completely are some obvious names like LaToya Ruby Frazier, Jennie C. Jones, Lorraine O’Grady, Shinique Smith, Martine Syms and Brenna Youngblood. Yes, Statements has a series of prints by Kara Walker, a diptych from Lorna Simpson, and a recently-acquired Mickalene Thomas photograph, but none of them are standout works by those artists.
Throughout the show, works are paired together with varying degrees of success. A Nick Cave soundsuit echoes the form, if not the spirit, of a large Trenton Doyle Hancock painting from 2006 which hangs nearby. A Gee’s Bend log cabin quilt with triangular forms is hung near Temple, an abstract painting from 1982 by Felrath Hines. It’s a bit literal, but for anyone still questioning the Modernist cred of the quilts, well, here’s an abstract painting that kind of looks like one. In the final gallery, a fantastic Barkley L. Hendricks painting from 1977 of a gay couple is hung next to Glenn Ligon’s seminal “I Am A Man” prints. I like both works, but their partnering suggests that we’ve arrived at “the gay wall” in the show.
Statements has been up for a while (the run of the show was extended), and if you haven’t seen it already, you should do so. One thing is certain: if the MFAH is trying to make amends for past neglect of African American artists, it needs to continue beefing up its efforts to collect them. I would also argue that they collect the best work of local artists with far more vigor and depth. That said, something is better than nothing. Let’s hope the next African American something the museum attempts takes the conversation further down the road.