Kelley Collection charts 150 years of African American history at McNay Art Museum

Portrait of printmaker Robert H. Blackburn by Ron Adams (Courtesy McNay Art Museum)

Portrait of printmaker Robert H. Blackburn by Ron Adams (Courtesy McNay Art Museum)

You can trace 130 years of African American art history through the nearly 100 works on paper – prints, drawings and watercolors – from the collection of San Antonians Harmon and Harriet Kelley on view at the McNay Art Museum through Jan. 3.
On a national tour that began during the summer at Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum, this is the largest and most comprehensive exhibit ever assembled of works on paper by African American artists, revealing a remarkable yet until recently mostly overlooked current of American art history.
The earliest work in the show, an 1878 hand-colored lithograph by Grafton Tyler Brown, thought to be the first professional graphic artist on the West Coast, presents a view of the sprawling “Willow Glen Ranchero” in California’s San Mateo County. With a stagecoach in the foreground, manicured trees and mountain in the background, it looks like a Currier & Ives print.
Perhaps the most important early black artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner, is represented by an entire wall of prints of religious subjects and images drawn from his exotic travels, such as the large pastel, “The Visitor” (1910), with a man wearing a turban in a temple out of the Arabian Nights. Tanner set an example for the black artists who followed by becoming an expatriate, spending most of his career in Paris, where it was easier to be both an artist and a black man.


Until the 1940s, black artists generally took their cues from their white counterparts. They created images that would appeal to the art collectors of the time and rarely focused on political themes. When they did show black subjects, they emphasized black workers such as farmers and dockworkers. John Woodrow Wilson’s 1945 image of a black man riding a bus and proudly wearing his uniform as a Boston Navy Yard worker while surrounded by white passengers became emblematic of the World War II-era when it was used on the cover of an exhibit of black artists called “Alone in the Crowd.”
According to the wall label, Wilson said that most black citizens were mired in poverty and welfare until they were called up to work in factories and shipyards supplying the war effort. But in the post-World War II era, black artists became much more concerned with issues of identity and cultural pride.
Black performers are a highlight. Horace Pippen, a self-taught artist, drew a smiling portrait of the singer Marian Anderson in 1940, following her famous concert on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., after she had been banned by the Daughters of the American Revolution from singing in Constitution Hall. Norman Lewis, who went on to become an abstract expressionist, created a realistically animated portrait of the entertainer Shorty George Snowden, considered the inventor of jitterbug dance known as the “Lindy Hop.”
Elizabeth Catlett’s dramatic linocut of a woman “Sharecropper” is one of the best known images in the show. She moved to Mexico in the 1940s and became associated with the Taller de Grafica Popular. A lifelong activist, she also created a tribute to Malcom X that’s among the contemporary prints in the Lawson Print Gallery.
Ron Adams pays homage to Robert H. Blackburn, the founder of the Printmaking Workshop in New York, which produced prints by artists such as Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Benny Andrews and Ernest Crichlow.

Jacob Lawrence's "Carpenters" (Courtesy McNay Art Museum)

Jacob Lawrence's "Carpenters" (Courtesy McNay Art Museum)

The most stunning suite of prints is a series by Jacob Lawrence depicting the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution against French colonialism. A master of the screenprint, Lawrence used sweeping blocks of pure color, which also can be seen in his iconic image of black carpenters at work.
Perhaps the most influential Texas artist is John Thomas Biggers, who founded the art department at Texas Southern University. His work ranges from “Sharecropper” in 1945 to a print about the plight of black children, “At Risk,” in 1966. His student, Charles Criner, who did the expressionistic portrait “Mr. Alvin White (Man With Chicken),” is an artist in residence at Houston’s Museum of Printing History. Houston artist Bert Long, perhaps best known for his giant ice sculptures, used symbols such as a skull in flames, a spewing volcano and a writhing heart to depict the life cycle of an artist. Margo Humphrey, an artist in residence at UTSA in 1988, jumps over the river and through an arch based on the Alamo in “San Antonio Passage.”
“The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art: Works on Paper” is on view through Jan. 3 at the McNay Art Museum, 6000 N. New Braunfels Ave., (210) 824-5378. Admission is $5-$8.

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