Thursday, March 12, 2015

Black Art at the Armory Show

Photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taken by Photographer Stephen Somerstein during a speech in Montgomery, Alabama. 
By Arvolyn Hill

Over the course of five days Piers 92 and 94 are divided into hundreds of galleries housing one of the world’s top art shows. Galleries come from around the world to show their favorite holdings or showcase their favorite artists.

On Thursday, March 6th I trekked through the thickly falling snow to the piers where art has replaced the great ships of Cunard.  Upon entering Pier 92 I realized that this was going to take time.  I saw sculptures by Stella, sketches by Picasso and a Sol LeWitt in almost every other booth. I decided to focus on the art that interested me the most.  I would be drawn to the art dealing with the African Diaspora.  Suddenly the never-ending grid of galleries became less daunting and more of an adventure.  I searched for the most prominent pieces of art depicting the black experience or by the most prominent black artists. I was pleased by what I found.

New York’s David Greenberg gallery had a wall of photos of the Civil Rights Era.  A color photograph by Gordon Parks entitled I’m not used to seeing was a devastatingly beautiful picture of African American children looking through a park fence at white children on a playground.  He was a regular photographer for Life, then the most read magazine in America, published by Time, Inc. 
Im not used to seeing by Photographer Gordon Parks
“Gordon was on staff at Life magazine and took a job photographing segregation in the south during the 60’s down in Alabama,” said Karen Marks, David Greenburg’s gallerist. “When he passed away his material was moved.  It was recently discovered.”

The picture is filled with vibrant colors, the park is lush and green, the African American children are wearing pastel colors but when you realize the photo is a perfect depiction of segregation in America I felt a tinge in my heart. What might make the photograph almost unique is that it’s in color. So many photos of the segregation in America are black and white, but thanks to Parks we get an even more realistic depiction of the vibrancy of this dark time in American history.

The David Greenberg gallery had several photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They showed a Charles Moore of photograph of King being arrested,  two cops with a tight hold. It was a startling image of the civil rights leader.  The gallery has an iconic photo of the back of King’s head as he looks out over a sea of people during a speech in Montgomery, Alabama by photographer Stephen Somerstein.  Marks said that Somerstein was a student when he took the photo.  He went down to Alabama to participate and had amazing access. Somerstein’s work about Selma is currently  at the New York Historical Society.
Dr. King being arrested captured by Photographer Charles Moore.
Marks said “A large part of who we are and what we do is social documentary.  The Civil Rights work is very important to us.  We figured this would be a good fair to work that material in.”

March 7th marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s historic march in Selma, Alabama.

I was pleased to see several works by Romare Bearden shown at the Moore Gallery from Washington, DC. A 1964 collage, Train Whistle Blue No.1, 1/6, a black and white collage uses enlarged photographs depicting black culture through jazz.  Debra Force Fine Art b had a Bearden’s patchwork quilt showing three black women using a variety of fabrics with two birds on top. The quilt, Junction Piquette made in 1972 sells for $850,000.

Junction Piquette a quilt by Romare Bearden 
I headed to Pier 94 and the contemporary art booths.  As I walked down the stairs I  saw the second pier was bigger than 92.  There was no sign saying contemporary Black Art this way.  Once again I had to search for it. I was thrilled to find work by Artist Kehinde Wiley.

Virgin of the Adoption (The World Stage: Haiti) by Painter Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley is a photo based portrait artist, painter who currently has a popular exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, A New Republic. Although I have yet to see the show,  friends said it’s a must,  called Wiley a God.  Several booths had pieces by Wiley and those pieces received a lot of attention.  Wiley is a Los Angeles native with a Nigerian background.  He paints portraits of urban black men and women wearing street clothes - pants sagging, backwards caps, tattoos, fur coats and athletic wear. The backgrounds of the paintings are vibrant patterns similar to Victorian wallpaper. Urban black people are depicted as thugs or poor; through Wiley’s brush he turns them into the kings and queens that they are. Sean Kelly, a prominent gallery,  had Wiley’s Portrait of Jae White made in 2011.  French gallery Galerie Daniel Templon displayed Wiley’s Portrait of Marc Donkeng. California Gallery, Roberts & Tilton had Wiley's Virgin of the Adoption

I had never heard of African American feminist painter Mickalene Thomas. Her collage-like pieces use acrylics, rhinestones and enamels to create portraits. Los Angeles gallery Susanne Vielmetter had a portrait of Sidra made 2011 of black actress Sidra Smith. Thomas’s subjects for her portraits are usually black women in pop culture.
A Portrait of Sidra by Mickalene Thomas
After three hours of none stop art I left the piers with my head buzzing.  The work I saw was strong and powerful. There were some of the most influential black artists like Bearden and Parks and today’s leading artists like Wiley.  I was pleased to see black life being documented in photo, paint, fabric and collage. These artists aren’t just black artists; they are American artists who afford us their view of black life in America. 

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