The exhibition Art History represents a unique and fascinating opportunity for gallery audiences in Austin to access a selection of work drawn from the art collection of Rudolph Green and Joyce Christian. It stands as a collection of local, regional, national, and international significance for a number of reasons. Chief amongst them perhaps is the astonishing extent to which the collection contains work by leading figures of 20th century African-American art history. Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Sam Gilliam, Norman Lewis, and Robert Colescott are some of the important practitioners represented in the Green–Christian Collection. If one is fortunate, one can see works by these artists in well-timed visits to galleries and museums in New York, San Francisco, or Chicago. Now, for the duration of this exhibition at the Visual Arts Center, audiences within and beyond the university community can see works by artists who significantly contributed to the shape and direction of Modern American Art over the course of the 20th century.
.... More than an innocuous label casually referencing the proximity of the exhibition to the nearby Department of Art and Art History of the University of Texas at Austin, the title Art History is deliberate, animated, and even demanding. With a regularity that is both depressing and frustrating, the multiple practices of African-American and African Diaspora artists are excluded, as a matter of routine, from dominant texts that purport to present canonical bodies of knowledge relating to art history. What happens (and what are the consequences and the implications) when African-American artists are disregarded in the histories of Modern and American Art? What happens (and again, what are the consequences and the implications) of African Diaspora artists only being presented or discussed within formidably quarantined contexts? The title and exhibition are deliberate attempts not only to stimulate considerations of these questions, but also to occupy or subvert the hallowed ground of art history that presumes the centrality of European practices, even as it assumes the peripheral or non-importance of African-American or African Diaspora artists.
One notices, within this exhibition, that the collection from which it is drawn seeks to create a range of dialogues with a number of artists. Oftentimes, collectors, both individual and institutional, will resort to a tick box approach to acquiring work, in which the securing of a work by this or that artist represents a completion of a task. With work having been thus acquired, attention can then be turned to other artists, from whom work has not yet been secured, until they too can be regarded as having been attended to. In contrast to this arguably facile approach to collecting, a number of artists are represented within the Green–Christian Collection by sizeable bodies of work, thereby enabling important and greater consideration and appreciation of an individual artist’s aesthetic development or career trajectory. Thus, within this exhibition, audiences have an opportunity to appraise for themselves (or at least, get a glimpse of) what artists such as Boscoe Holder, Michael Ray Charles, or Frantz Zephirin were doing from one year to the next, or one phase to the next. Such considered, respectful, and empathetic strategies are rare amongst collectors.
Professors of art history will oftentimes tell their students to avail themselves of opportunities to see art, architecture, or objects first hand, whether in museums or galleries, or on visits to cathedrals or mosques of great cultural and artistic significance. This exhibition similarly represents an opportunity to broaden and deepen our understanding of artists’ practices by seeing works face to face, a decidedly more privileged and stimulating experience than merely looking at an Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, or Charles White image in reproduction in a catalogue or book. So Art History gives us a chance to comprehend fascinating work such as Cortor’s Man with Sickle. The work was made in 1945, a time when America was emerging, stronger, wealthier, and more powerful following the Second World War. But the mid 1940s also presented challenges for African Americans in the labor force. The Russian Revolution of nearly two decades earlier had sought to establish the political centrality of the labouring classes. Might African-American labor have a similar role to play in post-war American politics and the continuing quest for civil rights? With its celebration of the noble laborer, and its explicit evoking of the iconography of the sickle, Cortor’s impressive work stimulates consideration of what roles African-American labor might play in America's postwar social and political advancement.
The full version of the above text Art History, an Introduction, appears in the brochure to accompany the exhibition Art History, VAC, Department of Art and Art History, University of Texas at Austin, 31 January – 8 March 2014