African American Prints

Friday, May 29, 2020

Spanning over 100 years, this selection of prints demonstrates not only the wide range of traditional and experimental techniques but also the pervasive current of iconic and narrative impulses that characterize the graphic work of African American artists from Henry Ossawa Tanner to Martin Puryear.

Raising the viewer’s political and social consciousness is the motivating force behind portraits of historical icons such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Angela Davis by Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, and Wadsworth Jarrell, respectively, all of whom sought to reach broad audiences between the 1940s and 1970s through inspirational murals and prints. While clearly derived from nineteenth-century photographs, White’s portrayal of Douglass exploits the lithograph’s potential for saturated blacks and seamless transitions to create a larger-than-life image with gestural strokes evocative of the artist’s monumental charcoal drawings. Other creative appropriations include Margaret Burroughs’s starkly linear linocut Black Venus, which transforms a late eighteenth-century engraving (Voyage of the Sable Venus) by freeing the central figure from its original pro-slavery context. A more recent work, Glenn Ligon’s Self-Portrait at Eleven Years Old repurposes the cover of Looking Back (1977), a greatest-hits triple LP by the artist’s childhood idol Stevie Wonder. For this print, Ligon enlarged a drawn copy he had made of the cover and used a stencil to create tightly clustered circles of black linen pulp that mimic the benday dots of the original.

Equally complex explorations of cultural, racial, and gender identity inform prints by Emma Amos and Iona Rozeal Brown, which draw upon a variety of sources, including Japanese color woodcuts. By contrast, two literary classics—of antiquity (Homer’s Odyssey) and of the Harlem Renaissance (Jean Toomer’s Cane)—inspired the figurative and abstract narratives of Romare Bearden’s screenprint and Martin Puryear’s woodcuts. Like all of the prints on display, these works resist the conventions of traditional illustration in their provocative and lyrical evocations of the African American experience. 

Laura M. Giles

Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings

[Originally published via the Princeton University Art Museum]

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