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Too Much to Teach

The VMFA does a disservice to the artists and their work in its broad-reaching exhibit of work by African-Americans.


The truth is that some of the artists represented in “Generations” happen to be some of the best 20th-century American artists, period. That they surface from the museum’s collection to serve a didactic cause, or worse, to satisfy a mandate for diversity, makes for unfortunate viewing conditions and sets up an environment of exclusion for the very artists they want to include. Art by Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, for example, often is isolated for its cultural relevance. But what about its sheer aesthetic force? Is it less significant as an art object because the content, directly or indirectly, is related to unresolved racial issues?

Of course the Virginia Museum isn’t telling the wrong story, and it certainly isn’t the only institution pressured to act as a moral agent. But what happened to art — the quality of an object that can lift viewers out of time and place? Only when the cultural pendulum swings away from such strict Platonic principles will the art of those like Bearden and Lawrence be free to speak for themselves.

In “Generations,” those whose racial heritage clearly influences their work hardly segregate themselves, like Allison Saar, whose figures stand for those on the outside; Jacob Lawrence, who chronicled black American history; and photographer James VanDerZee, who documented the Harlem Renaissance. They set real American conditions into visible poetry that extends far beyond the reaches of those of color.

Such artists as Faith Ringgold and Romare Bearden often are exhibited to represent an African-American point of view but they are two of the best at voicing memories of childhood and domestic life no matter what their color. Both working with collage (Bearden works with paper and Ringgold with fabric), they cull rich details from their past to relay the sights and sounds of bustling kitchens, family members and friends, and colorful environments all elevated to become magical.

In Ringgold ’s vibrant quilt “Tar Beach II,” she reflects on memories of summer nights spent on her urban apartment-building roof. There, vistas of the city inspire the narrator, Ringgold as a child, to soar above the hot tar rooftop and take ownership of the city beyond. Ringgold’s quilt form, a literal piecing of material, text and images, reinforces her deep-rooted storytelling and emphasizes the comfort found in revisiting childhood imagination.

Bearden’s “Autumn of the Red Hat” conjures a domestic scene overflowing with family life. In it a woman is measured for a garment, a sewing machine stands ready, a guitar rests on the floor and chickens run loose. Bearden builds the rural, down-home setting with brilliant pattern and texture as if to emphasize the chaotic atmosphere. But his skillful development of every contour, from the frantic gestures of the chickens to the elegant curves of the figures and the red hat itself, transforms the commotion into an intricate ballet. No one is better at blending calming grace with exuberant spirit than Bearden.

“Generations” not only reminds the viewer that a collection of African-American art exists at the museum, but it also reminds the viewer that art exists at the museum. Even art by the exhibit’s regional lesser-knowns help to prove that the individual work is more meaningful than any category that supposedly binds them. S

“Generations: African-American Art in the VMFA Collection” is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2800 Grove Ave., through Nov. 30.

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