Recent Contributions to Painting and Sculpture by Negro Artists

Alain Locke, 1944

The young American artists whom this exhibition presents to the general public are far from being complete newcomers in the field of contemporary art. The majority are already known in local and professional circles, and some through prize awards and museum purchases have gained even wider recognition as artists of accepted or outstanding creative ability. Several, indeed, with Jacob Lawrence, have achieved national stature and acceptance, while others, like Hale Woodruff, Eldzier Cortor, Charles Sebree await only wider knowledge of individual nor the group significance of these young Negro artists has as yet been fully realized, we must still regard them as new names- but important ones, in contemporary American art.

Sooner or later it will be generally recognized that these artists have made and are making a substantial and important contribution to our national art. Their present attainment, as here collectively focused, should go far toward establishing general recognition. But as the rich promise of the younger artists, not yet fully mature, develops, of whom a representative few have also been included, the unusual achievement of the Negro as artist must inevitably become manifest. This will be equally achievement of the Negro as artist must inevitably become manifest. This will be equally true whether we merely regard these talents individually as significant American artists of this generation or racially as a representative cross section of the Negro’s self-expression in contemporary art. For important as it is, on the one hand, to gauge the extent to which the Negro group experience has ripened and flowered artistically, it is even more important to realize how proper and inevitable it is that this work be viewed and accepted as an integral segment of a fully representative native American art.

In spite of great individuality of style and wide divergence of emphasis in art approach, they seem to have, nevertheless, many subtle and significant common traits, some reflecting no doubt their commonality of time and place, as Americans, but others, doubtless, stemming from their commonalities of racial life and experience. Certainly they have to a peculiar degree an expected strength and virtuosity of color and rhythm, and also a vivid originality of imagination. Their work is vigorous and vital, even when sophisticated- as indeed a good deal of it is- and is direct, forceful and spontaneously creative even when obviously influenced by well-known modernist styles.

Their work, pretty generally, has also an authentic flavor and the native American touch. Because they are products of the Federal Arts Projects’ encouragement, and of the experiences of the depression which necessitated it, they lean to an emphasis on social commentary and content, and the more recent reinforcements of war experience have only served to accentuate this trend. Whether realistically or symbolically treated, this social message of the younger Negro artist is particularly noticeable and noteworthy. Here, not doubt, they have drawn on the emotional depths of the racial experience to gain an unusual penetration and insight into the more general situations common to all humanity, which have given added forcefulness to their expressions both of social sympathy and of social protest.

The thread of social documentation and commentary, however, is only one strand in this art. There is just as evident a strong decorative interest in design, color and the technicalities of art, with indications of more than average capacity to find strong and original solutions for the problems involved in these more aesthetic aspects of painting and sculpture. But what I find most distinctive and significant is the unusual competence of many of these painters, as shown in the Crichow, Catlett, Norman Lewis, John Biggers, Charles White and John Wilson canvases, in blending the somewhat, in blending the somewhat conflicting approaches of the socially significant and the formally aesthetic into a balanced, mutually reinforcing combination. This, among other things, is a development to be watched for its great future promise, and should it prove its potentialities, further unique vindication will accrue to the Negro artist and the background and inheritance of experience from which he has sprung.

This text was taken from the exhibition brochure.