BLACK HISTORY’S OVERLOOKED BOOKS

The books listed below suggest that February might be better called Black Histories Month, given that Black American artists and their artistic methods, personal philosophies, and aspirations have taken different routes. These divergences are both more compelling to study and more accurate to reality than picturing the past in overly broad strokes. Some books are easier to find than others. All are worth the effort.

10 Selections for Black History Month

The books listed below suggest that February might be better called Black Histories Month, given that Black American artists and their artistic methods, personal philosophies, and aspirations have taken different routes. These divergences are both more compelling to study and more accurate to reality than picturing the past in overly broad strokes. Some books are easier to find than others. All are worth the effort. 

The All Black Exhibition in America, 1963-1976: Its History, Perception, And The Critical Response by Amika K. Amaki, 1994

Did you know the first formal exhibition of American Black artists’ works was in 1862?  I didn’t either. The long history of what Amaika K. Amaki calls “all Black” exhibitions – group shows featuring only American Black artists – appears to be completely unknown today. This might be because her unique text is not a distributed book per se; it’s her PhD dissertation. You can get it from one of eight libraries through interlibrary loan and take a picture of all 390 pages and turn it into a PDF if you don’t mind breaking the law. Particularly valuable is Appendix A which lists every single all Black show in America (up to 1993) which – at 64 pages long – is a lot more exhibitions than anyone might guess. Here is hidden gold for a book publisher.

Negro Art: Past and Present by Alain Locke, 1936

Have mercy on the contemporary artist who takes up Alain Locke’s view that ‘Black art’ can be and is made by both Black and white artists. Locke saw Black art as a racial uplift program – to study and visualize Black American life – rather than as a set of characteristics found only in art made by Black artists. The Black artist has a special proximity to the subject by way of experience or felt imperative, while other artists can inform, contribute, and even provide “pioneering” precedent, as Locke claims Winslow Homer, Robert Henri, George Bellows, and especially Winold Reiss did. In my view, Locke’s framing of ‘Black art’ as an open agenda or cultural project is the only one that remains coherent, despite all subsequent proposals, implicit or aloud. 

Distinction and Denial: Race, Nation, and the Critical Constructions of the African American Artist, 1920-1940 by Mary Ann Calo, 2007

The racial uplift program was and still is not without complications. The impulse for social or racial solidarity competes with an artistic philosophy of expressive individualism, which was and still is a normative value in American Modern and Contemporary art. This is only one of the many ironies and contradictions that Mary Ann Calo narrates in this history of the difficult and confusing work Black American artists have taken up – together or not – with their brushes in hand. 

BLACK ART NOTES edited Thom Loyd, 1971

Pushing solidarity to the brink of religiosity, BLACK ART NOTES (as it is written) “is a concrete affirmation of Black Art philosophy as interpreted by eight Black artists,” with some participants “undergoing a baptism of thought.” Published in response to the Whitney Museum’s exhibition “Contemporary Black Artists in America” (1971) – from which 15 of 75 included artists withdrew out of sympathy for a Black Emergency Cultural Coalition protest against the show – the compilation of texts is provocative reading. Activist artists, including literary figures such as Amiri Baraka, goad both the museum’s leadership (or what was perceived to be a “white” artworld, generally speaking) as well as Black artists who did not comply with the racial exclusivism that this group thought the Black Arts Movement required.

Against the Odds: African-American Artists and the Harmon Foundation by Gary A. Reynolds and Beryl J. Wright, 1989

This substantial catalog was produced by the Newark Museum to accompany its same-titled exhibition. While nothing is “against the odds” when you have enough money, these massive Harmon Foundation surveys in New York from 1927-1931, 1933, and 1935 (routinely mistaken to be the first exhibitions of Black American artists) presented, and awarded with monetary prizes, the achievements of Blacks working across major cities in the Northeast. Yet Romare Bearden was critical of the exhibitions, not for their hosts being white (as would be the case today or during the Black Art Movement, thereby insist that Black people do all this work), but for the problems mentioned above: the acceptance and promotion of artistic mediocrity that inclusivity requires. Despite their competing goals, the Harmon show series did showcase almost every now-canonized Black American artist from the period, such as Richmond Barthé, Lois Mailou Jones, Aaron Douglas, Malvin Gray Johnson, Palmer Hayden, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Augusta Savage, and Hale Woodruff, to the world.

The Painter’s Mind: A Study of the Relation of Structure and Space in Painting by Romare Bearden and Carl Holty, 1969

Bearden, with his longtime friend Carl Holty, eventually put a book where his mouth was, explaining very clearly what great art looks like. It’s of more immediate use to painters than previous Formalist texts – such as Heinrich Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art (1915) and Willard Huntington Wright’s Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning (1915) – by way of its economy of style, breadth of references across Western and Eastern painting traditions, and expository images diagrammed with the perceptiveness only a master painter could produce. 

The Soul of a Nation Reader: Writings By and About Black American Artists, 1960-1980 edited by Mark Godrey and Allie Biswas, 2021

This magnificent reader is more underappreciated than overlooked, as it shares a profile with, but in the shadows of, the successful museum-touring exhibition “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” At 627 pages and containing 230 compiled writings, it’s the definitive volume for primary texts from this era and should be in every American art historian’s library (despite its missing an index).  If reading from beginning to end, there are a few curious ways to approach it. One, note how Black activists (particularly nationalists) tend to define “Black art” as fundamentally figurative in contrast to mainstream critics and artists who do not tie race with idioms. Second, ask whether or not divergent opinions on race, art, and art criticism  have any correlation to the speaker’s own ethnicity. One minor criticism here is Godfrey’s introduction wherein he shames Artforum as “pitiful” for not publishing anything on African American issues during this period when it certainly did.  

Black Is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics by Paul C. Taylor, 2016

The idea of a “Black aesthetic” is roughly 100 years old, generated after the First World War when America sought to define its self-image on the world stage. Blacks took part in this during the Harlem Renaissance and believed their contributions could rightly live alongside the works of white artists, like the Regionalists, and did so successfully, despite historians not connecting the two. Taylor takes a unique approach by obviating the historically static definitions of Blackness or any such “ontologies,” while remaining in the Analytic philosophical tradition (via John Dewey) that nevertheless prizes linguistic precision. Especially useful is his treatment of appropriation, his novel emphasis on bodily expression, and the noble aim to articulate what he calls Black “life-worlds.”

Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America: 1900-1968 edited by Allon Schoener, 1969

The exhibition by this name at the Met Museum, for which this catalog was made, is now the historic reference point for how poorly a show can go. Allan Schoener hoped to apply his newfangled curatorial approach of using mass media (e.g., sound, film, still photography, etc), that he did for his show “Lower East Side” at the Jewish Museum (1967), but here to the area of Harlem. It turns out that excluding in an art-museum show about Harlem the work of Black artists living there is a bad idea. Actually, no art as such was included at all. Yet mass media as unannotated documentary material and newspaper clipping, put in book form (where it belongs), works perfectly as an illuminating medium that does justice to the subject of Harlem’s history. 

Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago by Kymberly N. Pinder, 2016

Ignored or deemphasized in the mainstream artworld is Black Protestant Christianity’s influence on Black visual culture. The earliest and most common exhibitions of Black artists’ works were mounted in churches (as early as 1849), and the YMCA (or Young Men’s Christian Association); and a common motif in the history Black artists’ work is church life. So it is right that Kymberly Pinder, now dean of Yale School of Art, chose religious public artworks as sites to locate the formulation and expressions of an essential African American worldview. On the heels of this book she contributed to another, Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art (2017), authoring the chapter “Deep Waters: Rebirth, Transcendence, and Abstraction in Romare Bearden’s Passion of the Christ” alongside Richard J. Powell’s “Biblical and Spiritual Motifs in the Art of Horace Pippin” and James Small’s “Sculpting the Spirit and the Flesh: The Religious Works of James Richmond Barthé.” White secularists need not fear her theological hermeneutics.