by Renny Pritikin
When Harriet and Harmon Kelley attended Hidden Heritage, a 1986 exhibition of African-American artists at the San Antonio Museum of Art, they were stunned. “I was angry that they had been left out of the art textbooks and kept out of the good museums,” Harriet remembered. “I was angry that I was ignorant of this rich, deep vein of Black culture.”
Inspired by the exhibition’s content and historical (1800 to 1950) sweep, the Kelleys began by collecting work from their favorite artist in the show, Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937). Thurlow Tibbs, a Washington, D.C dealer, located a painting (The Visitor, 1910) and two etchings, which the couple bought for $10,000. Over the next 45 years, their commitment deepened; they subsequently assembled a set of works of such stature that it became the first private collection ever to be shown at the Smithsonian. A selection of 66 of their works on paper representing more than 50 artists — The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art: Works o Paper — is now on view at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek.
The Kelleys initially prioritized work from the same era represented in Hidden Heritage, but over time they acquired contemporary works by such artists as Alison Saar, born in 1956. In her lithograph, Black Snake Blues (1994), one of the exhibition’s few intensely colored pieces, a fully clothed Black woman reclines in bed alongside a large snake. Eyeless, with white cutouts where her eyes should be, she gently fondles her breast, unaware of the apparent danger. Inspired by a 1926 Victoria Spivey song of the same title, Saar’s piece refers both to the Biblical serpent that deceived Eve and to the pleasures and perils of Black female sexuality. More directly, the piece references Guido Reni’s Cleopatra with the Asp (c. 1620), in which the artist depicted the subject as white. Given that Cleopatra was thought to be brown-skinned, Saar sets the record straight, recasting the subject as a contemporary African-American.
The Kelley collection displays a stark generational divide. It celebrates how African-Americans overcame the handicaps of slavery and ongoing racism. And while most of the artists whose works are on view were born in the 19th century, they succeeded, with the help of older peers, in finding opportunity and formal education, something the collection celebrates. By contrast, 20th-century artists like Kara Walker, Fred Wilson and Lorna Simpson, who investigate identity and history more critically, are notably absent. Still, the collection is not apolitical, and its most moving work acknowledges racial tension. It’s a 1945 lithograph titled Street Car Scene by John Woodrow Wilson. It shows a Black man on a public bus sharing a seat with a white woman and a child. Two white women behind them express disapproval. The impact of the image lies in the posture and anxiety on the man’s face. He leans as far as he can to the right to avoid touching the white woman sharing his seat. He stares straight ahead, concerned but determined. Several other works subtly reveal similar content. Blackburn (2002), an exquisitely rendered color lithograph by Ron Adams, shows a Black master printer—perhaps the artist—producing an image of a slightly abstract human torso. Behind him, a white visitor, his back to us, admires
the finished print. Though the two men are engaged in an aesthetic pursuit, they can’t find enough common ground to establish eye contact. The scene is painful to observe. Charles White’s Wanted Poster Series L-14 (1970), a lithograph, may or may not be an altered pair of wanted posters. Brown ink resembling crumpled paper surrounds two portraits of Black men in oval windows. They are handsome, even idealized—one a boy, the other a bit older. The juxtaposition of dates — “1619” in the upper left-hand corner and “19??” in the right, points to the long stretch of persecution and how labels such as “criminal” and “hero,” continue to affect perception.
Evocations of African-American culture, celebratory and mournful, dominate the exhibition. A spare, splendid line etching, Boogie Woogie (1941), by Charles Louis Sallée, Jr., depicts a couple dancing with no background imagery. It shows a female dancer peering over her partner’s shoulder, her face a mix of eroticism and desperation. The image lingers in memory. A similarly rendered pen-and-ink drawing, Benny Andrews’ Reverend Love of Los Angeles (1972), shows a bulky, domineering preacher from a low angle. In Road Menders (1935), an aquatint by Allan Randall Freelon, three men laboring with a jackhammer and pick axe give off a similar robust physical presence.
Humor, a rich aspect of Black culture, appears in several pieces. Robert Colescott’s 1996 lithograph, I Can’t Dance, shows a young woman expressing embarrassment and frustration at being excluded. Claude Clark’s offset lithograph, Rain, finds agricultural workers fleeing a downpour, sheltering themselves beneath giant leaves. In Shorty George (ca. 1930), Norman Lewis shows a man in highly stylized clothing who might be ready for a big Saturday night or perhaps is just a fashion victim.
Several outliers merit attention. The oldest work in the exhibition is a 19th-century lithograph by Grafton Tyler Brown, thought to be the first Black artist to set up a studio in the West. His highly detailed depiction of the Willow Green Rancho in Pescadero, complete with stagecoach, buggy, cattle herd, elaborate fences and several buildings, provides a rare peek at the San Mateo County coast 150 years ago. Still Life (1990) by Ike E. Morgan, a pastel and acrylic drawing of two vases of flowers, is a charmer, each blossom a small explosion of color and personality.
Finally, three masterful portraits: Anyone’s Date, by Ernest T. Crichlow, a heartbreaking 1940 gouache, shows a Hopperesque woman with sassy curled bangs waiting at a café table, cigarette loitering on her lips. MacArthur “genius” award recipient Whitfield Lovell’s unique 2002 print, Chance, is a portrait of a beautiful young woman in a three-quarter pose. Beneath her, a fanned-out display of exquisitely hand-rendered playing cards indicates, perhaps, that fate rests with drawing a lucky hand. Elizabeth Catlett, one of the most beloved American artists of the 20th century among the Black middle class, is represented by a two-color linoleum cut, Sharecropper (1952). A straw hat tops the female subject’s strong yet weary visage; its round brim echoes the sun, unseen behind her back but suggested by the light around her shoulders.
Works by other major artists, including Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Henry O. Tanner and Margo Humphrey, round out an exhibition whose appearance affords local audiences a rare chance to see pictures that might have otherwise been lost to history.
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“The Harmon & Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art: Works on Paper” @ Bedford Gallery through December 18, 2022.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.