The African American art world has had a profound, yet sometimes an overlooked effect on the American community throughout history.
African American artists have chronicled the struggles and the achievements of African Americans throughout the past several hundred years. The University of Southern California states “Less attention has probably been paid to African American artists than to their counterparts in literature and music, yet their contributions have also been significant in the development of American culture. ” Many African American artists have documented their American experience through their painting, writing, architecture and many other forms of art. Paul R. Williams was one such artist. An architect that was born in 1894, he became one of the foremost architects in Southern California. He created a staggering amount of projects in his 60 year career. Williams designed over 2000 residences and many commercial buildings both in Southern California and elsewhere. Many of Williams’s projects were very high profile projects. The famous Shrine Auditorium, the Hollywood YMCA and the Los Angeles County Court House are three designs that have propelled this architect to the realm of the elite. Williams’s effect on American architecture has lived on since his death in 1980. Among Williams other projects are the United Nations building in Paris, the MCA building in Beverly Hills, CA and the Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills Ca. All of these buildings are worth a visit to see Williams style.
Many African American artists have used African themes in their art. One such artist is Claude Clark. Born in 1945, Clark has been in the African American art scene for over 50 years. His place in art history was cemented with his leadership in the 60s during the civil rights struggles. Clark studied art under the direction of Dr. Albert C Barnes between the years of 1939 and 1944. Dr. Barnes was a well known collector of art. Barnes founded the Barnes school of Art through his foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. It was during this time with Barnes that Claude Clark honed his painting skills and became interested in African Art. Clark also enjoyed painting around themes of the struggles for African Americans in the Deep South and also enjoyed painting Caribbean subjects. In later years, Claude Clark taught as Associate Professor of Art Talladega College in the 1940’s and 50’s. Claude Clark enjoyed a long career and died in 2001.
Many believe the most prominent African American painter in US history was Jacob Lawrence. Lawrence’s work was primarily based in US history and documented the themes of slavery and racial oppression. Lawrence was one of the first African American painters to gain national prominence. His paintings have kept him in the public eye for the better half of 60 years. Lawrence gained popularity as a very young age. In his 20s, Lawrence gained national attention for his exhibition titled “The Migration of the Negro”. This was a series of 60 paintings that was sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington DC. Lawrence was an integral part of the great Harlem Renaissance. He studied at the Harlem Art Workshop where he met many like minded artists that shaped his work for years to come. It was during these years that he met the painter Gwendolyn Knight who became his wife for the next 59 years. The most famous work from Lawrence was titled The Migration Series. The series begins and ends with the images of the railroad station. The work shows the South and represent the migration North and the massive number of African Americans making this journey. The project shows the despair of working in the agriculture of the South and the hardships endured. The paintings show the poverty and the motivation that gave African Americans the need to move north. When the paintings depict the North, they show the exploitation of African Americans in dangerous industries and tough living conditions. The hope for a better life is the motivation that kept them going but the struggles are the same as in the South with just a different location and different surroundings. All of these artists are only a few of the many African Americans that had a profound effect on the art world in American in the last century. Their art lives on to tell the stories of the African American experience.
Douglas Todd is a contributing writer for African American Art