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African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde

November 27, 2012–September 2, 2013

1915–19: Acquiring a Taste for African Art

"The Negro artist has been to us a revelator and an innovator. Negro sculpture has been the stepping stone for a fecund evolution in our art."
—Marius de Zayas, African Negro Wood Sculpture, 1918

New York City progressively positioned itself as a central marketplace for African art. The period between 1915 and 1919 corresponds to that of an "apprenticeship" for dealers and collectors alike. During those years, France was the exclusive source of African artifacts for the several American dealers who promoted it to a growing group of interested collectors. Chief among these "propagandists" was the Mexican artist and gallery owner Marius de Zayas.

Between 1915 and 1921, De Zayas positioned himself as the foremost harbinger of African art in New York, keeping a rotating stock of African sculptures on constant display in his galleries. An artist himself, he heralded what he saw as the transformative power of African art on contemporary creation, as expressed in his quote cited above. Unsurprisingly, the collections he helped build were those of the most adventurous modern-art collectors of the 1910s, among them the Americans Walter and Louise Arensberg, John Quinn, and Agnes and Eugene Meyer, whose holdings are presented in this section of the exhibition.

Influenced by years of working alongside Alfred Stieglitz, De Zayas made extensive use of photography to highlight the artistry in African artifacts. To do so, he relied on the sharp eye of American artist Charles Sheeler, whose photographs serve as rare records of the African works circulating in New York during that period, and of the manner in which they were exhibited.

Selected Artworks

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