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Perspectives In Circulation

A Selection of African American Art and Artists’ Books

Watson Library celebrates Black History Month

Feb 16, 2022

4 images of Nick Cave works

Watson Library is celebrating Black History Month by highlighting publications from our collection on African American art and artists. The books represent a selection of over eight hundred publications acquired through an initiative launched in July 2020 to significantly enhance our collection of monographs, exhibition catalogs, periodicals, zines, and artists' books by and about African American art and artists. The project also produced an online artist index of over six hundred African American artists from the seventeenth century to today.

The books are currently on display in the library through the spring, and will soon be highlighted in the Exhibitions section of The Met’s website as “A Selection of African American Art and Artists’ Books.”

Two photographs and title page from Ming Smith

Ming Smith (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2020). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2020

Ming Smith’s first monograph celebrates four decades of her photography. Co-published by Aperture and Documentary Arts, this publication features Smith’s striking grisaille photograph, Male Nude (1971), on the cover. One hundred and ten black-and-white and color images are interspersed with six essays and interviews including an illuminating talk with Hans Ulrich Obrist that reveals Ming’s process and inspiration.

Three quilts

Rosie Lee Tompkins: A Retrospective (Berkeley, California: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum·Pacific Film Archive, 2020). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2021

The first retrospective catalogue of master quiltmaker, fiber artist, and colorist Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936–2006) is based on the recent exhibition organized by the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Vivid plates set against crisp white pages show the range of Tompkins’s oeuvre, including quilts, embroidery, and decorated objects, the vast majority of which had never been exhibited publicly prior to this exhibition.

Cover and two interior shots

Kara Walker: A Black Hole Is Everything a Star Longs to Be (Geneva: JRP Editions, 2020). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2021

Best known for her large-scale tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes, Kara Walker’s works on paper—including sketches, studies, and collages—are the focus of this volume published on the occasion of a traveling exhibition held from June 2020–July 2022 at the Kunstmuseum Basel; Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt; and the De Pont Museum, Tilburg. More than seven hundred of Walker’s works created between 1992 and 2020 are reproduced for the first time from the artist’s private archive. The burlap soft-cover binding features her striking cut-paper silhouette, Untitled (undated).

6 images of Nick Cave works

Nick Cave: Greetings from Detroit (Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Art Museum, 2015). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2020

Produced in conjunction with the exhibition Nick Cave: Here Hear at the Cranbrook Art Museum and the accompanying Detroit Performance Series, this publication in board-book format celebrates the spirit and people of Detroit with fourteen oversized postcards, each depicting Nick Cave wearing one of his signature Soundsuits in various iconic Detroit locations including the Michigan Automotive Plant, Eastern Market, and the Fisher Building. As described by Cave, Soundsuits are sculptures that can be worn with the sound generated from the materials that make noise such as bottle caps, twigs, and raffia. They hide identity, gender, race, and class, forcing the viewer to look at the work without judging it and to be open to the unfamiliar.

Two portraits

Benny Andrews: Portraits: A Real Person Before the Eyes (New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2020). Gift of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2020

This third monograph on Benny Andrews published by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery surveys Andrews' portraiture, featuring thirty-three plates created between 1957 and 1998. Essays explore his use of collage and commitment to figurative art during the rise of abstraction in the 1950s. Andrews has two notable connections to The Met: in the 1960s, he worked in the Christmas-card division, and in 1969, he co-founded the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC), an organization that protested the exhibition Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968 exhibited at the Museum that year.

6 drawings

Laylah Ali: Artist-in-Residence, Winter 2012: Drawings (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College, 2012). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2020

Laylah Ali is known for gender-ambiguous figural drawings and paintings rendered with a graphic quality. The exhibition catalogue from the Studio Art Exhibition Program at Dartmouth College features her “Typology” series—ornately cross-hatched and patterned figures from a mythical anthropology. Drawn in ink and colored pencil, this series focuses on how identity is manifested through adornment, skin color, and physical stamina.

Another section of the display focuses on retrospective monographs and exhibition catalogues of the 1980s through the early 2000s, documenting important collections and exhibitions.

2 shots of interior of book

Power Objects: Ancient and to the Future (Washington, D.C.: Gallery of Art, Howard University, 1980). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2021 Spread featuring the art of Winnie Owens

Power Objects: Ancient and to the Future accompanies the 1980 Howard University exhibition exploring “Power Objects”—defined by Ed Love, the curator of the exhibition and professor in the department of art at Howard, as objects possessing “elemental forces of energy” transmitted to an audience. The catalogue features eighteen rising African American artists including Tyrone Mitchell, Winnie Owens, and Joyce J. Scott. Each spread features a different artist expressing their idea of a Power Object.

4 images from book

The Personal Treasures of Bernard & Shirley Kinsey (Los Angeles: California African American Museum, 2006). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2021

Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, heralded collectors from Los Angeles, are known for their broad collection of African American art, books, and manuscripts from 1632 to the present. The Personal Treasures of Bernard & Shirley Kinsey accompanied an exhibition held at the California African American Museum celebrating their collecting history. The exhibition included paintings by John Biggers, James Porter, and Elizabeth Catlett as well as sculptures, prints, historical documents, manuscripts, photographs, and books. The striking cover features a vintage ambrotype photograph (circa 1855) from their collection.

Cover image 

Feldman, Eugene Pieter Romayn, The Birth and the Building of the DuSable Museum (Chicago: DuSable Museum Press, 1981). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2020

Author and civic rights activist Eugene Feldman published this comprehensive history of the DuSable Museum of African American History—the nation’s first independent museum celebrating Black culture—on the occasion of the museum’s twentieth anniversary. Established in 1961 by Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, the museum was founded to be an educational resource for African American history and a center for social activism in Chicago. Contents include an introductory poem and print by Taylor-Burroughs titled “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?” as well as Feldman’s detailed reminiscences about life at the museum and its historical progress.

Cover from Archibald Motley catalog featuring portrait 

Jontyle Theresa Robinson, The Art of Archibald J. Motley, Jr. (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1991). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2021

This retrospective catalogue of an exhibition held at the Chicago Historical Society on Archibald J. Motley, Jr., spans his forty-five year career from 1916 to 1961. Motley is best known as a major contributor of the Harlem Renaissance for his lively representation of African American culture in Chicago throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The catalogue encompasses the range of Motely's subject matter including portraits, the rural South, Paris in the 1920s, the Chicago Bronzeville series, historical murals, Works Progress Administration projects, and 1950s Mexico.

Colorful target-like image

Keith Morrison, Art in Washington and Its Afro-American Presence: 1940-1970 (Washington, D.C.: Washington Project for the Arts, 1985). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2021

The influential 1980s exhibition Art in Washington and Its Afro-American Presence: 1940–1970 celebrates the eclectic achievements of the arts of Washington, D.C., including a four-chapter history by author, artist, and curator Keith Morrison on African American artists in Washington from mid-century through the seventies; influential institutions like Howard University and the Barnett-Aden Gallery; and the philosophers, curators and art historians Alain Locke, Alonzo Aden, and James Herring, who played a seminal role showing major artists in Washington and developing new ideas about modern African American art.

Mosaic cover of catalog 

A Proud Continuum: Eight Decades of Art at Howard University (Washington, D.C.: Howard University, Gallery of Art, 2005). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2021

This catalogue richly illustrates an exhibition celebrating eighty years of Howard University artist alumni including Elizabeth Catlett, David Driskell, Lois Mailou Jones, and James Porter, published in the centennial year of Porter’s birth. The colorful front cover was designed by Adrian Loving, contemporary visual artist, curator, music historian, and DJ/ entrepreneur.

Portrait of a man from the cover

Paul Von Blum, Resistance, Dignity, and Pride: African American Artists in Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA: CAAS Publications, 2004). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2021

Sixteen contemporary Los Angeles artists—including Samella Lewis, Betye Saar, and Ian White—are examined by author Paul Von Blum in this compelling monograph that captures a creative community of artists who share concerns about identity, activism, and culture. The cover features a photograph by Roland Charles of Cecil Fergerson, esteemed Los Angeles curator and community activist, standing in front of Richard Wyatt’s mural, Cecil (1989).

Cover and interior shots from catalog

John Thomas Biggers, Black Art in Houston: The Texas Southern University Experience: Presenting the Art of Biggers, Simms and Their Students (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 1978). Purchase, Friends of Thomas J. Watson Library Gift, 2021

The important Art Department program at Texas Southern University was founded in 1949 by artist John Thomas Biggers. This comprehensive monograph represents three generations of TSU art students working in a variety of media such as paintings, drawings, sculpture, ceramics, weaving, and murals, including John Biggers’s Gleaners (1943).

When the exhibition ends later this spring, these and all the other titles on display can be requested to view in the library through our online catalog, Watsonline. We look forward to your visit.