It’s a work that seems so totally whole and smooth that I imagine it came out of its mother tree all shiny and perfect. But the deft hands of sculptor (and U.S. exile) Elizabeth Catlett carved this version of “Mother and Child,” a subject that she returned to over and over again throughout her career that stretched from the United States to Mexico. It's essential to view and admire her craftsmanship in person.
And this summer, Seattle has the unique opportunity to view the work of Catlett alongside nearly 80 other Black artists from across the last century in Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem. Composed of over 100 works from the Studio Museum’s collection, the show lets viewers get up close and personal with the paintings, photography, sculptures, video art, and installations of some of the most prominent (and perhaps most overlooked) names in art history.
Truly, now is one of the best moments to view Black art in Seattle.
Walking through the exhibition, I found myself obsessing over the details in every work. Like the tiny still life of apple slices in the corner of Jacob Lawrence’s religious and industrial painting, “The Architect.” Or the tender look in the big dewy eyes of the sharp-taloned female figure in Wangechi Mutu’s “Magnificent Monkey-Ass Lies." I got caught up in the caustic yellow that permeates Beauford Delaney’s “Portrait of a Young Musician” and the sky blue of Henry Taylor’s “how i got over.” And studied the stitching in Faith Ringgold’s “Echoes of Harlem,” a quilt she stitched with her mother, Willi Posey.
These pieces form part of the collection of the Studio Museum, founded in 1968 in Harlem as a site to display and interpret art. The legendary museum provided studio space for artists and supported Black artistic and cultural production. Its Artist-in-Residence program—which began in 1969 as one of the core programs of the institution—has nurtured several generations of artists of Black and Latin American descent in the early stages of their careers. Artists like Kehinde Wiley, Jordan Casteel, Tschabalala Self, LeRoy Clarke, Titus Kaphar, and Mickalene Thomas.
The Studio Museum’s associate curator Connie Choi, who curated the nationally touring Black Refractions alongside the American Federation of Arts, told me in a recent interview that the show wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive presentation of Black art. Instead, she wanted it to be "as expansive as possible," providing "a greater depth of understanding of what artists have been producing since the 1920s."
As such, the Studio Museum culled a wide variety of works from their permanent collection that would allow for a range of presentations that would suit each pit stop on Black Refractions’ national tour. Here in Seattle, the exhibition’s final stop, the Frye divvied up the works into six sections: Founders (artists involved in the museum's founding), Abstraction (Black abstract artists), Framing Blackness (different perspectives on what it means to be Black), Artists-in-Residence Program (self-explanatory), “F” Shows (a signature exhibition series at the Studio Museum), and Their Own Harlems (the influence of the city in artists' work).
“How are artists finding community amongst other artists or within the Black community, or making space for themselves, creating their own Harlems?” asked Choi, speaking on the final section in the show. (You can catch her speaking about the exhibition this Wednesday.) “That was something I see that runs throughout our collection in general, not just in Black Refractions. This idea of artists having to think about not only their own positioning in the world, but also thinking about how their artwork reflects a larger understanding of the world.”
While Black Refractions may not contain extremely well-known works, the show is an absolute pantheon of Black artists and a concentrated dose of over 100 years of Black art and history. The sheer amount of objects and perspectives in the show can be a little overwhelming to parse through, but Black Refractions benefits from repeat visits and slow looking. Fortunately, Seattle has the whole summer to do so.
Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem is up at the Frye Art Museum until August 15. Reserve your (free and timed) tickets here.