As an African-American woman, Loïs Mailou Jones was double-hexed when it came to cracking into the white boys club of the art world during much of the 20th century. A dogged and dedicated artist, she kept on, and toward the end of her long life — she died in 1998, at 92 — her work began to garner the attention it merited.
“Loïs Mailou Jones,” a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, is too small (with less than 30 works) to effectively flesh out this artist’s development, but it does demonstrate that Jones had ample talents in realism, postimpressionism, textile design, and more. It wasn’t until she brought these influences together in her mature work that the power of her vision truly crystallized. That, too, may be a reason her career didn’t catch fire early on.
In many ways, Jones grew up primed for success. Her father, one of the first African-Americans to graduate from Suffolk University Law School, and her mother, a milliner and cosmetologist, had a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. Encouraged to draw from the age of 3, their daughter had a solo show on the Vineyard the summer before she entered the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, from which she graduated in 1927.
A series of detailed copies she made of textiles from the MFA’s collection as a student exemplifies her steady hand and eye for detail. Curator Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the Art of the Americas Department, cannily dug up the skirt Jones studied for her skillful floral “Chinese Embroidery (copied from Han-Chinese women’s domestic skirt, embroidered with silk thread, in MFA collection).” Seeing Jones’s watercolor positioned just above the skirt makes the history palpable.
After college, Jones had success as a textile designer. When she saw one of her patterns in the window of a Connecticut decorator’s boutique and went in to introduce herself, the story goes, the owner rebuffed her — how could a “colored girl” have designed such a thing? Jones decided to become a painter, so she could sign her work and be known. She approached the director of the Museum School’s education department, looking for a teaching position. As she has recounted, he told her that she should go south, to help “her people.”
Jones landed at Howard University in Washington D.C. The keen, studious works from her early years there reveal a talent less for portraiture and its revelations than for capturing the nuanced volumes of a face. The charcoal drawing “Negro Student” (1934) is remarkably deft, as is the painting “Portrait of Hudson” (1932), but her sitters’ expressions are opaque. They don’t look out at us, but off to the side. They feel like models, not people.
Jones took a liberating sabbatical year, 1937-1938, in Paris, where her skin color didn’t seem to matter and accolades for her work poured in. The paintings from that year and those following are crisp; her color sense pops and the brushwork is nimble in the postimpressionistic “My Mother’s Hats” (1943). But would such a work in the 1940s have provided entry into the upper echelons of the art world? No. Jones was decades behind the curve.
African-American art experienced two tidal shifts in the 20th century. The Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s urged artists to honor and portray black experience. Jones had illustrated books with African-American themes; her 1939 cover of the book “African Heroes and Heroines,” with its patterning and silhouetted figures, reveals her dynamic sense of design. Still in 1944, the writer Alain Locke encouraged her to take on more African-American themes in her paintings. She took his advice.
Jones was ahead of the second tide, the black art movement of the 1960s and 1970s that reclaimed African art as a source of pride. She was already summering with her husband in Haiti, a nation alive with African influences, making work such as “Veve Vodou II” (1963), a mixed-media collage that blends floral elements with the designs she had seen traced in chalk on the floor during Vodou ceremonies.
Jones’s razor-sharp sense of design had finally begun to infiltrate her painterly sensibility. In the 1970s, she took several trips to Africa, which led to vital works such as “Ubi Girl From Tai Region” (1972) and “La Baker” (1977). “Ubi Girl,” like “Two Faiths, Paris,” sets a feminine sculpted head in profile against flat, pulsing textiles. The Ubi girl, facing front, brow emblazoned with white and red, is layered over the sculpture, as are red, masklike hieroglyphs. Every iconographic layer fits into a seamless whole that trumpets the power of African women.
“La Baker,” made in tribute to Josephine Baker, pivots around a nude, dancing woman who is part pink, part brown. Silhouetted feminine shapes strut and squat, some lithe, some like African statuary. Flat orange, green, red, and gold patterns set the canvas vibrating, and masks hover behind the central dancer like watching gods. The piece whirls and shakes like the dance itself.
Over the years, the MFA has done all right by Jones. Of the works in this exhibit, 21 are from the museum’s collection (16 of those pieces were bequeathed by the artist’s trust). Jones showed in the MFA’s groundbreaking “Afro-American Artists New York and Boston” exhibit in 1970, and the museum staged a retrospective for her in 1973. The museum had Edmund Barry Gaither, director of the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, curator of both shows and a friend of Jones’s, in their corner. He’s still there, lending a hand with this exhibit.
Jones didn’t have another retrospective for nearly 20 years — a traveling exhibit visiting 17 institutions in the early 1990s. It prompted her to quip that at 90, she had finally arrived. In truth, she had finally caught up with the art world, and it had caught up with her.