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Theater & art

Art Review

Modern African-American art gets the spotlight

Peabody Essex Museum exhibit places visions by leading African-American artists in context of 20th-century upheavals

John Biggers’s “Shotgun, Third Ward #1,” a 1966 tempera and oil, is among the works that have come to Salem from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

John Biggers

John Biggers’s “Shotgun, Third Ward #1,” a 1966 tempera and oil, is among the works that have come to Salem from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

SALEM — “In Conversation: Modern African American Art” comes to the Peabody Essex Museum just as interest in art by black Americans is — belatedly — bubbling to the surface in New England’s art museums.

Prompted by the opening of its Art of the Americas Wing, the Museum of Fine Arts, in particular, has spent several years beefing up its holdings of African-American art. To that end, it established a special committee and courted collectors, in particular John Axelrod, whose large collection of African-American art was acquired in 2011.

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The MFA put considerably more of these works on display in the new wing, and, earlier this year, it quietly mounted its first ever retrospective of an African-American artist. It was a small show, just 30 paintings and drawings by the fascinating Lois Mailou Jones, but a solid one.

The Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham has meanwhile put on impressive solo displays by John Wilson and Meta Warrwick Fuller, both pioneering African-American artists.

Institutions such as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams and the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln have tapped into more contemporary African-American visions with shows by Sanford Biggers and Laylah Ali, respectively.

That’s not all, nor is it enough. But, as the first New England-area museum to present a survey of modern African-American art (from the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Era and beyond), the Peabody Essex exhibition helps to congeal these disparate efforts.

The danger of reducing singular, enigmatic works of art to dull, dutiful illustrations of identity politics always lurks behind such efforts. After so many years of neglect, though, visibility matters.

So does social history, and this show, which comes to Salem from the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., does a good job of placing compelling, individual visions by leading African-American artists in the context of the upheavals of (mostly) the middle half of the 20th century.

It does this in part by including a great deal of photography. It’s not all documentary photography by any stretch, but there are enough images that are tethered to the times to evoke a whole landscape of social change.

Roy DeCarava’s “Mississippi Freedom Marcher, Washington, DC,” for instance, is a closely cropped portrait of a girl, devastating in its immediacy. Only the image’s title and the glimpsed fragments of bodies behind and in front suggest a political solidarity to match the sobriety and purpose that radiate from her face.

De Carava (1919-2009), who grew up in Harlem during the years of the Harlem Renaissance, is one of several photographers represented here with multiple works. He was my favorite: It would be almost impossible to match the compositional clarity and narrative crispness of “Graduation, New York” and “Lingerie, New York” or the shadow-filled poetry of “Couple Dancing, New York” or “Coltrane and Elvin, New York” (jazz lovers will keel over before the latter).

But the 1966 photograph by Gordon Parks (1912-2006) of Muhammad Ali (“Ali Jumping Rope”), showing the great man from behind and below, silhouetted against bright light coming in through a window, is hardly less riveting. And Parks’s “Harlem,” an exquisitely framed 1948 photograph of residents leaning out of the uniform windows of an apartment block, is superb.

Other photographs mostly eschew social commentary in favor of a profound intimacy: “Holding Hands in Church, Brooklyn, New York,” by Marilyn Nance (born 1953) is one of several images by Nance that appear in a section devoted to spiritualism. Some of these works are hung on the walls in a crucifix formation. It’s one of many bold, and occasionally dubious, decisions in an audacious display that’s complemented by several evocative audio recordings.

But, for sheer, face-to-face electricity, there’s little in the show that can compare with a series of portrait photographs by Earlie Hudnall Jr., who grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss. Hudnall was born in 1946, the son of an amateur photographer. He has said he is interested in capturing “the simple things in life. How we live from day to day, what we do on special holidays, family kinds of things and so forth.”

The ambitions sound modest. But two of his images of shirtless boys, “Hip Hop” and “Looking Out,” give off attitude and emotion in waves that crest and spill into the gallery itself.

But what about the paintings and sculptures? Many are no less convincing. With 2,000 works by more than 200 artists, the Smithsonian American Art Museum boasts that it has “the largest and finest collection of African American art in the world.”

I believe it. But to me, 2,000 works does not sound like a lot. In truth, purposeful collecting of African-American art proceeded in fits and starts beginning only in the mid-1960s, originally under the auspices of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African Art and then the National Collection of Fine Arts, which was twice renamed.

The collection will doubtless continue to grow. The selection here, made by chief curator Virginia M. Mecklenburg, is necessarily piecemeal. But it includes terrific works by some of my favorite modern American artists, among them Jacob Lawrence, Lois Mailou Jones, Sam Gilliam (whose colorful sculptural collage work is well known to users of Davis Square’s T station), Eldzier Cortor, Romare Bearden, and Allan Rohan Crite.

Crite studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and died in Boston in 2007. His painting here, “School’s Out,” shows a crowd of African-American children, all with different complexions, leaving the annex of Everett Elementary School in Boston’s South End.

Sargent Johnson’s copper sculpture “Mask,” which the Boston-born, San Francisco-based artist made in the early 1930s, is a key work in the collection’s history. Donated by IBM, it was the first gift of a work by an African-American artist to enter the Smithsonian’s collection. That was in 1966.

It’s a fascinating piece to contemplate. Johnson, whose work developed in the intellectual milieu of the Harlem Renaissance, was versed in the European avant-garde’s interest in so-called “primitive” art — including African masks. But his own “Mask” combines a powerful distilling impulse with an urge to capture, as the exhibition catalog puts it, “the countenance of an actual person.”

It succeeds, incidentally fulfilling Johnson’s stated wish to “show the natural beauty and dignity” of the “pure American Negro.” (He added: “I wish to show that beauty not so much to the white man as to the Negro himself.”)

The show also contains great things by less well-known artists. I was particularly taken with “John Henry,” a bold, brightly colored depiction of a freed slave and railway worker (“I ring steel” announces a tattoo on his forearm), painted in a juicy, good-humored idiom by Frederick Brown (born 1945).

I loved “Enchanted Rider,” an angelic vision by Bob Thompson, who died in Italy at the age of 28. And I was rewarded by a second look at an untitled abstract painting by the Kentucky-born, Washington, D.C.-based Kenneth Victor Young. The painting’s blues and purples, suggesting fluid electricity, circulate around Young’s black orbs, and give the allover composition a bobbling, hypnotic effect.

See this show. You will learn a thing or two, yes. But more importantly, you’ll be introduced to some complex, captivating, and singular art.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

Correction: Due to reporting errors, an earlier version of this review misidentified the show’s sole chief curator; it is Virginia M. Mecklenburg. Also, the review incorrectly reported plans to move much of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection of African-American art to another Smithsonian museum. No such plans exist.

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