Faith Ringgold | "Wynton's Tune" | 18" x 28" framed | Artist's Proof #16 (Serigraph edition of 100) | $4,400.00
By Way of Harlem: A Legacy Exhibition is a Survey of the Work of Iconic 20th Century Artists Collectors Should Know
by Yvonne Bynoe
The By Way of Harlem: A Legacy Exhibition at the Black Art In America Gallery in East Point, GA provides institutional and private collectors an extraordinary opportunity to view and acquire original work and limited editions from iconic 20th century artists, including: Richmond Barthé, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Reginald Gammon, and Faith Ringgold. This exhibition exemplifies why Black-owned galleries that have historically acted as long-term stewards of works by African-American artists remain vital to the art market.
The title of the exhibition acknowledges the special role that Harlem has played in American art history. For African-American artists who were participants in the Great Migration of the early 20th century from the American South to Northern cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York, Harlem was a life changing destination. In the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance encouraged cultural production from an Afrocentric perspective and made the Harlem community an important meeting point for Black artists throughout the U.S. and entire African diaspora. Harlem became an international symbol of African-American artistic creativity.
Richmond Barthé | "Black Narcissus" (1929) | 18.75" Bronze sculpture on a base with brown patina | $42,000.00
The "Who's Hot?" environment now surrounding Black figurative art has prioritized contemporary art at the expense of the 20th century African-American artists who blazed the trail. These creatives struggled to find audiences for their work. Due to restrictive racial policies, they were not exhibited in leading galleries or major museums until late into their careers, if ever. The contemporary-only focus is therefore short-sighted since African-American art has never been created in a vacuum.
Art, particularly African-American art, is referential. Artists often borrow concepts and pay homage to or are in conversation with works and moments from the past. To competently understand contemporary African-American art, you need to know where it came from—what and who influenced the subject matter and the artist.
Reginald Gammon | "Bon Bon Buddies" (1974) | 48" x 36" framed | Acrylic on canvas | $61,000.00
There has long been an expectation that a reputable art expert is knowledgeable about European art. Unfortunately, when it comes to African-American art, there's been far less rigor. The result is that across the country, collectors, art advisors, and museum acquisition committee members are wholly unfamiliar with significant 20th century artists such as Dr. Samella Lewis or David Driskell, who are both featured in By Way of Harlem.
Ignorance about African-American art history means that institutions and private collectors don't have the ability to properly contextualize contemporary work since they're lacking information about their thematic and/or stylistic roots. Moreover, any good faith attempt to diversify their collections or fill in historical gaps is thwarted because the decision-makers are unaware of relevant artists and work.
In October of this year, Swann Galleries auctioned a bronze miniature of Augusta Savage's 1939 sculpture, "Lift Every Voice & Sing (The Harp)." The original plaster sculpture displayed at the World's Fair was destroyed because Savage couldn't afford to bronze it. She subsequently created and sold smaller bronze versions. Michael Lobel, Professor of Art at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of C.U.N.Y rightfully asked on Twitter, why weren't museums, particularly those in New York, clamoring to buy Savage's work given her importance to art history. Aside from being a talented sculptor, Savage was the first director of The Harlem Community Arts Center where she mentored Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight and Romare Bearden, among others.
Romare Bearden | "Prologue to Troy. Before Troy" | 36" x 29.9" | Screenprint, signed and numbered edition 65/100 | $15,000.00
Reginald Gammon (1921-2005) whose work is also featured in By Way of Harlem is a prime example of an important 20th century artist who is not widely known among newer collectors of African-American art. His work, "Freedom Now'' (1963) was featured in the exhibition, Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (1963-1983)that was organized by the Tate Modern in 2017 and traveled to major U.S. museums between 2019-2020. Gammon's work is also in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art and his papers are archived at The Smithsonian.
Gammon's work often focused on subjects who figured dramatically in American history. An example is his 1967 painting "Young Jack Johnson," depicting the first African American to win the world boxing championship title. Johnson's long reign as boxing champion during the era of Jim Crow, combined with his financial success and interracial marriage, made him a lightning rod for racists. The proud and robust image of Johnson reappears in Gammon's "Harlem on My Mind” (1969), and a limited edition reproduction is featured in the exhibition.
Reginald Gammon | "Harlem On My Mind" | 10" x 13" | Limited Edition 3/25 on paper, framed | $10,000.00
Gammon was also associated with two significant artists' collectives in the 1960s: SPIRAL and the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC). In 1963, Gammon was invited to join SPIRAL, a group that included artists Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, Alvin Hollingsworth, Norman Lewis, Ernest Crichlow, Felrath Hines, Richard Mayhew, Hale A. Woodruff and Emma Amos.
"Not since the Harlem Renaissance had such a group of artists been formed around a political, aesthetic and social agenda." —Art historian, Sharon F. Patton, African American Art
In response to the 1963 March on Washington, Gammon painted “Freedom Now." The work was featured in SPIRAL's only exhibition, "First Group Showing: Works in Black and White," in 1965. Gammon's black and white painting references one of Moneta Sleet Jr.'s photographs of the March On Washington. The work is distinguished from others in the SPIRAL exhibition by its direct treatment of the struggle for racial equality. Although SPIRAL disbanded in 1965, Gammon continued working as an artist-activist.
Reginald Gammon | "The New York Years" (1997) | 58 x 48 inches | Acrylic on canvas | $60,000.00
In 1969, Gammon, Cliff Joseph and Benny Andrews formed the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) to protest the Harlem On My Mind exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which featured no paintings or sculptures by African Americans. In 1971, the BECC picketed the Whitney Museum of Modern Art to protest the museum's exclusion of African-American artists and curators. Gammon participated in the 1971 protest exhibition, Rebuttal to the Whitney, at Acts of Art Gallery in Greenwich Village. He also had a solo show there in 1974. The following year, Gammon was awarded a prestigious MacDowell Fellowship.
In addition to painting, Gammon taught at the Saturday Academy Program for New York City public schools. He set up an informal studio so that children from Harlem could work with artists. Consequently, fellow artist and friend, Hughie Lee-Smith recommended Gammon for a visiting lectureship at Western Michigan University. The four-month appointment, beginning in 1970, led to a 21-year tenure at the university. Gammon retired in 1991 as Full Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts and Humanities.
"The Yellow Tree" (1968) | 36" x 32" | Acrylic on canvas | $32,000.00
The By Way of Harlem exhibition is art you should see because it provides art lovers and collectors with a wonderful overview of art created by some of the American masters of the 20th century.
By Way Of Harlem: A Legacy Exhibition runs through December 24, 2022
Featuring work by:
Faith Ringgold, Charles Sebree, Richmond Barthé, Samella Lewis, William Carter, Fred Jones, Louis Delsarte, Reginald Gammon, Romare Bearden, Carl Owens, David Driskell, Albert Wells, James Taylor, Elizabeth Catlett, Richard Hunt, and Freddie Styles.
Works on exhibition can also be viewed and purchased online:
Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of the curated online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is also a cultural critic and author.
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