Setting the Artworld Ablaze: Looking at the Artistic Legacy of Reginald Gammon

By Shantay Robinson

Born in 1913, Philadelphia-born artist, Reginald Gammon fought for civil rights through his art. His work can be read for relevance in relation to inequality toward the African American community and the power of a people who prevail under oppression. Gammon, who died in 2005, left behind a worthy legacy of activism for the rights and inclusion of black artists into dominant art spaces in addition to the work he created on canvases. Though his artwork speaks to the conditions that black people in the United States endured, Gammon’s corporeality was the true mark of a civil servant. He served the people by protesting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of Art for representation. While many of us enjoy the fight that Gammon fought, his work shouldn’t be an oversight. And we should recognize him and others for the rights we have today as artists, art scholars, and other artworld insiders. 

When Gammon moved to New York in 1948 he worked multiple odd jobs, but he continued to paint at night. He was invited to join Spiral in 1963. Spiral was an art collective of the most celebrated African American artists at the time. Members included Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis, Emma Amos, Richard Mayhew and others. They only had one exhibition as a group and there aren’t any reviews of it, but that is essentially indicative of the world in which they created art. In 1969, after Spiral disbanded, Gammon and Benny Andrews formed Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. The formation of this group happened around the time The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968 that was curated without the consultation or inclusion of any of the residents of the Harlem community. Gammon, Andrews and others protested the exhibition because while the show was about Harlem, no Harlem artists were asked to contribute work to the exhibition. The exhibition was basically an ethnographic study of photographs with black people as subjects. Amazingly, the exhibition, in 1969, occurred at the apex of the Civil Rights Movement and The Black Power Movement. The museum executives claimed they were trying to decrease the size of the gap that was forming between the white population and black population, but this novel intention was poorly executed. The exhibition resulted in what would be typical of the white savior ignoring the voices of a people who could speak for themselves and muting them by inserting their own voices into a one-way conversation. 

Gammon, Reginald (Harlem On My Mind)

“Harlem On My Mind” by Reginald Gammon, 10 x 13 inches limited edition 3 of 25 on paper — inquiries please email info@blackartinamerica.com

Gammon’s artwork Harlem on My Mind is a direct response to the 1969 exhibition. In this artwork, Gammon takes an original photograph from the exterior of The Met with the Harlem on My Mind exhibition flag flying in front of the building. He overlays an image of prize fighter Jack Johnson’s (1878-1946) upper region on top of the image. The insertion of Johnson might represent that a fight will ensue. It could likely also represent the insertion of the people who were excluded from the curation of the exhibition. And at the same time, Johnson’s image could represent the ethnographic-like way the museum chose to represent blackness of the Harlem community as anthropological subjects and not fully human – a community of people to inspect and investigate, but not to engage with. At the periphery of the artwork are photographs that could likely be images of others who aided in protesting the museum for the exclusion of Harlem artists in the exhibit and who were fighting for inclusion in dominant artworld spaces. There is also an odd white shape at the bottom portion of the image that could be read as whiteness blurring out blackness. This artwork is directly addressing the turbulence and misrepresentation that made the Harlem on My Mind exhibition the spark that changed the artworld and forced them to include African Americans on the walls and in the offices of their institutions. Though we see some diversity now, it wasn’t done willingly. Gammon and other artists had to fight. Today these institutions have several black artists’ artworks in their collections, and they employ a diverse array of curators. But it didn’t happen easily, and it didn’t happen right away. 

The Saga of Jack Johnson by Reginald Gammon, 1971. Acrylic on canvas. 50×43”, courtesy of Estate of Reginald Gammon — inquiries please email info@blackartinamerica.com

The image of Jack Johnson was to appear in more works of Gammon. In The Saga of Jack Johnson, Gammon traces the boxer’s life in a mural-like painting. The image of Johnson and the shadow of him take center stage in an effort to represent the personality we know and a shadow that was also his person. In the painting, an opponent boxer is falling to the ground representing Johnson’s penchant for champion fighting. And his three white wives are present around a wreath that celebrates Johnson’s life. There are also two faces, one speaking and the other silent. The duality in this painting could be representative of the double consciousness of Johnson. He was the first black heavyweight champion of the world during the Jim Crow era, who earned a considerable amount of money at the time and had privileges other black people couldn’t have dreamed of. His achievement allowed him to be a black icon, but at the same time, he wasn’t living the typical life of black people in the United States. While he was privileged in many ways, Johnson was still perceived as black by the majority of the white population, resulting in controversy over the women he chose to marry. And finally, although he might not have been discriminated against often because he was known world-wide, the refusal to provide him with service at a restaurant because he was black was the cause of him angrily fleeing a restaurant and ending up in the car accident that resulted in his death. In this painting, there are two Johnson’s depicted, one is an image of the man himself and the other is his white shadow. 

Gammon, Reginald, (The New York Years)

“The New York Years” by Reginald Gammon, 58×48 inches acrylic painting on canvas, 1997 — inquiries please email info@blackartinamerica.com

Gammon’s The New York Years is a self-portrait in more ways than one. What he found in New York was more than an artistic career. He became a change agent in a way that was organic and sustainable. It was his passion and drive that made African American inclusion into dominant art spaces possible. And this particular work speaks to that passion, drive, and the community he joined that made inclusion happen. When he joined Spiral, he joined a group of artists that would shake up the homogeneous and exclusionary artworld and forge opportunities for future black artists by coming together. Although they only had one group exhibition, the critiques they gave on another on their individual works certainly made them better artists. While some like Norman Lewis might have received acclaim posthumously, others like Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff were celebrated by the black community in their lifetime and gained dominant world recognition during their lives. In The New York Years are traditionally represented figurative images that contribute to the “self-portraiture” of the artwork. In the center of the artwork are the faces of the members of Spiral. And although the group only had one exhibition, the legacies of individual members of this group come together to shape an era in black art history that to date is incomparable. Gammon and his contemporaries set metaphorical fire under the asses of the art establishment and demanded representation. In The New York Years, the fire alludes to the force and passion with which Gammon and others protested at The Metropolitan Museum of Art to demand representation on the walls of the museums and in the offices as executives. The other “photographs” in the artwork seem to be depictions of people of considerable influence on Gammon’s artistic life, including an image of himself. This “self-portrait” depicts the time he had in New York and the fierce actions he took before moving on to Kalamazoo, Michigan to teach and then to Albuquerque, New Mexico to retire. The artwork represents a nostalgic look fondly remembering a youth urged by fire of spirit. 

Gammon, Reginald, (Holy Family)

“Holy Family” by Reginald Gammon, 41×31 inches acrylic painting on canvas, 1964. Collection of Worcester Art Museum

Gammon could be said to be overtly political in his work. He doesn’t shy away from tough subject matter, which is clearly evident in Holy Family, which was created for the Spiral exhibition. Gammon’s Holy Family is influenced by French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Poussin created several paintings depicting the Holy Family, which includes the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus as central figures being lauded and adored by onlookers. Gammon’s Holy Family is all together distinct from the traditional depiction of the Holy Family. In his image, Gammon centralizes a limp black boy held in the arms of his mother. Unlike Poussin’s Holy Family paintings this central figure is lifeless instead of full of life. In contrast to Poussin’s colorful painting, Gammon’s painting is absent of color and is painted in greyscale. This choice for lack of color is indicative of the scene Gammon paints. Dissimilar to the Poussin painting where the Baby Jesus is the object of admiration from onlookers, the limp boy in the arms of his mother, is the object of disbelief and despair from the looks and actions of the onlookers around him. One man holds his head in distress. What looks like another young man, in the furthermost portion of the painting, looks away. And a woman looks down with disgust. The mother who holds her child, looks directly at the viewer with anger, pleading for some type of compassion. Gammon may have chosen Poussin’s painting to juxtapose meaning and highlight the differences between black life and the status quo where white children are nurtured and adored by society and black children are hunted like game. It is not made known the cause of the black boy’s situation, but given the painting was made in 1964 or 1965, it might be assumed that white racists were responsible for the boy’s fate, as was the case for far too many young black boys. 

Gammon’s legacy is one that does not stop being effective. With each exhibition of African American artworks in museums around the world and with each appointment of an African American curator to both African American Museums and dominant artworld museums, his work lives on. He did not fight in vein, but for the ability for black artists, art scholars, and art curators to do work they believe in. His passion for the rights of black artists and black lives surpasses the work on the canvases bearing his name. The passion with which he lived leaves and indelible mark on not only the black art community but the world community. Because of his foresight, the world can appreciate the work of black artists in spaces where they are hung on walls next to artists that evince equal talent in a way that is equitable and justifiable. Though some of Gammon’s contemporaries are lauded for their work today with exhibitions in major art museums, Gammon’s legacy is not as revered as it could be. Aside from his artwork, his activism is similar to artists like Faith Ringgold who protested at the Whitney Museum of Art for women’s inclusion. Gammon was a change agent who radically altered the artworld to be more inclusive and equitable. And for that, we should thank him.

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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