‘African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde’ at the Met

Masks in Malvin Gray Johnson’s painting “Negro Masks” (1932). (Librado Romero/The New York Times)

It’s easy to take for granted just how quickly art travels today, whether by JPEG or shipping crate. For a sense of how slow things were just a century ago, and how much could get lost en route from one continent to another, visit “African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde,” a small but highly compelling show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s one of several exhibitions timed to the centennial of the Armory Show of 1913, where many New Yorkers caught their first glimpse of Modern art from Europe (much of it influenced by African sculpture).

Meticulously researched and thoughtfully presented by Yaëlle Biro, the Met’s assistant curator in the department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, it tells the story of African art’s early reception in the United States with exceptional candor. And it makes clear that Americans received Modern art and African art as a single import, derived from French and Belgian colonies, distilled in Paris and presented on these shores by a few tastemaking dealers and collectors.

Lane Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It does not gloss over the biases of some of those early champions of African art in America — not even where Alfred Stieglitz, who left the Met a vast collection of Modern art, is concerned. Some of the show’s anecdotes will make you cringe, as when you learn that Stieglitz titled his first show of African art “Statuary in Wood by African Savages,” or that it incorporated backgrounds of bright yellow and orange paper that his collaborator, Edward Steichen, likened to “jungle drums.”

Or when you read that Marius de Zayas, Stieglitz’s chief liaison with African art dealers in Paris and later the proprietor of his own New York gallery, asserted: “In its plastic researches Modern art discovered Negro Art. Picasso was its discoverer.”

With installation shots from Camera Work and other journals of the day, the show evokes some of the early presentations of African art by Stieglitz and de Zayas. Here too are photographs by Charles Sheeler, the Precisionist painter and commercial photographer, who assisted de Zayas and collectors like the Arensbergs in cataloging their holdings. His images were not exactly neutral; often, stark shadows loom behind the sculptures.

Also revealing are two photographs by Stieglitz, both of Georgia O’Keeffe, displayed side by side. In one she is naked from the waist up, balancing an anthropomorphic spoon from the Ivory Coast on her fingertips; in the other she is fully clothed and clutches a small bronze figure by Matisse, who was clearly looking at African sculpture when he modeled its stylized features.

Both objects, once owned by Stieglitz, are on view. And so are many others that disappeared into private collections after those early New York gallery shows and have not been seen in public in close to a century. One is a Fang sculpture from Gabon, a seated man with a bulging forehead and truncated jaw who, having been separated long ago from his reliquary ensemble, remains somewhat mysterious to us. It was shown at Stieglitz’s 291 gallery in 1914 and subsequently Ping-Ponged between private collections in France and America. (It currently belongs to the Parisian dealer Pierre Amrouche.)

Where possible, Ms. Biro gives us details about the works’ original, ceremonial contexts. (She is also upfront about identifying a handful of objects that seem to have been made just for the Western market.) A Nigerian “maiden mask,” for instance, would have been worn by male performers at festivals honoring patron deities. Another mask, from southern Gabon, was once covered with white kaolin (riverbed clay) and used by stilt-wearing acrobats. At some point after 1917, when the collector John Quinn bought the work from the dealer Robert Coady, the kaolin was removed.

Some works were altered before they even reached America, like a Fang reliquary element that seems to be missing its offering bowl. And others were misidentified, like the short-necked Indian lute that entered Quinn’s collection, via the Parisian dealer Paul Guillaume and de Zayas’s Modern Gallery, as a “musical instrument from Sudan.” Until this exhibition it had been languishing in storage at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, with the Sudanese label still attached.

About a decade after the first gallery shows of African art in New York, cutting-edge institutions started to take note. In 1923 the fledgling Whitney Studio Club mounted the exhibition “Recent Paintings by Pablo Picasso and Negro Sculpture” (organized, not surprisingly, by de Zayas, and photographed by Sheeler). Many of the African works in the show, which all belonged to the dealer Guillaume, later sold to Albert Barnes (who had opened his Merion foundation in 1922).

The point, reinforced over and over in this show, is that the world of African art in New York was quite small and market-driven. It remained so even well into the Harlem Renaissance, when the philosopher Alain Locke assembled an exhibition of African sculpture with the intention of inspiring African-American artists and founding a museum of African Art in Harlem.

Titled “The Blondiau Theatre-Arts Collection of Primitive African Art,” it was made up primarily of Congolese decorative objects owned by the Belgian Raoul Blondiau. And it prompted artistic responses like Malvin Gray Johnson’s 1932 painting “Negro Masks,” shown here alongside the Yoruba and Bwa examples that inspired it.

By encouraging Johnson and his peers to look for their roots in African artworks, Locke, the author of the anthology “The New Negro,” was trying to move past the idea of African art as, in his words, a “side exhibit to modernist painting.” But the museum he proposed never came to fruition; the works that made up the Blondiau collection disappeared into various private collections and institutions. And the practice of exhibiting African art alongside European modernist works continued, much later into the century; see MoMA’s controversial “ ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” of 1984.

“African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde” does not go that far; it ends in the 1920s. But it could be the seed of a much bigger exhibition, one that shows us that our art world, fast as it is, is still based on a slow-moving system.

“African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde” continues through April 14 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.

article by Karen Rosenberg via nytimes.com

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