May 25, 1987 12:00 PM


It was Harlem in its heyday. Hot nights were cooled by a breeze of jazz. Steamy afternoons ran long with the mingling of artists, poets, musicians, novelists and dramatists. Black pride and self-awareness were stirring.

What would become known as the Harlem Renaissance of the ’20s was popularized by writers Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen and by such musicians as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith.

The work of a less celebrated group of black artists is chronicled in Harlem Renaissance: Art of Black America, an exhibit at Harlem’s Studio Museum until Aug. 30. Its nearly 200 paintings, woodcuts, sculptures and photographs record the migration of blacks to Manhattan, the beginnings of the struggle against racism and a celebration of the heritage of Africa.

Featured are sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller, painters Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden and William H. Johnson and photographer James Van Der Zee, who devoted much of his life to shooting Harlem society.

Johnson was influenced by such artists as Van Gogh, Chaïm Soutine and Edvard Munch but painted in a primitive, naive style. Hayden was the first major artist to use black mythology. His series of 12 oils featuring legendary railroad worker John Henry show his ability to turn oral traditions into folk art. Douglas was a sought-after interpretative illustrator whose work appeared in Vanity Fair as well as The Crisis, published by the NAACP. Douglas took the advice of his teacher, German painter Winold Reiss, who suggested that he emulate the abstract qualities of West African sculpture rather than conform to realism. Fuller, a student of Auguste Rodin, used Expressionist forms that suggested realism. Her work included such strong images as Mary Turner (A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence), which was inspired by a lynching.

These works provide a glimpse of what Langston Hughes called “vogue” Harlem and also commemorate a neglected part of U.S. art history. Harlem Renaissance moves to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento next January, and during 1988 travels to the Block Gallery, Evanston, Ill., the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Me., the High Museum of Art, Atlanta and the LaGuna Gloria Art Museum, Austin, Texas. Its tour finishes in Richmond, Va., Nashville and Albany, N.Y. in 1989. A colorful, informative exhibit catalog is available. (The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York/Abrams, $35)

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