African American Art in the 20th Century presents a selection of 50 paintings, sculpture, and prints by thirty-six black artists who explored the African American experience from the Harlem Renaissance through the Civil Rights era and the decades beyond, which saw tremendous social and political changes. In response, these artists created an image of America that recognizes individuals and community and acknowledges the role of art in celebrating the multivalent nature of American society.

The artworks in the exhibition lay out a vision of America from an African American viewpoint. The artists consistently embrace many universal themes and also evoke specific aspects of the African American experience — the African Diaspora, jazz, and the persistent power of religion. They work in styles as varied as modern realism, abstraction, and postmodern assemblage of found objects. Their styles combine in the exhibition to create a unique visual experience that vibrates with energetic harmonies of color, line, and texture. There are underlying struggles throughout many of the works, described in the exhibition’s accompanying catalog, when conflicts, but also inspiration, arose for black artists in popular debates in the 1960s and 1970s about their role and responsibility in addressing race and heritage in their work.

The artists address a diverse array of subjects. Claude Clark, Ellis Wilson, and Benny Andrews speak to the dignity and resilience of people who work the land. Jacob Lawrence, Frederick Brown, and Thornton Dial, Sr. acknowledge the struggle for economic and civil rights. Sargent Johnson, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Melvin Edwards address the heritage of Africa, and images by Romare Bearden recast Christian themes in terms of black experience. Hughie Lee-Smith and Hale Woodruff explore beauty in the natural world while Hayden Palmer takes us indoors to an intimate family scene. Works by Elizabeth Catlett, who studied under Grant Wood at the University of Iowa and was the first woman to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree from the school, explore themes of unity in the black community and honors the poetry of her friend and college roommate, Margaret Walker.

African American Art in the 20th Century is a traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The C.F Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program, Treasures to Go. The William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund provided financial support. The exhibition is curated by Smithsonian American Art Chief Curator, Virginia Mecklenburg. Most of the artworks in the exhibition are drawn from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s rich collection of African American art. Three works by Elizabeth Catlett are loaned from the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art collection through the support of Legacies for Iowa: A University of Iowa Museum of Art Collections-Sharing Project, supported by the Matthew Bucksbaum Family. Generous support for the exhibition at the Dubuque Museum of Art is generously provided by Art Bridges.


Charles Searles, Celebration, 1975, acrylic on canvas, 27 ½ x 81 ¾ inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the General Services Administration, Art-in-Architecture, Program, 1977.47.31