When the Saint Louis Art Museum moved its Modern Art and Contemporary Art galleries to the new East Building, which opened in June 2013, that created space in the old building for exhibits of other collections to expand. On October 22, the museum opened an expanded reinstallation of American Art in nine galleries – “the most it’s ever had,” said Melissa Wolfe, curator of American Art. More than 150 works of art are on display. Of those, one-fifth have not been on view in more than a decade.
It’s an energetic and exciting representation of a varied and quirky collection. In curating the galleries, Wolfe said, she discourages “the death march,” when viewers move down a gallery wall in a straight line, from picture to picture. She prefers more of a Ping-Pong effect that sends the viewer back and forth across a gallery. She creatively integrates other media into the traditional collection strengths of painting and sculpture, including what we might call period ephemera, such as drinking glasses with porcelain portraits of Revolutionary War heroes inset at the bottom.
Wolfe commissioned reproductions of period-appropriate wallpaper for two of the rooms, which has a homey and welcoming effect, and she experimented with light. A small, shotgun gallery of still lifes gets dim light and blue walls. The largest gallery, of landscape paintings and figural sculptures, is lit by a newly revealed skylight and an interior window that gallery workers found when they busted into a wall of what had been a storage space.
As for the work itself, all art made after World War II was moved to the new building for the Modern and Contemporary art exhibits, so this is art of a segregated America, when African Americans were systematically disempowered and disenfranchised. There isn’t any getting around that. Blacks first appear as subjects, not artists, and in subservient roles – in “York, Pennsylvania Family with Servant” (artist unknown, ca. 1828), a black woman servant is marginalized with the white family’s baby on her lap. In two expansive George Caleb Bingham paintings of American elections, “The County Election” (1852) and “Verdict of the People” (1854-5), with dozens of people depicted, only one black person appears in one painting, and he is peddling rags. A black street peddler also appears on the streets of our town, in “Street in Saint Louis” by Henry Lewis (1863), where a black boy is trundling fruit.
Indeed, American art up to the end of World War II is an extended study in segregation. White artists painted what they knew, and they knew all-white spaces: schools (“The County School,” Winslow Homer, 1871), churches (“Vespers,” Gari Julius Melchers, c. 1910), meals (“Church Supper,” James Baare Turnbull, 1934), stores (“Show Window,” Reginald Marsh, 1934), jobs (“Miners,” Joe Jones, 1935), strikes (“Uneeda Biscuit Strike,” Alice Neel, 1936). In Thomas Hart Benton’s “Politics, Farming and Law in Missouri” (1935), all three of those sweeping fields of human endeavor are all-white.
When the work of black artists begins to appear in the galleries, it does not leap off the walls as “black art.” Two landscapes by black artists, “View of the St. Anne's River” by Robert S. Duncanson (1870) and “Woman Standing near a Pond” by Edward Mitchell Bannister (1880), are not especially distinctive. Edmonia Lewis’ 1873 marble bust “Portrait of a Woman” has a fascinating back-story, as Wolfe has been uncovering, given that the Rome, Italy-based artist of mixed African-American and Native-American ancestry most likely sculpted it in St. Louis, of a local mixed-race subject, Antoinette Rutgers Thomas. But without the back story, the bust would not inspire a stop on a black history tour.
Two powerful paintings of distinctly black subjects by black painters are on view. In “Card Players” (1939), Charles White captured the earliest equitably integrated group on display in these galleries. Black players hold center frame, but a white man watches intently from the shadows. In “Sunday Morning Breakfast” (1943), one the museum’s newest acquisitions, Horace Pippin gives us the first image in the galleries of a black family comfortably at home.
Interestingly, two of the most powerful paintings on display by black artists are not very figural. In “Gateway, Tangiers” (c. 1912), Henry Ossawa Tanner’s interest is architectural. The gateway to the Casbah dominates the image. You can’t see faces on the human figures; of the one horse, Tanner paints only its rear end. In “Twilight Sounds” (1947), Norman Lewis paints visual jazz in streaks of color and distorted geometric forms.
Wolfe said she pointedly did not segregate art made by African Americans (or by women or local artists), but rather used it as threads to enrich the whole experience. That was a wise choice, particularly because the most powerful and moving portrayals of black subjects in these galleries are not by black artists.
In “The Mississippi” (1935), John Steuart Curry paints a black family floating down the flood of 1927 on top of their house, with the father praying to the heavens. Russell Lee’s 1939 gelatin silver print of his photograph of a “Negro Sharecropper Girl, Texas” is a powerfully empathetic moment of documentary witness. And it’s hard to know what to say about John McCrady’s 1937 painting “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” other than you have to go see this one for yourself. This white man from Jim Crow America painted the moment of rapture as a black elder’s soul departs at death that would look right at home in an exhibition of African-American outsider art. This much is very sure: The angels in this painting, doing hand-to-hand combat against the devil, are black angels.