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TO JAN. 31, 2000

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“I have no color on the brain; all I have on the brain is paint,” wrote self-taught African-American landscapist Robert Duncanson. Born in 1821, Duncanson is noted as the first black artist to achieve national and international prominence. But do his esteemed but apolitical paintings represent escapism or true artistic freedom? Negotiating and navigating the space between Duncanson’s racial indifference and outright protest, black artists have etched, carved, and colored a poetic pictorial history, enhancing the landscape of American art while building a rich cultural tradition from scratch. “To Conserve a Legacy: American Art From Historically Black Colleges and Universities” presents more than 150 paintings, prints, and sculptures culled from collections maintained for longer than a century at six historically black colleges across the south. (Leigh Richmond Miller’s Portia Playing Basketball is pictured.) The exhibit presents a broad range of artistic subjects and styles—from lynchings to sharecropping, from cubism to expressionism—and links black art students, professors, collectors, and art historians, dead and alive, across the decades. While not all of the work in the show is by black artists, its most resonant moments vividly depict the African-American experience: documentary photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston’s turn-of-the-century portraits of stolid Hampton Institute pupils in didactic classroom scenes—geared to prove that free negroes were worthy of integration and fiscal support—and Elizabeth Catlett’s visceral and pioneering Negro Women series of 1947, which portrays black women as both humane and heroic. On view Friday to Monday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., to Monday Jan. 31, 2000, at the Corcoran Museum of Art, 500 17th St. NW. $3 (suggested donation). (202) 639-1700. (Nefretiti Makenta)