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“African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond” is proof that black artists not named Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden produced a ton of compelling 20th century art, even if they make it into our museums less frequently. The sprawling exhibit features 100 works by 43 artists—-a generous mix of painters, sculptors, and photographers.
The photographers include such celebrated figures as Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks, but there are also unexpected finds: Marilyn Nance, who artfully photographed a range of religious activities (bottom); Tony Gleaton, who assembled a wide-ranging survey of African influences throughout this hemisphere; Earlie Hudnall Jr., who made a striking photograph of a bare-chested boy in rumpled jeans leaning against a wood frame; and Baltimore-born Roland L. Freeman, a master of unexpected tableaux, such as an aging ’50s-era car set against a rickety, laundry-bedecked series of back porches, the downscale equivalent of Robert Frank’s famous image of a covered car amid palm trees in Long Beach, Calif.
While the paintings in the exhibit touch on subjects ranging from farm labor to the civil rights struggle to homelessness, the artists channel stylistic influences as varied as Van Gogh, Gaugin, Picasso, and Hopper, a reminder that art soaks up cultural influences like a sponge.
The exhibit’s boldest stroke is to include a number of fully abstract works. Most have no obvious visual connection to African-American themes, but some are striking, none more so than a 1974 sculpture by Frederick Eversley—-a circular black form that somehow harbors a mysteriously glowing orb at its center. The explosion of visual diversity offers a counterpoint to “The Black List,” an exhibit that just closed at the neighboring National Portrait Gallery—-50 repetitive portraits of famous African-Americans.
The exhibition is on view 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily to Sept. 3 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW. Free.