Last winter, when the Philadelphia Museum of Art showed "Represent," a selection of works by African American artists in its collections, I was charmed by Smoking My Pipe, a 1934 self-portrait by Samuel R. Brown, an artist with whom I was unfamiliar. A very large picture of the work, which shows the 27-year-old artist dressed stylishly in a three-piece suit and butterfly bow tie, ran with my column.
Soon after, I heard from someone who knew him, a former student of his at Dobbins, the vocational high school in North Philadelphia, where this young aesthete and dandy ended up spending most of his career. He was, I was told, a great teacher.
I came across him again recently at the Woodmere Art Museum's current show, "We Speak: Black Artists in Philadelphia, 1920s-1970s." This time, the self-portrait is a lithograph, produced at the Brandywine Workshop, where Brown often worked. The artist is 78 and decidedly less dapper. The years show on his face, but the eyes are just as probing and brilliant. And over his shoulder we glimpse the ghostly image of the young artist, smoking his pipe.
It is actually one of four pieces by Brown in the show, which also has a topsy-turvy semiabstract cityscape made in a New Deal-era art program; The Odd Sister, an enigmatic 1974 painting of three distended semi-nudes; and Urlene, Age 9, a 1956 portrait of a little girl that has the same immediacy and insouciance of the self-portrait with the pipe.
Having seen this exhibition and read its catalog, I now know a thing or two about Brown - for example, that Eleanor Roosevelt, when she was first lady, championed his work. I also know something about the community of which he was a part for so long. He was, for example, both a product and an employee of the Philadelphia public school system, as were several other black artists. He showed his work at the Pyramid Club on Girard Avenue, one of the few venues that regularly showed black artists. And, in retirement, he became part of the Brandywine Workshop.
One finds the same kind of detail and overlapping experiences among many other artists in the show, several of whom are similarly represented by works from different eras and in different media. The point of the show is not simply to identify some notable works by African Americans who lived and worked in Philadelphia, but also to provide a sense of context.
You have to question why, in this day and age, there should be group shows about African American artists. Shouldn't we have long since stopped segregating this work and look at it on its own merit?
William Valerio, Woodmere's director, argues that this show allowed Woodmere to provide a baseline of information about artists and works that had long been overlooked. The art world was largely segregated in those years, so it is only realistic to begin this way. The catalog, with its capsule biographies and oral histories about artists and institutions, seems likely to be a useful reference for years to come.
The exhibition itself is a bit confusing, as it is arranged to raise a number of topics. So a particular artist's work is likely to be scattered all over the gallery, and works from the Depression and World War II are mixed in with work from the Black Power years of the late '60s and '70s. Still, if you pay attention, there are some surprising resonances.
One of my favorite works, Streetcar (1974) by Ed Jones, shows one of the city's old streamlined subway-surface cars making its way through the narrow and somewhat creepy tunnels through which they pass before emerging to the west of the University of Pennsylvania campus. It shows the city at once desolate and engaging. In this case, it appears more important that the artist is a Philadelphian than that he is black.
Still, a few feet away, we see John W. Mosley's photographs of demonstrations during World War II, protesting the hiring practices of the Philadelphia Transportation Co., one of SEPTA's predecessors. The demonstrators wear suits and ties, and the women have stylish hats and coats with fur collars. "We drive tanks," their placards say, "why not trolleys?" I have no idea whether Jones' trolley, whose driver is just a dark silhouette, makes reference to this particular struggle for black empowerment. Seen in context, no image is as innocent as it seems.
The exhibition uses the slightly outdated term black in its title, and its strongest theme is probably the artists' exploration of blackness. The great printmaker Dox Thrash invented the Carborundum mezzotint, a medium that allowed him to achieve tremendous subtlety in an almost entirely black image. His Charlot or Charlotte (undated) looks like a smudge from a few feet away, but up close, a real woman emerges from the darkness.
Allan R. Freelon Sr., in Nine Coming Up (c. 1953) shows miners emerging from a coal shaft. Coal mining was one of the first union jobs to be integrated, but his painting shows that coal mining makes everybody black.
Still, in many of the paintings, blackness is shown in many colors, ranging from realistic browns and tans to greens, bright yellows, and, in one work by the Nigerian-born artist Twins Seven Seven, pink. In Barbara Bullock's explosive Dark Gods (1982), two powerful figures are locked in an embrace, apparently in midair. Dreadlocks fly in all directions, the muscled bodies gleam in purple, green, red, and gold in a vision of rough cosmic ecstasy that seems inspired by Asian and European as well as African art.
I take the artist at her word that what we see is an embrace, though I first interpreted it as a battle. There is a little bit of struggle in every embrace, I suppose.
With this show, Woodmere is encouraging its audience to embrace an art that has often been about suffering and struggle. We should be able to see this work not as African American heritage, but as part of the culture of the place where we live.
We Speak: Black Artists in Philadelphia, 1920s-1970s
Through Jan. 24 at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday.
Admission: $10; 55 and up, $7; students and children, free.