Elizabeth Catlett’s art cries out in protest, proclaims solidarity, celebrates survival.
Catlett’s mobilizations of desire become more than assertion, belief, need and hope. They become will. In her sculpture, Catlett wagers that desire activated by and embodied in a language of organic form can be an engine of history.
Burning in Water - New York is pleased to present Elizabeth Catlett: Wake Up in Glory. The exhibition will focus on the evolution of Catlett’s sculpture, featuring a diverse group of works drawn from across the seven-decade span of the artist’s career, including work in bronze, wood and marble. The show begins with Catlett’s stately Negro Woman bust. The most recent works in the show were created shortly before the artist’s death in 2012 at the age of 96.
Born in Washington, DC in 1915, Elizabeth Catlett forged a singular artistic career as a sculptor and printmaker. During the course of her long life, Catlett was profoundly influenced by a broad array of artistic genres and traditions, including the Harlem Renaissance, European Modernism, African art, American Regionalism, the Chicago Renaissance, Pre-Columbian art, Mexican Muralism and Post-Revolution Populism and the Black Arts Movement.
Rather than simply emulating or reacting to these diverse influences, Catlett synthesized disparate visual idioms to develop a highly-individual style. Catlett’s work was also profoundly shaped by a lifelong engagement with social and political concerns. While avoiding overt didacticism, Catlett developed a remarkable facility in using pared-down forms to convey powerful messages regarding the topics that mattered to her most: freedom, race and ethnicity, feminism and maternalism. Ultimately, Catlett rejected any distinction between the aesthetic and sociopolitical elements of her work. “I believe that art should come from the people and be for the people,” she commented in 1952. “I believe that art is important to the extent that it grows out of and affects the society of its time.”
Catlett studied at Howard University in the 1930s - a period when the art department was suffused with a highly-charged atmosphere of “cross-cultural modernism.” At Howard, Catlett absorbed elements of both traditional African art and European modernism that served as touchstones throughout her later career. At the University of Iowa, Catlett was mentored by the painter Grant Wood. In accordance with his regionalist ethos, Wood exhorted Catlett to focus her art on “what she knew.” Catlett adopted this principle even as she transformed it; rather than a geographic focus, Catlett grounded her art in the terrain of her own experiences as a woman and an African American. Working with the Russian modernist sculptor Opal Zadkine, Catlett further elaborated her characteristic approach: an on-going engagement with formal experimentation within the context of an enduring focus on African American womanhood.
In 1942, Catlett moved to Mexico, where she would live and work for the last fifty years of her life. Catlett joined the Taller de Gráfica Popular artist collective, whose members considered it to be a “workshop against imperialism…and a workshop for the liberation of all peoples.” The graphic artists of Taller saw their artwork as an instrument for promoting liberationist ideals and redressing injustice. Supported by a community of like-minded populist artists, Catlett further elaborated her skill in communicating social and political messages to a broad audience with an economy of form. Of her time at the workshop, Catlett commented that, “I learned how to put art to the service of the people.”
Catlett had incorporated forms inspired by Central and West African art since her days as a student at Howard, frequently utilizing a particular angularity of facial physiognomy, a pronounced horizontal bridge line and “coffee bean-shaped eyes” evocative of Baule masks in her sculptures. Increasingly, she came to interpret the forms of African art in abstract terms, noting that, “After all, abstraction was born in Africa.” Catlett’s experimentation with abstraction rooted in African forms is represented in the exhibition the sculpture Magic Mask (1970), which is perhaps her most non-representational work. In Mexico, Catlett was similarly influenced by Pre-Columbian sculpture, which she studied under the guidance of Francisco Zuniga at the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura. Her attention to Pre-Columbian and African art over the course of decades, Catlett noted, taught her to “communicate feeling through form.”
In forging her own distinct approach to sculptural form, Catlett drew deeply from three primary sources: Central and West African art, Pre-Colombian sculpture and European Organic Modernism. As Herzog has noted,
[Catlett] took the sculptural methods and language she had learned in the United States and either merged them with or reshaped them according to the look and syntax of African and pre-Hispanic art. As a result, her sculptures could evoke modernism but not feel modernist.
Despite its affinities with the forms of European modernists such as Brancusi, Arp and Moore, Catlett’s sculpture is fundamentally distinguished by its subject matter and its highly-engaged posture towards sociopolitical and historical circumstances. Fulfilling Wood’s mandate to depict what she knew, Catlett maintained a focus on the subject of African American womanhood throughout her career. Though her sculptural forms were often highly-abstracted, Catlett imbued her works with a profound sense of narrative shaped by both her intensely personal experience and identification as an African American woman (along with her acquired mejicanismos) and her broader, abiding concern with principles of justice, freedom, dignity and resilience. Catlett’s sculptures exude a profound, if ineffable, sense of strength, agency and will. Lowery Stokes Sims describes the strength and agency in Catlett’s women in contrast to the more languid female forms of Zuniga:
Catlett’s women reach upward, fists raised, arms folded over their heads, stretching to the sun in an assertive power of their womanhood. They have, in the words of Clarissa Pinkola Estes, “power in their haunches” and express the “power of a woman’s body when it is animated from the inside.
Catlett’s singular manner of depicting feminine strength - of spirit, body and character - is aptly demonstrated by several works in the current show. Walking Woman (1987) and Stepping Out (2000) both proudly convey such qualities in depicting women mid-stride, while even her radically pared-down Torso works suggest a robust “animation from inside.”
Considering Elizabeth Catlett’s work in historical context reveals a complex, even contradictory relationship to the European Modernism. In addition to specific stylistic affinities with European Modernism, Catlett’s work comported with the drive towards reduced, essentialist forms. However, a fundamentally anti-modern strain persists in Catlett’s work, in so far as her works defiantly remain on a continuum with African and Pre-Columbian sculpture. Whereas European modernists freely borrowed forms from African art without regard to meaning or cultural specificity, Catlett directly inculcates such cultural and historical precedents into her sculpture. With her unbowed adherence to populism and idealistic view of the potential of art to reach broad audiences and further sociopolitical causes, Catlett established her own trajectory - employing formal elements of modernism only to the extent that they suited her cause. In comparing Catlett’s art modernist organic abstraction (particularly Brancusi’s sculpture), Michael Brenson concluded the following:
Unlike Brancusi’s sculptures…Catlett’s communicate the importance of personal and social history. They retain the stamp of psychological encounters, the drama of race and class differences, the longing both for privacy and solidarity. The past is ever present in Catlett’s figures. So is the affirmation of the reality and necessity of struggle.