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Jazz comes to the canvas in the George and Joyce Wein collection
BY CHRISTOPHER MILLIS
"Syncopated Rhythms: 20th-Century African American Art from the George & Joyce Wein Collection"
Boston University Art Gallery | 855 Commonwealth Ave, Boston | Through January 22
It’s no special wonder that the art collection of George and Joyce Wein, the founders of the Newport Jazz Festival, would be as rich in jazz motifs and as evocative of the history of 20th-century African-American painting as "Syncopated Rhythms," the rewarding and intelligently documented show at the Boston University Art Gallery.
What is a wonder is how many of the artists were themselves entrenched in jazz culture. The influence of jazz finds its most visible expression in subject matter: Oliver Johnson’s stunning 1977 portrait of Louis Armstrong; Norman Lewis’s 1943 oil Harlem Jazz Jamboree; Romare Beardon’s riveting 1981 collage Uptown Sunday Night Session.
More significant is the influence of jazz on the artists’ lives and, beyond that, on the styles their work embodied. Beardon wrote song lyrics and belonged to the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. Miles Davis took up painting in the 1980s after a 40-year career as one of the seminal musicians in he history of the music. Charles Alston designed record jackets and sketched such figures as Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith.
But it’s the æsthetic influence of jazz — its tonal ambiguities, its shifting rhythmic pulses, its improvisational complexity, and perhaps above all its intellectual drive — that gives "Syncopated Rhythms" corresponding visual qualities. The challenge of the exhibit is like the challenge of jazz itself, which is the challenge of all primarily cerebral, emotionally distilled art — namely, a surface of infinite, calculated reserve. But just as you don’t leave a Samuel Beckett play feeling all warm and fuzzy, you don’t leave "Syncopated Rhythms" with a sense of being touched so much as transformed, informed, and enriched.
In her lucid catalogue essay, curator Patricia Hills notes that from Stuart Davis, who "came to his ideas about art-making through his experiences as a youth frequenting the barrelhouses of Newark," Romare Beardon (1911–1988) came to develop his own style. With Davis’s guidance, Beardon "learned to listen to the ‘intervals’ (the stops or breaks) in an Earl Hines piano composition and to apply the lessons of jazz — coloration, rhythm, intervals — to painting."
Learned is an understatement. Beardon’s two contributions to the show (New Orleans Farewell was the first piece the Weins bought from an African-American artist) are chief among its highlights and worth seeking out on their own. In Uptown Sunday Night Session, a luminous yellow haze appears to fill the air of a jazz club stage where the musicians — piano, trumpets, clarinet, banjo — perform for a cocktail-sipping audience. For the most part the colors are rich yet flat, and their logic is compositional, not realistic. The musicians’ suits mutate from blue to gray to brown to green; the face of the banjo player shifts from brown to blue to beige; even the air morphs from gold to aquamarine. Beardon’s signature collage style of flattened, highly stylized figures orchestrated into scenes depicting the lives of black people delivers a unique monumentality here. The musicians tower in this nearly 4x5 work, and your eyes move between the oxygen-swollen form of the clarinet player absorbed in making music and the stark face of the banjo player — the only musician whose eyes make contact with us. And it is his face that stands as counterpoint to the rest of the bustling, self-absorbed scene; in a sense it’s his face that makes Uptown Sunday Night Session a jazz composition. Casting his glance at both the club audience and us, the banjo player’s world-weary eyes and lack of affect combine with his confrontational stillness to imply the inverse of the teeming life that surrounds him. At the heart of jazz lies the awareness of death.
Space is less tightly packed in the works of Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000). Lawrence and Beardon have a similar kinetic sensibility, and Lawrence’s use of color — sharp and kaleidoscopic — combines with similarly stylized, almost Cubist forms to convey a surface level of energy beneath which pulsates a deep remorse. In Fulton and Norton, a 1958 egg-tempera painting, we’re witness to a street scene of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where Lawrence lived. For all the vibrancy of the pedestrian traffic with its shoppers and lovers and guys hanging out at street corners, and for all the brightness of their clothes and the floral hues of the shops and street lamps, an aura of upset lives just below the surface. A mother clutches her daughter’s shoulders in a protective gesture; a woman looks worriedly into a man’s face; another woman looks over her shoulder as if startled. What at first appears to be breezy and lighthearted and random — a slice of city life — proves on further inspection to be a finely tuned dance set to the beat of underlying angst. Lawrence’s other painting in the show requires less scrutiny. His 1941 Bus, done on his first visit to Jim Crow South, depicts a bus crowded at the back with black riders while the front of the vehicle seats a loose scattering of whites. Between them the middle of the bus goes unoccupied, like a traveling demilitarized zone.
Another gratifying feature of "Syncopated Rhythms" is its stylistic range. From the charged, abstract oils of Norman Lewis (1909–1979), which offer no hint of his earlier, jazz-influenced social-realist period, to the more academic realism of John Biggers (1924–2001), Charles White (1918–1979), and John Wilson (born in 1922, he taught at Boston University until 1986), the show holds up as an important historic overview. But it is between those antithetical schools that many of the artists in the exhibit can be located, bound together within the loosely defined limits of abstract or figurative expressionism.
Significant among them is Bob Thompson (1937–1966), a Louisville-born painter who after a brief stint as a BU undergraduate settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he fell in with the Beats until emigrating to Europe in 1960. Thompson’s vision involves an unstrained borrowing from European masters (think Gauguin on Delancey Street) to which he adds an American stamp. In his remarkable Stairway to the Stars, a crowd of multi-colored, simplified nudes descends a stairway whose side is a photostat of an American Airlines boarding ramp. The stairs transport passengers to a colorful, jubilant terrain of lollipop trees on a quiltwork of Crayola-like grasses. Dominating the foreground, but so demurely that it takes a while to see, is a black silhouette in the shape of a pith helmet beneath which looms an equally dark, truncated, undifferentiated face. Like Beardon’s banjo player and the gestures of Lawrence’s pedestrians, the helmeted shadow recasts the playfulness and the sensuality of the surrounding scene and introduces an element of haunting, mysterious negation.
One other figurative expressionist worth noting is Benny Andrews (born 1930), who grew up in Georgia before moving to New York, where he taught at Queens College until 1997. Andrews weighs in with one work, a large (76 by 45 inches) 1977 collage called Angel in which a wide female figure in a purple, flower-patterned blouse plucks at harp strings that have been fashioned from rope. She’s no flat, rosy cherub: the nose lifts from the canvas, the open mouth seems distorted and oversized, and the space where her left eye ought to be has been torn into as if a dog had mauled her. No matter, she sings, her body bowed like the instrument she plays, an emblem not so much of Heaven’s promise as Heaven’s cost.