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 Loading... Please wait... The Met Donation of 57 Works from Black Self Taught Artists of the American South Exhibit

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At the Met, a Riveting Testament to Those Once Neglected

Thornton Dial’s two-sided relief-painting-assemblage, “History Refused to Die” (2004), also gives this Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition its title. His work is in conversation with quilts by, from left, Lola Pettway (“Housetop,” circa 1975); Lucy T. Pettway (“Housetop” and “Bricklayer” blocks with bars, circa 1955); and Annie Mae Young (“Work-clothes quilt with center medallion of strips,” from 1976).Credit2018 Estate of Thornton Dial/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Agaton Strom for The New York Times
History Refused to Die
NYT Critic's Pick

By Roberta Smith

  • American art from the 20th and 21st centuries is broader, and better than previously acknowledged, especially by museums. As these institutions struggle to become more inclusive than before, and give new prominence to neglected works, they rarely act alone. Essential help has come from people like William Arnett and his exemplary "Souls Grown Deep Foundation". Their focus is the important achievement of black self-taught artists of the American South, born of extreme deprivation and social cruelty, raw talent and fragments of lost African cultures.

The foundation is in the process of dispersing the entirety of its considerable holdings — some 1,200 works by more than 160 artists — to museums across the country. When it is finished, it may well have an impact not unlike that of the Kress Foundation, which from 1927 to 1961 gave more than 3,000 artworks to 90 museums and study collections.

The Met was the first of the foundation’s beneficiaries, receiving a gift of 57 artworks" by 30 artists in 2014. Now, the museum celebrates its fortune with “History Refused to Die: Highlights From the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift.” A selection of 29 pieces, many of them rarely if ever shown, it is suffused by an electrifying sense of change.

Gee’s Bend collective, especially those of the Pettway family. There are also various assemblage reliefs and sculptures by Lonnie Holley and Ronald Lockett. And the most extensive conversation — in their endless intricacies and shared uses of fabrics, textures and the grid — is between the works of Dial, who died in 2016, and the quilters. The Dials start to seem like crazed, dimensionalized quilts, the quilts like flattened, more orderly Dials.

Nearly everything included is made from scavenged objects and materials, scraps redolent of the shameful history of black labor in the South — before 1865, of course, but also in the Jim Crow era — transformed by aesthetic intelligence and care into forms of eloquence and beauty. One of the most valuable lessons here is the works’ inherent formal and material sense of defiance, and of beauty itself as an act of resistance.

The bright colors and joyful asymmetry of Loretta Pettway’s “Medallion,” circa 1960, beckons visitors to this exhibition’s galleries, where a selection of 29 pieces of the Met’s gift from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation are on view.Credit2018 Loretta Pettway/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Agaton Strom for the New York Times
The show’s two hypnotic galleries have very different emotional and visual tones. After beckoning you from down the corridor with the bright colors and joyful asymmetry of Loretta Pettway’s “Medallion” quilt (circa 1960), the exhibition starts with an elegiac room of works nearly devoid of color.

Dial’s “Shadows of the Field” (2008) evokes haunted expanses of cotton plants with the help of strips of synthetic cotton batting. Along one wall, the “work-clothes” quilts of Lucy Mingo and four other Gee’s Benders reflect lives of hard labor and scrimping; their fabrics are almost exclusively blues and gray denim whose worn textures and faded colors are masterfully played off one another.

"Bed" from 1955, which conspicuously incorporates an old quilt. Joe Minter’s 1995 symmetrical arrangement of rusted shovels, rakes, hoes and chains, seems to bless the whole room. Regal and severely gorgeous, it suggests both a group of figures and an altar. Its title pulls no punches: “Four Hundred Years of Free Labor.” Yet I also found myself thinking of the beguiling offering stand once called “Billy Goat and Tree,” from Sumer around 2600 B.C., one of the first full-page color reproductions in H.W. Janson’s “History of Art.”

"Christ's Entry Into Brussels Young’s large painting on wood shows a group of black figures, some with halos, others holding up padlocks signifying their freed minds to flocks of angels, while two immense white possibly rampant horses add to the drama. The show’s coda is Dial’s ironically titled “Victory in Iraq,” a relief-painting from 2004. It hangs just outside the second gallery, its barbed wire and twisted mesh against a field of fabric and detritus defines and holds space as lightly and powerfully as Jackson Pollock’s "Autumn Rythym" displayed nearby.

An enormous survey seen recently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington that argued for the integration of such work with supposedly “insider” art while also undermining that position — since the outlier works often overwhelmed everything else.

At this point I think of the words of the little boy refusing to eat his vegetables in the famous New Yorker cartoon: “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.” Let’s just call all of it art and proceed.

Let’s see the rest of the Met’s gift. Let’s see Mr. Arnett’s foundation, now headed by the experienced museum director, Maxwell Anderson, complete its task. So far it has dispersed around 20 percent of its holdings to seven museums, with the most recent gift — 34 works to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond — announced this week. By these numbers, another 40 or so museums should benefit. Every thinking American understands the suffering these artists and their ancestors have endured and should grasp the meaning of Dial’s poem of a title. History has indeed refused to die, and some of its greatest art is also ver

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