Harlem Roots, the intimate exhibition of select pieces from the Harlem Art Collection, showcases artists whose independent contributions serve as a lasting tribute to Harlem, elevating what was once coined “community art” into an art form with profound impacts in American art.
With works that were completed during the Harlem Renaissance through the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement eras, these artists connected to the community with their art and are now synonymous with Harlem. While depicting and documenting their surroundings, the artists provide viewers with insight and an artistic response to the many socio-political issues that swelled in the environment around them.
With a notable lack of equal representation in broader New York City exhibitions, some of these artists involved themselves in art collectives such as the Harlem Artist Guild (1935-1941) and the Black Arts Movement-inspired Weusi Artist Collective, established in 1965. Others sought artistic equality and empowerment and spearheaded working artist initiatives such as the Kamoinge Workshop, Spiral Gallery, and Cinque Gallery, to name a few.
All artists featured in this exhibition are prominently affixed to the culture of Harlem and contributed to the neighborhood’s transformation into a national treasure of ideas and creativity.
Top Image: David Cottes, The Rad, 1970, oil on canvas
David Cottes, 1930 -
The Rad, 1970, oil on canvas
Born to Puerto Rican immigrants, Cottes was an active member of the Puerto Rican Art Movement in East Harlem and worked at the Center for Puerto Rican Cultural Relations. The Rad depicts abstracted androgynous figures in earth tones grouped together with fists upraised. Cottes was known to paint scenes of figures in crowded subways. The Rad’s upraised fists act as representations of people holding onto subway rails while simultaneously referencing the raised fist as a symbol of power and solidarity.
Leita Mitchell, 1949 -
Street Jivin', n.d., collage on paperboard
Leita Mitchell spent her life in Harlem. Inspired by the collage work of Romare Bearden, Mitchell is known for her vibrant, vivid, and bold collages that imaginatively depict the people who lived, worked, played, struggled and survived in the city. Along with children’s book cover designs, her illustrations have been published in magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Black Enterprise and Redbook.
Ernest Crichlow, 1914-2005
Waiters, 1969-70, acrylic on masonite
Working primarily with figurative paintings depicting the strength of the people who lived in his neighborhood, Crichlow frequently included his analysis on civil rights and social justice struggles. He illustrated children's books for many years and taught at the Art Students League of New York. In 1969, along with artists Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, Crichlow founded the Cinque Gallery to exhibit new and established African American artists as well as provide community educational programs.
Harlan Jackson, 1918-1993
African Series Phoenix, n.d., mixed media
During American painting’s transition away from Surrealism and Cubism, Jackson was a major pioneer in the movement of experimental abstraction. His explorations in painting were influenced by studying with artist Clyfford Still, African cubist imagery inspired by a trip to Haiti, the ideas of Alain Locke and the New Negro Movement, and the Hans Hoffman School of Fine Arts where he experimented with ideas of perspective and plasticity.
Elizabeth Catlett, 1915-2012
Woman Figure, 1976, mahogany
© 2019 Catlett Mora Family Trust / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
“The big question for me as a Black woman is how do I serve my people? What is my role?”
Woman Figure blends stylized abstraction and realism to depict strength and the elegance and dignity of the African American female. As a printmaker and sculptor, Catlett lived in Harlem and taught at the George Washington Carver School prior to moving to Mexico in 1946. Her work continued to be produced in solidarity with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
Hale Woodruff, 1900-1980
Celestial Gate, 1969, oil on canvas
© 2019 Estate of Hale Woodruff / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Woodruff’s move to New York in 1946 represented a major shift in the artist’s career. While teaching at New York University, he became involved with the Abstract Expressionist scene and transitioned his style from figures and landscape art to abstract imagery inspired by African art, as seen in Celestial Gate. Together with artists Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, Woodruff joined Spiral, the seminal collective of African American artists that formed in response to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Ed Clark, 1926-2019
Untitled, n.d. oil on canvas
© Ed Clark
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
As a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, Clark was a charter member of the artist-run “Brata Gallery” on Tenth Street with artists such as George Sugarman, Al Held, and Ronald Bladen. In 1957, he became the first American artist to develop the “shaped canvas.” Clark is also known for laying his canvases on the ground and using a broom to push color across the canvas; invoking speed and movement into fields of color.