Curator’s Choice. – Review – book review
Regina L. Woods
Distinguished art historian David C. Driskell shows his vast knowledge through the Cosby Collection.
Black people have been collecting and displaying art for as long as artists have been making it, This is not to say that we have always paid attention to the provenance or the market value of what hung in our parlors, l grew up with Praying White Jesus Wearing Thorny Crown and Portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. with Black Tie, plus my grandma Lula’s exquisite assortment of dust-gathering plastic nosegays and her “original” Last Supper Painted on Black Velvet. Such paintings also hung in the homes of almost every older person I knew, Many people fall into my grandma’s category of collector–hanging “pretty pictures” anywhere an empty space or a jutting nail called for one,
The last three decades, however, have produced a growing number of more pedigreed collections belonging to art connoisseurs. Among this breed of megadollar collectors are professional couples like Harriet and Harmon Kelley, Barbara and Leon Banks, and Linda and Walter Evans. The publication of The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art (University of Washington Press with The Walter Evans Foundation, 2000) and Narratives in African American Identity: The David C. Driskell Collection (Pomegranate Communications, Inc., 1998) have given us a look into some of these extraordinary private repositories of African American art history.
But the works owned by the most famous of these collecting couples is the subject of the latest volume on the subject. The Other Side of Color: African American Art in the Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr., is by far one of the best. Starting in 1967 with the purchase of a Chinese ink and charcoal drawing by Charles White, the Cosbys have assembled an important museum quality collection which includes 300 works by African American artists. The Other Side of Color highlights 100 of these pieces. David Driskell’s essay contextualize’s each artist within the overall scheme of American Art, and places each work within the landscape of each artist’s career. The numerous beautiful color plates illustrate some of the most important objects d’art created by 19th and 20th century African American artists.
A distinguished art historian, teacher, collector and painter himself, Georgia-born and North Carolina-bred Driskell built his academic career at historically black institutions, notably Howard and Fisk, before taking his final position as chairman of the art department at the University of Maryland, which he left in the 1980s to devote himself to research, curating and painting. As the Cosbys’ curator and cultural advisor for two decades, Driskell has guided them well, especially in the areas of 19th-century and Harlem Renaissance paintings and sculptures. Their collection boasts several portraits by colonial painter Joshua Johnson (1765-1830), whose work was in high demand even during his lifetime. Robert Duncanson’s celebratory American frontiers are also well represented. In 1861, the Cincinnati Gazette called Duncanson “the greatest landscape painter in the West” For me, the shining star of the 19th-century works is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Thankful Poor, 1894. When Camille Cosby bought this piece at auction in 1981 as a gift for her husband, she set a new record for the highest price paid for a work of art by an African American.
Flora, still-life paintings by Horace Pippin (1888-1946), created at the end of his life, as well as Senegalese Boy, 1929 by Archibald Motley (1891-1981) are just a few of the stellar mid-20th-century works. Motley’s scenes of Chicago’s South Side night life (also in the collection) may be more familiar to some, but Senegalese Boy is a beautiful example of Motley’s accomplished portraiture. Sculptures by Meta Warrick Fuller, Augusta Savage, Richmond Barthe and Elizabeth Catlett are all well represented. Of course Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis are included. Robert Colescott’s Death of a Mulatto Woman (1925), and several paintings by Bob Thompson (1937-1966) help give depth to the range of figurative works in the collection.
As for the contemporary works, I was more interested in who was not represented–among them, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sam Gilliam, David Hammonds, Kerry James Marshall and Lorna Simpson. Perhaps the Cosbys do own pieces by these very significant contemporary artist, but just didn’t select them for the book. Let’s hope so.
Although the Cosbys’ entire collection includes works by Rembrandt, Matisse, Picasso as well as Thomas Hart Benton, its primary focus is works by African American artists. Like their other well documented social and cultural endeavors, their collection reflects their dedication to the preservation and encouragement of excellence in the African American community. Mr. Cosby writes, “We have diligently exercised our racial pride by collecting what we love.”
The Other Side of Color: African American Art in the Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. by David C. Driskell Pomegranate Communications, Inc., May 2001, $65.00 ISBN 0-7649-1455-3
Regina L. Woods is a Brooklyn-based writer and associate editor at BIBR. Her features and reviews have appeared in African Arts, International Review of African American Art; Flash Art, Guggenheim Magazine and Black Artists At present, Regina is working on a collection of stories written by African school children. Read her feature on art historia David C. Driskell’s “the Other Side of Color: African American Art in the Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosy Jr.” on page 40.
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