After 50 Years, the Delaware Art Museum Mounts Black Art

Photo courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum

The Delaware Art Museum confronts its racist history by mounting an exhibition it rejected 50 years ago, along with many others.

In 1971, artist and educator Percy Ricks set out to assemble and exhibit the best paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs created by the most talented Black artists working in Wilmington. It would not be a political exhibition, although racial tension was still palpable in the wake of the 1968 riots and National Guard occupation of the city following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rather, Afro-American Images 1971 would pay homage to the creative prowess of the artists who were working in this productive place and time.

Ricks, founder of the nonprofit artist collective Aesthetic Dynamics Inc., put in a call to the Delaware Art Museum (DAM), the logical venue to mount such an exhibition. Black art was appearing to have a breakthrough year, as the venerable Whitney Museum of American Art in New York was opening Contemporary Black Artists in America.

Back in Delaware, however, no one answered Ricks’ call.

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“He reached out to the museum in 1971, and no one responded,” says Margaret Winslow, the current curator of contemporary art at the institution. “He wanted to partner with the museum. He wanted to host the exhibition here, and he received silence.”

Ricks ultimately took Afro-American Images 1971 to the Wilmington Armory (now St. Anthony’s Community Center), where it was reportedly well attended, but hardly anyone, other than a shrinking number of artists and historians, has thought of the show over the past 50 years. Winslow only learned about it in 2015 when she unearthed the exhibition checklist while working on Dream Streets, an exhibition of art in Wilmington in the 1970s and ’80s.

“I had no knowledge of [Afro-American Images 1971], but anyone who is familiar with American art in the second half of the 20th century can see this was an incredibly important show,” she says, referring to the checklist of artworks. “These are major artists who have impacted modern and contemporary art, and these are significant examples of their work.”

While preparing for Dream Streets, Winslow consulted with several scholars, including James E. Newton, an artist and former head of the Black American Studies department at University of Delaware, who wrote an essay about Ricks that mentioned the 1971 exhibition and Aesthetic Dynamics. They agreed that Afro-American Images 1971 was under-documented and under-celebrated, and this year’s 50th anniversary would be the ideal time to revisit it.

Last year, Delaware Art Museum acquired Brother (1967–1969), an oil painting by Charles Searles, whose style traces back to his experiences in Africa, particularly with Nigerian art and culture. He was featured in the Brooklyn Museum’s 1969 exhibition New Black Artists before being selected for the Delaware exhibition in 1971./Photo courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum

On October 23, the museum and Aesthetic Dynamics Inc. unveil Afro-American Images 1971: The Vision of Percy Ricks, an exhibition featuring works by most of the artists who appeared in the original show and a celebration of the life and legacy of its namesake, who died in 2008.

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Historically, DAM shut out Black artists, Winslow says. “We’ve limited access to projects like Percy Ricks’ exhibition, which makes this an important opportunity, I think, for us to look at that in this moment.”

Forty years after Philadelphia artist Humbert Howard created Black Orpheus, an oil and collage work on Masonite, in 1969, Dr. John E. and Carol Hunt gifted it to Delaware Art Museum. Curator Margaret Winslow calls it an “incredibly strong work of art.” Howard was formally trained and widely acclaimed, particularly in Philadelphia where he also served as director of the Pyramid Club, a prominent African American cultural center and taught painting at Allens Lane Art Center./Photo courtesy of Howard Heartsfield Gallery

The process of amassing artwork from the original exhibition became all-consuming for Winslow, who started her search inside the museum’s own walls: Black Orpheus, a painting by the Philadelphia artist Humbert Howard, was gifted to the museum in 2009. Although she didn’t know about the 1971 exhibition at the time of the acquisition, Winslow says Howard is a “great artist” and the “incredibly strong work of art was a great fit for the museum’s collection.”

Otherwise, sourcing works by more than 60 artists has been daunting. Many of the paintings and sculptures reside in public collections and, because of today’s enthusiastic market for works by important Black artists, some have appeared on the secondary market, at auction houses and galleries.

“Many of the artists are no longer with us,” Winslow says. “So, it means connecting with family members. I look at obituaries and send letters to survivors and find them on Facebook. Many scholars and other art historians have connected me to living artists and family members in estates.”

In cases where the location or even the existence of a piece from the 1971 exhibition was unknown, Winslow attempted to identify works that are comparable in style, medium and date so that every artist from the original show would be included. “I will not meet that goal, unfortunately,” she says, conceding she was unable to “find anything” about at least one artist. “Of course, you know what will happen when the show’s on view: They’ll come forward.”

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The hunt did lead to many fruitful connections, such as with artist Cliff Eubanks and the family of Earl Wilkie, both in Philadelphia.

“Being able to meet the artist Louise Clement-Hoff, who taught at Fleisher Art Memorial for decades, being able to visit her studio and see the original work of art that she presented and invite her to the museum—all before she passed earlier this year,” Winslow says, pausing. “There have been three artists who have passed in the last year, not necessarily COVID-related. I think they were all well over 90, some over 100. That’s a bittersweet part of the process, being able to meet these individuals and then, you know.”

Conversations with the artists helped sharpen the museum’s goals around the mission of the exhibition, especially where it concerns Ricks, who was not only an artist and educator but also an advocate who created networks and opportunities for artists. “Everyone recalls him with great respect and affection,” Winslow says. “It’s not just about this amazing exhibition; it’s also about this amazing individual.”

Afro-American Images 1971 aimed to showcase and generate appreciation for the wealth of talent in the community—or, as the introduction of the exhibition catalog explained, “to bring young people in contact with this experience…[and] to open an avenue of communication between the Black artists and serious collectors, gallery owners [and] museum directors.”

Among the graphics in the exhibition is the 1968 lithograph Waiting, by Ernest Crichlow, the Brooklyn-born illustrator and social realist artist of the Harlem Renaissance. One of his best-known works, Lovers, depicts a hooded Ku Klux Klan member brutally attacking a young Black woman in her bedroom. The museum acquired Waiting, which shows a young Black girl behind a barbed wire fence, in 2019./Photo courtesy of the Estate of Ernest Crichlow

Meanwhile, some of the artists in the exhibition questioned how their work aligns, whether they should support a Black arts movement, and how issues of line, form and shape fit in.

Fifty years on, those concerns appear to have been put to rest.

The artworks in the show range from abstraction to figuration, and they’re often unidentifiable as “Black” art. The abstract expressionist Nightcap (1970) by Thomas Sills is a perfect example. The self-taught artist befriended and took advice from New York School titans such as Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman and eventually became known for his luminous color and his association with the late-1950s movement to color field painting.

Also among the abstract works are a pair of paintings by Hale Woodruff, including the imposing, 60-by-52-inch Ancestral Memory (mid-20th century), from the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Alma Thomas’ mosaic-style Spring–Delightful Flower Bed (1967), a painting of rectangular marks that form colorful concentric circles, from the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Thomas, who taught in Wilmington, was one of the elders in the ’71 exhibition.

Sam Gilliam, a young artist when he committed himself to abstraction at the dawn of the civil rights movement, is revered for his unstretched canvases that drape from walls and ceilings. The exhibition includes a good example, Untitled (circa 1971), where the fabric collects at two points on the wall. Incidentally, Gilliam bowed out of the Whitney exhibition when activists imposed a boycott because a white curator had organized the show. (Winslow worked closely with Aesthetic Dynamics and an outside advisory committee to assemble the DAM show.)

Figurative paintings better reflect the Black experience with contributions such as Faith Ringgold’s Black Light Series #3: Soul Sister (1967), Jacob Lawrence’s Brownstones (1958), Charles Searles’ Brother (1967–1969), Edward Loper Jr.’s Pool Room 11th & Walnut (1971), and Romare Bearden’s Carolina Memory (Tidings) (1973).

Ricks dedicated the 1971 show to the memory of James A. Porter, his mentor at Howard University who helped shape African American art history and a celebrated artist in his own right. Porter died in 1970. The new exhibition includes two of his paintings: Dismounted Spirit (1959) and Street of the Market, Zaria (1964).

The 16-by-26-inch oil on canvas Street of the Market, Zaria (1964) is one of two paintings in the exhibition by James A. Porter, who was influential in shaping African American art history and was a mentor to the show’s inspiration, Percy Ricks, at Howard University. DAM aquired the painting in 2018./Photo courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum

The show also features still-life paintings—including 3PM in the studio (not dated) by Kenn Simpson and the Braque-esque Wine and Cheese (1956) by Peter L. Robinson Jr.—as well as a landscape painting, Gay Head Cliffs, Martha’s Vineyard (circa 1970), by Delilah Pierce.

While the original exhibition wasn’t overtly political, it’s impossible to dismiss the racial strife of the time or resist comparisons in today’s climate. “All actions are political,” Winslow says, “and celebrating the creativity of Black artists in Wilmington was a very strong political and powerful action to take place.”

Likewise, she suggests DAM is taking “a political action” by restaging a version of the exhibition. “For us, it’s one of several exhibitions, projects and programs that have allowed the museum to look at the institutional history, our history of racism and bias, and to fully acknowledge that the museum has, in the past, upheld institutional racism.”

The exhibition consumes both of the museum’s temporary exhibition spaces and dedicates a smaller space to the artwork and ephemera of Ricks and Aesthetic Dynamics.

Unfortunately, Winslow says, it’s impossible to exactly mimic the original exhibition design. Visual references of the layout are as rare as the artworks themselves. “There are just a few images that The News Journal took of the ’71 show,” she says, “and most of those installation views are pretty tight. You don’t get a sense of how the exhibition was installed. I actually have no idea how it was installed, except there are Aesthetic Dynamics members still with us.”

Incidentally, Aesthetic Dynamics included not only Black artists but also artists, art administrators, and PR and marketing individuals of all colors and creeds who supported the arts in Wilmington. Some members have written responses that will appear in wall text and the exhibition catalog, which contains scholarly essays about the organization, Percy Ricks, the 1971 exhibition, and the African American presence at DAM. It also includes a reproduction of the entire 1971 catalog, including the price list.

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