05/31/2019 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Harlem: In Situ

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On a recent Saturday afternoon, we found ourselves near Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and remembered that the school’s art gallery — the remarkable Addison Gallery of American Art — was running an exhibition we’ve been meaning to see for a while now.

The exhibition is titled Harlem: In Situ. It is part of the gallery’s 2018-19 line-up that focus on the concept of “place” in America — from cities to suburbs to farmland and open landscapes. In all, the gallery’s mission is to collect and display art that, as gallery director Judith Dolkart puts it, “charts the birth and evolution of the United States as political and social ideal, as place, and as abundance.”

With this goal in mind, Harlem: In Situ doesn’t disappoint. The show is a mix of photography, painting, etchings, block prints, and installations — all by artists who have spent significant time in Harlem. As curator Stephanie Sparling Williams says,“ the exhibition presents the creative labor of artists who have taken Harlem, New York, as their site of inquiry over the last century.” When we visited, the gallery was also playing some excellent jazz from Harlem residents — and Cotton Club regulars — Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Ella Fitzgerald joined Ellington to sing “Drop Me Off in Harlem.”

Harlem: In Situ has a great deal to teach us about the art of photography, painting, printmaking, and more. It also offers insights into the evolution of art forms over the decades. But what is most striking about the exhibition is how it captures the energy and life of this primarily African-American community post-Reconstruction up through the Harlem Renaissance and the economic struggles of the 1970s and 1980s to the problematic gentrification of the community today.

We were happy enough to simply enjoy the art on a beautiful spring afternoon. But Harlem: In Situ also reminds us of how art can draw us in and teach us a great deal not only about creative expression and the history of art but also about human dignity, community, struggle, and love at a time when we desperately need these lessons to sink in and feed a better future.

One of the most popular courses at Harvard University of late is one titled “Vision and Justice: The Art of Citizenship,” taught by Sarah Lewis, assistant professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and the Department of African and African American Studies. Lewis also guest edited a 2016 issue of Aperture magazine on the same topic. Lewis makes the point over and over that how we portray a community correlates with how we treat a community. Both the Aperture issue and Harlem: In Situ offer a narrative of self-determination and self-reflection that counters so much of the negative, racist imagery designed to dehumanize African Americans over the decades.

In the Harlem: In Situ exhibition, the black and white photographs (silver gelatin prints) by Carl Van Vechten, Aaron Siskind, Lucien Aigner, James Van Der Zee, and others capture remarkable Harlem street scenes of the 1930s and 1940s as well as portraits of artists, musicians, and writers of the day, including poet Langston Hughes.

The exhibition also includes black and white photos from Roy DeCarava, the first African-American to win a Guggenheim Fellowship (1952). DeCarava’s intriguing, atmospheric images from the late 1950s and early 1960s includes one titled, “Coltrane and Elvin” (1960), a stunning portrait of musicians John Coltrane and Elvin Jones playing at a club. Another photo by Leonard Free captures joyful Harlem residents greeting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

These early- and mid-20th century photographs give way in the exhibition to Daywoud Bey’s more contemporary images (black and white and color) that update the street life in Harlem, capturing both the years of economic downturn and political unrest in the 1970s, as well as recent imagines of Harlem’s shift to a more gentrified community. We move, that is, from portraits of barber-shop life and front stoops and boys riding home-made scooters through the spray of open fire hydrants to a 2014 image of a tourist sitting at a table outside a Harlem patisserie with his espresso, laptop, and headphones. Daywoud Bey, who was born in Harlem and raised in nearby Queens and studied art at Yale University, was a recipient of a 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. In his arresting photographs we feel the quiet tension in the community’s shift into a new iteration of itself.

Also among the powerful images in the exhibition are the color photographs by Lorraine O’Grady from 1983. During the annual African-American Day parade in Harlem, O’Grady brought along a team of artists to carry empty picture frames, which they would spontaneously hold up in front of parade participants and spectators while O’Grady took photographs. What one feels viewing this series of 21 images, titled “Art Is…,” is the full celebratory joy in the individual lives and collective spirit of community.

As Stephanie Sparling Williams notes, outside artists and photographers “tended to focus on the bleakness of [Harlem’s] deprivation, where residents tended to celebrate the past and imagine new futures.”

The feeling of celebration is clear in Romare Bearden’s remarkable portrait of Duke Ellington, as well as in Jacob Lawrence’s painting of a group of African-American men huddled around a numbers game. In Alice Neel’s painting of a corner tenement building, the street scene is held in contrast beneath a bright, almost playful sky.

The contemporary paintings of Jordan Casteel — focused on the lives of African-American men — capture more ordinary moments in Harlem life. There’s something so compelling about these images, too. Besides being remarkable paintings, they carry with them the quiet dignity in life outside the limelight.

A single exhibition can’t capture the entirety of a community with a history as complex as Harlem’s. But one comes away from Harlem: In Situ with strong reminder of this African-American community’s determination, talent, struggles, grace, and pride. We also came away from the exhibition grateful for the existence of the Addison Gallery of American Art, and for all schools that continue to take the visual and performing arts seriously — as worthy of study and practice and as deeply valuable for what it tells us about ourselves and the world.

The collection at the Addison Gallery is available to students at Philips Academy and other schools and colleges for the study of art and culture. It is also open to the public. If you find yourself near Andover, we encourage you to stop in. Harlem: In Situ runs through July 31, 2019. It’s one of four exhibitions currently on display at the gallery, along with plenty of other art from the gallery’s permanent collection.

Image source: Addison Gallery of American Art

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