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1945-1980: learning resources

Charles Sebree, The Mystic

Charles Sebree, The Mystic, c. 1940s, tempera and oil on board, 10 x 12 inches (Georgia Museum of Art)
Charles Sebree, The Mystic, c. 1940s, tempera and oil on board, 10 x 12 inches (Georgia Museum of Art)

Key Points

  • To render this small tempera and oil painting, Charles Sebree employed a variety of techniques. Paint is applied in different thicknesses and methods, even scraped off in places, to convey depth, space, and texture in the details of the figure and the atmosphere around him.   
  • The identity and location of this enigmatic figure is unknown, but likely reflect Sebree’s ongoing interest in the inner self and the role of the artist as visionary. Many artists of the time, working in the vein of social realism, documented the visible realities of inequality and injustice in the United States. Sebree’s images, however, often probed the relationship between the seen and unseen things in the world. 
  • Born in Kentucky, Charles Sebree came to Chicago as a child. At an early age, he found success there as part of a community of like-minded artists, many of whom were associated with the city’s South Side Community Art Center. This was an important period that launched his long and productive career, which brought him later to New York and then Washington, D.C. Today, however, his work is less well known than that of his fellow African American contemporaries of the first half of the 20th century.

Go Deeper

See more work by Charles Sebree at Google Arts & Culture.
Learn about Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center and the city’s Black Renaissance in the 1930s–50s. 

More to Think About

In the final comments of the video, one of the speakers explains that The Mystic may be “a picture about vision that is the work of the artist.” How do you define artistic vision and how do you see it represented in this painting? 

Norman Lewis, Untitled

Norman Lewis, Untitled, 1945, oil on canvas with collage, 33-1/2 x 11-1/2 inches (Georgia Museum of Art, © Estate of Norman Lewis)
Norman Lewis, Untitled, 1945, oil on canvas with collage, 33-1/2 x 11-1/2 inches (Georgia Museum of Art, © Estate of Norman Lewis)

Key points

  • Untitled reflects a significant pivot in Norman Lewis’ artmaking as he shifted from figuration to abstraction in the mid-1940s. At a time when American society was emerging from the devastation of World War II, Lewis transitioned from the
    social realism
    of his early career to the dissolution and reorganization of forms, strokes, and various materials on canvas that dominated the rest of his career.
  • In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lewis became one of the few Black artists associated with
    Abstract Expressionism
    . As he pursued abstraction throughout his career, Lewis experimented with different approaches by looking at sources as diverse as Cubism and Asian art. No matter the inspiration, his works—like Untitled—consistently revealed the touch and presence of the artist, imprinting a profoundly human quality.
  • In 1963, he was one of the co-founders of Spiral, a group dedicated to their identity and role as Black artists within the unfolding civil rights movement. Members of Spiral debated whether the Black artist should produce figurative or abstract work; Lewis advocated strongly for abstraction as a mode that could confront and express the political.

Go deeper

Learn more about Norman Lewis’s life and art from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art
Expand your understanding of how we find meaning in abstraction
Megan O’Grady, “Once Overlooked, Black Abstract Painters are Finally Given their DueThe New York Times Style Magazine (February 12, 2021)
Ruth Fine, ed. Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis (Berkeley: University of California Press in association with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2015)

More to think about

Norman Lewis believed that abstraction had political agency in a way that social realism (defined in his words as “an illustrative statement that merely mirrors some of the social conditions”) did not. Do you agree? Consider the work of Norman Lewis and other abstract artists that you know about as you address this question.

A Harlem street scene by Jacob Lawrence, Ambulance Call

Jacob Lawrence, Ambulance Call, 1948, tempera on board, 61 x 50.8 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)
Jacob Lawrence, Ambulance Call, 1948, tempera on board, 61 x 50.8 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

Key points

  • From the 1920s until the 1940s, Harlem was the epicenter of African American culture. Known as the Harlem Renaissance, this period of cultural richness and collaboration redefined how the African American experience was expressed in art, music, and literature. In this painting, Jacob Lawrence evokes the vibrant sense of community and energy in Harlem, even without depicting the city itself.
  • After World War I, during what is known as the Great Migration, millions of African Americans relocated from agrarian regions in the southern states to cities in the North. Hoping to escape the brutal racism and violence of the Jim Crow South, they were attracted by the economic opportunities provided by the growth of industry in the northern states. The range of people included in Lawrence’s painting speaks to the diverse backgrounds that were brought together in neighborhoods such as Harlem.
  • African Americans in the North continued to face racism and systemic discrimination. Lawrence’s painting speaks to one of the inequities they suffered: the lack of access to quality healthcare. Harlem Hospital was insufficiently staffed for the size of the local community and although the ambulance attendants and paramedic shown here are black, there were few job opportunities for African Americans in the medical field.

Go deeper

More to think about

Consider how Lawrence communicates—in his painting and his words—the sense of vitality and connection that he observed among people living in Harlem. Do you feel like you belong to a community, either in your school, in your neighborhood, or as part of an organization or group? What specifically makes you feel connected to that community?

Hayes, A Memphis juke joint

Khan Academy video wrapper
Vertis Hayes, Juke JointSee video transcript

Key points

  • Vertis Hayes was one of a number of artists in the 1930s and 1940s who contributed to the social realist movement in the United States, which showcased people engaging in moments of daily life, also known as genre scenes. By representing the authentic experiences of people often living under oppression and facing struggle, Social Realist artists sought to challenge the systems that created such conditions.
  • While there is no singular social realist style, the features of Juke Joint, including fluid brushwork and mark-making, organic forms, bold use of color or contrast, and a heightened sense of energy, are also visible in the work of other artists associated with the movement.
  • Juke Joints are local hangouts in the city or country which feature entertainment in the form of (often) live music, drinking, and dancing. They have been a central part of African American communities throughout the South and other parts of the United States. The Juke Joint depicted in this painting was likely meant to be located someplace just outside Memphis, Tennessee, where Vertis Hayes worked in the 1940s.

Go deeper

More to think about

Consider Vertis Hayes’ choice to show the setting for the Juke Joint instead of the space inside the building, where music, drinking, and dancing took place. Why might he have done this? What is the effect on our understanding of this moment in United States history?

Research project idea

Juke Joints are directly tied to African American history and the spread of blues music. Conduct research on the blues during the Jim Crow era, leading up to years just following WWII, when Vertis Hayes painted Juke Joint. Identify 2–3 blues musicians from this period, write a brief summary report about them, and share it with your class to create a collective history of blues music. 

Rothko, No. 210/No. 211 (Orange)

Mark Rothko, No. 210/No. 211 (Orange), 1960, oil on canvas, 175.3 x 160 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)
Mark Rothko, No. 210/No. 211 (Orange), 1960, oil on canvas, 175.3 x 160 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

Key points:

  • No. 210/No. 211 (Orange) is an Abstract Expressionist painting that uses color relationships to evoke a general spiritual feeling. Rothko painted the orange in areas of varying density and transparency over the purple so that the relationship between the colors is explored in many variations.
  • The painting is meant to elicit deep human emotion. Rothko was concerned throughout his career with the relationship between art and the spiritual, and how to evoke a spiritual response with a modernist visual vocabulary.
  • 1960 was poised between the post-World War II era that confronted questions about humanity’s brutality and the dawning era of the Civil Rights movement; it is possible the color choices are meant to reflect that.

Go deeper

Mark Rothko used relationships between colors and simple geometric shapes to create paintings meant to feel spiritual but not be attached to any specific religion. How does Rothko’s work compare with James Turrell’s Skyspace: The Way of Color?

Jess, If All the World Were Paper and All the Water Sink

Jess (Burgess Franklin Collins), If All the World Were Paper and All the Water Sink, 1962, oil on canvas, 96.5 x 142.2 cm (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) © estate of the artist
Jess (Burgess Franklin Collins), If All the World Were Paper and All the Water Sink, 1962, oil on canvas, 96.5 x 142.2 cm (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) © estate of the artist

Key points

  • The August 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the American military announced the beginning of the Atomic Age, a period of anxiety that escalated into the decades-long Cold War with the USSR.
  • Beginning in 1942, the American government sponsored the top-secret Manhattan Project to develop atomic energy and weapons. After World War II, many scientists (including Jess, the artist) continued to work at centers across the country, such as the Hanford Atomic Energy project in Washington State.
  • Jess worked for the Manhattan Project and Hanford Atomic Energy before coming to believe that these technologies would destroy the world. Turning to a career in art, Jess used symbols to create multiple levels of meaning in his paintings. Works like If All the World Were Paper and All the Water Sink suggest the possibility of apocalypse, but also leave much to the viewer’s own interpretation.

Go deeper

Read more about Jess (Burgess Franklin Collins) from FAMSF and the artist’s estate

More to think about

Our society celebrates advances in technology (the newest phone camera, or the latest social media channel) but it’s clear that technology also causes us great anxiety. Movies depict robots that threaten our existence, recent developments in genetic engineering raise the specter of artificially-created human beings, and enough atomic weapons exist to end all life. Can science and the development of technology lead us too far from our humanity?

Fashion and alienation in 1960s New York, Marisol's The Party

Marisol Escobar, The Party, 1965-66, fifteen freestanding, life-size figures and three wall panels, with painted and carved wood, mirrors, plastic, television set, clothes, shoes, glasses, and other accessories, variable dimensions (Toledo Museum of Art, © artist’s estate)
Marisol Escobar, The Party, 1965-66, fifteen freestanding, life-size figures and three wall panels, with painted and carved wood, mirrors, plastic, television set, clothes, shoes, glasses, and other accessories, variable dimensions (Toledo Museum of Art, © artist’s estate)

Key Points

  • The booming economy and mass media of the 1950s popularized an American ideal of the middle-class lifestyle, where conspicuous consumption promised happiness and status. Yet, many women were increasingly frustrated by expectations to conform to socially constructed gender roles.
  • Marisol’s The Party suggests a social gathering, but emphasizes a sense of disconnect and isolation. The blocks of wood confine her figures and suggest an overpowering loneliness, even as they are gathered together and surrounded with convivial details. Marisol used her own face for each figure, wanting to create a larger social commentary without criticizing specific people.
  • Marisol has been overlooked by art history, in part because her work is difficult to place within any specific style or movement. Working at the height of Abstract Expressionism, she opted to focus on the human figure. Her bright colors and recognizable subjects are similar to Pop Art, but her social critique and emphasis on the personal and handmade stand apart.

Go Deeper


Gee’s bend, quilting over generations

Rita Mae Pettway, Housetop (fractured medallion variation), 1977, corduroy, 80 x 76 inches (Virginia Museum of Fine Art)
Rita Mae Pettway, Housetop (fractured medallion variation), 1977, corduroy, 80 x 76 inches (Virginia Museum of Fine Art)

Key points

  • Black women in Gee’s Bend, Alabama have been making quilts from the remnants of discarded fabrics since the 19th century. Patterns and techniques have been passed down from generation to generation, from a time when the women were enslaved laborers producing the quilts out of necessity for domestic use up to today when the quilts are purchased and preserved as valuable works of art.
  • The name Pettway is one of the most associated with the quilters of Gee’s Bend, tracing back to the surname of the owner of a major plantation in the area. Rita Mae Pettway learned quilting from her grandmother, Annie E. Pettway. Quilts made by both women, and other women in their family, are now held in major museum collections.
  • The patterns on Gee’s Bend quilts display an aesthetic richness that draws on influences from West Africa, Indigenous America, and Europe. The results, however, have an improvisational and spiritual quality that is uniquely American, the equivalent in visual art to the place of Jazz in music. The irregularity and asymmetry of the quilts create a distinct visual rhythm though the quilters have not received academic training in visual art.
  • In the mid-1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights era, the women of Gee’s Bend formed the Freedom Quilting Bee Cooperative. By promoting their quilts and related skills, they hoped to create jobs and economic growth for the region. A contract with Sears, Roebuck, and Company in the early 1970s for the production of corduroy pillow covers brought much needed income as well as fabric fragments that were used to make quilts like Housetop (fractured medallion variation).

Go deeper

Read about the acquisition of a group of Gee’s Bend quilts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Learn more about the history and makers of Gee’s Bend quilts from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.
Discover more about Gee’s Bend from the Library of Congress.

More to think about

In the history of Euro-American art, there has often been an emphasis on appreciating the degree to which an artist achieves perfection in a technique, such as precise brushstrokes, compositional symmetry, or overall harmony in their work. In the case of Gee’s Bend quilts, however, we are reminded that cultural and artistic value can also be found in the disruption of such harmony, in the irregularity or asymmetry of an artwork. Look again at this quilt (and others from Gee’s Bend). How does irregularity or “imperfection” enrich the visual experience of the work? Do you know of other contexts where irregularity or imperfection are prized? 
Artworks that come from a legacy of enslavement are more frequently being collected and displayed in art museums today (e.g. the vessels of David Drake). Recognizing that each object has its own unique history and value, what core ideas or questions do you think are most important for museum visitors to reflect on when engaging with artworks of this sort? 

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