Harlem 1948, Ralph Ellison, Gordon Parks and the photo essay
Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006), Off on My Own (Harlem, New York), 1948. Gelatin silver print. The Art Institute of Chicago, Amanda Taub Veazie Acquisition Fund, 2016.125. © The Gordon Parks Foundation. From “Harlem is Nowhere,” a collaborative project between Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison.
- The mass media’s portrayal of urban spaces like Harlem in the years after World War II often reinforced negative stereotypes of African Americans. Photographer Gordon Parks and writer Ralph Ellison wanted to offer corrective views of African American life in the popular press. This led them to collaborate on the 1948 essay “Harlem is Nowhere.”
- The text of the essay focused on the Lafargue Clinic, the first non-segregated psychiatric clinic in New York. Ellison argued that segregation and racism were having negative psychological effects on African Americans, and that problems present in Harlem represented larger systemic issues across America. These are issues he would tackle in his famous book, Invisible Man.
- The photographs by Parks were not meant to illustrate the essay. They present their own visual argument about the tensions around race in both Harlem and the United States more broadly by portraying the psychological and societal difficulties that were a daily part of the African American experience.
More to think about
Re-read the caption that Ellison wrote for this photograph:
“Who am I? Where am I? How do I come to be? Behind endless walls of his ghetto, man searches for social identity. Refugees from southern feudalism, many Negroes wander dazed in the mazes of northern ghettos, the displaced persons of American democracy.”
Which details of Parks’s image seem specifically addressed by Ellison’s caption? How do you think Ellison’s choice of words affects the way we interpret the photograph?
Jasper Johns, Flag
Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55 (dated on reverse 1954), encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels, 42-1/4 x 60-5/8" / 107.3 x 153.8 cm (MoMA)
- The image is painted in encaustic, which allows the viewer to see the layers of newspaper beneath the painted surface. This process reflects the dense history and complex meaning embedded in the symbol of the American flag.
- As a precursor to Pop Art of the 1960s, Johns was one of the first artists to make art based on common everyday objects.
- By representing a flag, Johns eliminated the artist’s subjective role to choose color and forms to express an idea, and thus forces us to reconsider these things traditionally valued in art.
From wire to weightlessness, Ruth Asawa, Untitled
Ruth Asawa, Untitled, c. 1958, iron wire, 219.7 × 81.3 × 81.3 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, © Estate of Ruth Asawa)
- Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the forced relocation of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans, many of whom were American citizens—among them, Ruth Asawa. These Americans were imprisoned in internment camps, often secured with barbed wire and guard towers.
- Works of art created by artists who come from marginalized groups (including women and people of color), are often explained in terms of their biographies and histories of trauma. While historians have connected Asawa’s use of wire to her time in internment camps, these sculptures are also based on her artistic experiences at Black Mountain College and teaching in Mexico.
- Asawa’s wire sculptures transform a mundane and unattractive material into weightless, organic shapes that create movement. The sculptures, especially when seen in groups, reflect a mid-20th-century shift in the expectations and materials of fine art to create a more immersive and participatory experience.
More to think about
Why do you think art historians have been more inclined to discuss biography and personal life when it comes to the work of women artists than male artists?
Identity and civil rights in 1960s America
Benny Andrews, Flag Day, 1966, oil on canvas, 53.3 x 40.6 cm ©The Benny Andrews Estate (The Art Institute of Chicago)
- In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement promised greater equality for African-Americans, who struggled for visibility and equal rights.
- It isn’t clear how Andrews intends us to interpret the relationship between the man and the American flag in this painting. The flag may symbolize the promise of freedom and democracy, or it may suggest that the United States remains a hostile environment for African-Americans.
- The artist’s experience as the son ofin Georgia and in the racially-divided New York art world led him to advocate for greater equality in society, as well as within the cultural sector.sharecroppers
More to think about
The 1960s was an era of protest by many different groups, many of which used art in their campaigns. For an artist involved in activist causes, why do you think Benny Andrews left the meaning of Flag Day so unclear?
Romare Bearden, Three Folk Musicians
Romare Bearden, Three Folk Musicians,, 1967, collage of various papers with paint and graphite on canvas, 50 x 60 x 1 ½ inches (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)
- Romare Bearden is often best known for the collages depicting Black American life that he created in the 1960s. In the collages, Bearden combines cut and torn paper, taken from pre-existing drawings and paintings as well as from magazines, to portray his subjects as part of a complex and dynamic composition. In Three Folk Musicians, the complexity is heightened by the placement of the collage elements on top of an underlying, abstractly painted canvas.
- Bearden was a founding member of the Spiral group, formed in 1963 and dedicated to their identity and role as Black artists within the unfolding Civil Rights Movement. At this time, Bearden began to focus on the practice of collage, specifically responding to European and American modernism by expertly blending abstraction and representation to form a unique type of socially charged imagery. His collages and other later works were integral to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
- Throughout his career, Bearden maintained relationships with musicians and described his creative practice as similar to forms of improvisational music-making such as jazz. In Three Folk Musicians, the inclusion of both the Western European guitar and the African banjo reflect Bearden’s awareness of African culture and intentional fusion of it into a modern American context.
More to Think About
Why do you feel Bearden’s use of and approach to collage is so effective for this artwork? You might explore comparisons with other artists who used collage (such as Pablo Picasso and the Synthetic Cubists, the Surrealists, or Robert Rauschenberg) and/or consider the context of Bearden’s collages in the context of the civil rights movement.