Robin Holder: Public Artist

Michele Cohen, Ph.D.

Figure 6
Fig. 6 Ernest Chrichlow, Untitled, 1976, Acrylic on masonite. Photographer: Stan Ries
At first glance, the completed works seem remarkably eclectic. Few subject restrictions were placed on the artists, and they worked independently of each other as though they were producing studio work for an exhibition, not a permanent installation. In fact, by equating it with an exhibition, the collection becomes a snapshot of a phenomenon—a temporary display made permanent. It is not incidental that many of the artists who undertook commissions for Boys and Girls High School were frequent contributors to the all black exhibitions that were so popular in the 1960s and 1970s.20 Viewed thirty-five years later, the art at Boys and Girls High School comes into focus as a cross section of work being done by African American artists at a seminal moment, and it reverberates with that moment's artistic debates. Artists and critics, both black and white, grappled with questions about what it meant to be a black artist and whether there was black art.21

Set against the backdrop, then, of the civil rights movement and the all black show, public art by African American artists for a new high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant created a unique opportunity. Some of the artists viewed this as a chance to educate students and the community about African American history and to promote the value of education. Others saw it as a vehicle for bringing modern art without an ethnic tag to a community that rarely went to galleries or museums. Yet, despite the stylistic range and divergent purposes, all the artists, conscious of the fact that they were African American artists producing art for an African American audience,22 were searching for positive imagery.

Figure 6
Fig. 6 Eldzier Cortor, Art, 1976, Acrylic on masonite. Photographer: Stan Ries
Crichlow's exterior mural, Untitled, 1976 (Fig. 6)—for which he viewed the students as his primary audience—is panoramic in its content and execution, depicting the past and the future of African Americans not as a linear narrative but as a series of juxtapositions that contrast the past with the present. Vacillating between hope and oppression, the mural makes the case for the power and importance of education, particularly for the African American community.

In the bold Untitled, 1976, an abstract triptych Norman Lewis painted for Boys and Girls High School (his only public commission), Lewis insisted on the freedom of a black artist to be an artist first. He saw Modernist painting as a weapon to combat racial stereotypes, believing that art should express universal truths in a universal language of form, color, and line. Vincent Smith's mixed media panel series celebrate the neighborhood from a child's perspective and mix community elements with African motifs. In his three murals, Eldzier Cortor invented new allegories for art, music, and dance derived from African and African American sources (Fig. 7), while Camille Billops created in ceramic low-relief War of the Fives, 1975, a response to the Vietnam War, meant to be a "parody of nationalism,"23 that falls outside the debate of "blackstream" or "mainstream." Fern Stanford overlaid contour drawings of faces and hands on geometric forms in her pair of murals.