One of the smallest works in Awakened in You: The Collection of Constance E. Clayton, through July 12 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is a small plaster head entitled Gamin. This undated work by Augusta Savage, a miniature version of a life-sized bronze, shows a black youth, believed to be the artist’s nephew from Florida.
The turn of his head, the tilt of his cap, and the look in his eye communicate restlessness. One feels that being an artist’s model was something foisted upon him. He has energy, alertness, and great charm, though he seems at yet to be unformed and undirected. He does not look like a young man likely to hang out in the galleries at PAFA, but many will be delighted to find him there.
Awakened in You includes nearly all the 78 works, almost all by African American artists of the mid-20th century, that Clayton, a lifelong educator and Philadelphia schools superintendent from 1982 to 1993, gave to PAFA in 2018.
Gamin is one of only three sculptures in the show — all of them heads of young men — but it is otherwise characteristic of the works on display. It is small in scale, as befits a collection assembled for a home. It is emotionally intimate, and accessible. It is a memorable face, one of many in the show. And its subject is a young person setting out in life, which was obviously a preoccupation of Clayton’s career as teacher and administrator.
It is art that is meant to be lived with, not just seen in the hit-and-run way most of us attack art museums. It is full of faces that are silent but eloquent, and one might, after looking at one for a decade or so, figure out what it is really saying.
Yet, even though it is a personal collection, it is nevertheless ambitious, with an educational aim. Artists represented in the collection include such widely recognized artists as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and Sam Gilliam, along with others who were associated with PAFA, such as Laura Wheeler Waring and Barkley L. Hendricks, and a few, such as Samuel Brown, who were colleagues of Clayton’s in the public schools.
Unlike the current, celebrity generation of black artists, most of those in the show received little attention during their careers, though some have become better known recently as scholars and museums have drawn attention to their achievements. Thus, Dox Thrash, represented here by some wonderful watercolor and charcoal portraits and an etching, has gone from being obscure to being a local hero.
Another painter Clayton collected in depth was Louis B. Sloan, a landscape artist and well-liked teacher, who gets the exhibition off to a very sleepy start. But fortunately, there are some shocks along the way. For example, Beauford Delaney’s untitled 1945 abstract, full of hearts and stars, bananas and hidden faces, is a lively, brash work that should, perhaps, be part of the history of abstract expressionism. It seems likely to be a bright spot in PAFA’s collection in the years to come.
African American art of a generally more recent vintage is the subject of another current show at PAFA, “Making Community: Prints from Brandywine Workshop and Archives, Brodsky Center at PAFA, and Poulson-Fontaine Press,” on view through April 12. It concentrates on three producers of art prints: Philadelphia’s long-running Brandywine Workshop; the Brodsky Center, long based at Rutgers-New Brunswick but now at PAFA; and Poulson-Fontaine Press of Berkeley, Calif., with which PAFA has an arrangement to be its East Coast showcase for its work by minority artists.
The premise of the exhibition is that, because prints must generally be made in a collaboration between artist, master printer, and often shop assistants, they are inherently more communal in nature than, say, an oil painting on an easel. And because it offers the possibility of creating multiple artworks that can be sold at a lower price, printmaking has long been viewed as a way to make owning art accessible to a larger public.
Printmaking was an important component of the government arts programs during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and many black artists, including several of those collected by Clayton, were participants. Brandywine continues that tradition in Philadelphia to this day.
The three ateliers represented have very different approaches. Artists working at Brandywine are far more likely to use photographic technologies, while the others use traditional techniques, such as etching. In fact, the exhibition serves as a tutorial on the possibilities and techniques of printmaking.
Otherwise, you can use the show as an opportunity to see what some artists renowned in other media do with prints. For example, the sculptor Martin Puryear’s prints are hulking black shapes. One of those on display seems to be a near relative of the sculptor’s Big Bling, which stood along Kelly Drive for a few months in 2017.
There is also a wall of prints by Mary Lee Bendolph and other members of the Gee’s Bend Alabama quilt-making community. Her GET READY (2007) shows the same lively gift for abstract composition to be found in the quilts, but it reads as a graphic, not as an artifact.
Speaking of graphics, I was beguiled by the colorful swirl of arrows and bands of blue and orange in a lithograph made by Howardena Pindell at Brandywine. Only when I looked at the title, Katrina (2005), did I realize where all that energy was coming from. This lively print is a portrait of catastrophe, a hurricane that destroyed large parts of New Orleans.