A sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett recently loaned to the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens brings one of the 20th century’s most important Black artists into the museum’s contemporary art gallery. Sited on a pedestal between Mildred Thompson’s pulsating Magnetic Fields and a pair of monumental works from Damien Hirst, opposite a wall featuring Andy Warhol and Rufino Tamayo, the Cummer’s contemporary gallery has begun acquiring the star power its Modern art gallery has long possessed through paintings from John Singer Sargent, Norman Rockwell, Robert Henri, Childe Hassam, John Marin and Thomas Hart Benton. The greater diversity among the contemporary artists is welcome.
Catlett’s Seated Woman (bronze, c. 1961-1971) represents a quintessential theme of hers: the dignity of Black women. Catlett’s grandmothers were both slaves. Catlett herself grew up during Jim Crow America and lived through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
The racism and politics of her home country resulted in her establishing full time residency in Mexico beginning in 1947. She became a Mexican citizen in 1962 and was barred from reentry to the United States due to her progressive politics until 1971.
As an activist artist, focused on the Black figure, women, the disenfranchised, the poor and the underserved throughout her long career, she stands as a foremother to today’s brilliant African American artists – women and men – who have taken up these themes, pressing their nation into acknowledgement of historic sins and demands for a more equitable future.
Seated Woman, “with the extraneous details eliminated,” in the hands of Catlett, becomes “imbued with a feeling of dignity and monumentality” as deftly explained by the Cummer staff. While only about 2-feet tall, the statue does possess an outsized presence. It’s easy to imagine Seated Woman cast 15-feet tall, sitting in a park or in front of a museum.
It’s a quiet sculpture. A solemn sculpture.
The woman’s face, young. Her hair, short. Her dress, plain. This is obviously a working person.
Look at the mass of her legs. Her sturdy base could double as a metaphor for supporting her family and community. She’s a pillar.
Her slender, elegant neck and narrow shoulders indicate that a different set of circumstances may have placed her comfortably in air conditioning and high heels, but that’s not her life.
Catlett’s purposeful lack of detail in the sculpture encourages onlookers to create their own narratives.
Elizabeth Catlett: Context
Catlett’s (b. Washington, D.C., 1915-2012) astonishing life intersected regularly with the top figures of American art. In undergraduate school at Howard University, one of her instructors was Lois Maliou Jones. She attended graduate school at the University of Iowa, studying with Grant Wood, he of American Gothic fame. In 1940, she received the first Master of Fine Arts degree earned in sculpture at Iowa. She and Charles White married in 1941. That would only last a handful of years.
I have written previously about how one of my great admirations for artists comes from their generally being so well traveled. Much can be learned from reading and listening, but much more can be learned from seeing. Personally, getting out and seeing other places has done more to expand my mind and enrich my life than anything else.
Catlett was born in D.C., lived in Durham, North Carolina, Iowa City, New Orleans, Chicago, New York and then ultimately Mexico. What an extraordinary series of locales and cultures to draw from. North, South, Midwest, big city, small town, college town, industrial.
For a Black woman in the mid-century, staggering.
What she saw in all these places – artists are great and deep observers of life, maybe the best – what she experienced, the people she met, the connections she drew, was obviously poured into her work. No wonder, then, the worldliness. The depth. The gravity.
Spend time with Seated Woman on your next visit to the Cummer. I will be. What echoes to the present day can we draw from Catlett’s work and life? She personally experienced most of the full sweep of the 20th century, from Jim Crow to the election of a Black president.
What of the escape to Mexico, reminiscent of so many leading African American artists who similarly fled their country’s abuses for greater possibilities in Europe. That’s what Mildred Thompson did. Thompson’s masterpiece hangs just feet from Seated Woman.
Elizabeth Catlett is an essential. Go see her at the Cummer.