Elizabeth Catlett Art For The People
LiveAuctionTalk.com: by Rosemary McKittrick
Photo courtesy of Treadway Gallery.
Elizabeth Catlett’s sculptures and prints were all about celebrating the triumphs achieved and the obstacles faced by African-Americans. Her artwork explored what it meant to be black and American.
“I have always wanted my art to service my people - to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential. We have to create an art for liberation and for life,” she said.
That in a nutshell was Elizabeth’s philosophy.
She wasn’t about making art to simply please white people. Her art was about expressing the sorrow, hope and disappointment of the black experience without fear or shame.
Elizabeth’s grandparents were slaves and she grew up in an era of American history when black people were mostly viewed as servants and hired hands.
Born in 1915 she was committed to creating a new identity for her people. A Washington, D.C.-born post-Harlem Renaissance artist Elizabeth attended Howard University School of Art and was the first African-American student to receive an M.F.A. in sculpture from the University of Iowa in 1940.
The Harlem Renaissance showed the world what the black community had to offer in the 1920s and 1930s in the way of art, music, poetry, writing and the stage.
Old stereotypes were smashed. Their past may have been filled with hardship but the future for black Americans was hopeful.
With Elizabeth’s help the Harlem Renaissance succeeded in changing the world’s view of black people. Although she spent most of her adult life teaching and working in Mexico Elizabeth helped Harlem put its mark on the world.
“Harlem was not so much a place as a state of mind,” wrote poet Langston Hughes. It became known as the “Black Capitol of the World.”
Black people used these avenues as a way to bridge the gap between themselves and whites and demonstrated that everyone had something to offer.
Elizabeth settled in Mexico and later became a Mexican citizen and taught sculpture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City until retiring in 1975.
“Elizabeth art,” art historian Melanie Anne Herzog wrote, “cries out in protest, proclaims solidarity, and celebrates survival.”
The women in her pieces were strong and resilient--heroes not victims. She's known for works like "Negro Woman," "Sharecropper" and "Survivor."
"Catlett kind of came of age as an artist when African-Americans and women were not part of the mainstream," curator Isolde Brielmaier said. "They were not part of the center. They were relegated to the margins and excluded."
Celebrating the strength of her black sisters was an ongoing theme in Elizabeth’s work. Her work was a mix of abstract and figurative styles in the Modernist tradition and influenced by African and Mexican art traditions. Elizabeth said her work was more about conveying social messages than pure aesthetics.
“We can learn from black women,” she said. “They have had to struggle for centuries. I feel that we have so much more to express and that we should demand to be heard and demand to be seen because we know and feel and can express so much, contribute so much….”
On March 17, 2019, Treadway Gallery offered a selection of Elizabeth Catlett’s artwork in its African American Fine Art Auction.
Here are some current values.
Lithograph; Negro Es Bello; black-and-white; signed; dated; and numbered 16/50; inscribed, To Onie with love; 1968; 7 ½ inches by 11 inches; $2,340.
Lithograph; A second Generation; colored; signed; dated and numbered 98/99; 1992; 16 inches by 13 ½ inches; $2,875.
Bronze; Untitled (Head of a Woman); on wooden base; initialed EC; circa 1980; 11 inches high with base; $13,750.
Bronze; Cabeza Cantando; signed with artist’s initials; circa 1968; 9 ¾ inches high; $25,000.