What does color in art signify?
Does color in art by black artists have more significance than color in work by artists of other ethnicity's?
Questions like those above will arise as one views "The Chemistry of Color: Contemporary African-American Artists," the exhibition that opens at the Columbia Museum of Art Friday.
The color in the more than 70 works, part of the Harold and Ann Sorgenti Collection of Contemporary African-American art, is bold, striking.
"It reflects a number of things," David Brigham, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, which loaned the exhibition to the museum, said of color.
"Color also reflects a cultural resilience. A lot of this work was created in the decades after the Civil Rights movement, which we know were turbulent times."
The colorful workers - their clothes, bags, tools and faces - in Jacob Lawrence's "Images of Labor" reflects the emergence of African-Americans in the work force, an artful history lesson.
Romare Bearden's color lithograph on paper, "The Piano Lesson (Homage to Mary Lou)," gets its vibrancy from the yellow on a garment, a picture frame, the piano and floor. In the work, Bearden creates two disciplines of African-American art: music and painting.
The use of color can't be overlooked, much like the significance of this exhibition opening during Black History Month. But it leads to another thought: When we think about the people and work celebrated during Black History Month, do artists come to mind?
Most likely, no.
"It's a sore point with me," said Allan L. Edmunds, the founder of the Brandywine Print Workshop in Philadelphia. "American art still doesn't recognize African-American art. That's how you margenalize a contribution."
Edmunds' collage in the show, "MLK's Humanity of Man," is a contemplative observation of Martin Luther King Jr.'s sacrifices.
"Why are we still doing black exhibitions during Black History Month," Edmunds said. "That's another way to margenalize.
"Everybody needs to see the culture of the other to better understand diversity.
"The Chemistry of Color," which has traveled to other museums, will invite viewers to experience another culture, another world, like the view Faith Ringgold presents in "Tar Beach #2." The harmonic red, yellow and blue silks-screen quilt combines the artist's imagination, memory and reality, telling a story to stirring effect.
The art in the exhibition looks at the world as an abstraction, "but also things specific to African-American culture," Brigham said.
"So I think these are important messages for Black History Month. I think they're important messages for all 12 months."
SAVING A COLLECTION
Sorgenti doesn't see himself as important collector. But he could be a savior.
As chairman of ARCO Chemical Company, he was committed to cultural diversity. When the Philadelphia-based company decided to build an art collection, Sorgenti suggested African-American art.
After ARCO was bought in 1998, the art, primarily from the '80s and early '90s, was going to be sold.
"They began to put up the collection piecemeal for the employees to buy," Sorgenti recalled. "It was a collection that needed to be kept a collection."
He suggested the company donate the work, but he was told it didn't need the deduction. So he bought the art and donated the collection to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he has been a trustee since 1980 and was chairmen of the board from 1986 to 1993.
"It was an extraordinary gesture on his part, extraordinary gift to the museum, a gift to the artists," Brigham said. "It gave context to their work.
"To keep the work together as a collection is much more powerful. Some of the collective force would've been lost."
The pieces, Sorgenti said, represent different aspects of African-American art that he finds appealing.
"It's been a very important part of American history and culture," Sorgenti said. "They are very special pieces. I only wish it would be shown more frequently than it is."
The art should be viewed - and, let's say it, not just by black people.
"It's for everyone," Sorgenti said. "When I started the collection many years ago, black artists weren't in the front of the gallery. They weren't even in the gallery.
"There's been a huge change in the perception of black art since I started the collection in 1980."
The orange and yellow black-spotted cat - a very large cat - whips its tail as it stands at the feet of a figure holding a kind of bird with yellow teeth. A lizard crawls on the neck of the blue-faced and yellow-eye figure, which is more than six-feet tall.
"Animal Healer," Barbara Bullock's 1990 collage of gouache on shaped paper, is the lead image of the exhibition, printed on the museum's invitations and featured prominently on its Web site.
The expressive art is about expression, but it is also about healing.
"I felt very strongly about people who heal," said Bullock, who created the work in honor of her animals' veterinarian. "My parents were ill at the time. I thought a lot about that, the whole spirituality of things."
It was the first collage piece Bullock created.
"I was really trying to find a way to work that gave me more freedom," she said. "I wanted to create my own format, my own way of working, talking."
Bullock is one of several Philadelphia artists represented in the show. The exhibition's artists, 41 total, have a congruous feature in their work: the generous use of color.
Richard J. Watson's "Do Lord, Remember Me," a painting and paper collage, intertwines faces - photographed and painted - with spots of color swipes that form a background for the piece's commentary.
"Blue Monk," which shares its title with a 1959 Thelonious Monk album, by William T. Williams features blue and green swirling coils (notes, phrases of song?) in the foreground. Underneath or behind, a mix of pink, yellow and orange glows, perhaps what Monk saw before a composition took shape.
The red and yellow that Bullock uses are a remark on heritage.
"I wanted to use the colors very influenced by African art," said Bullock, who teaches art to children in three Northeastern states. "Africa is color. The thing that I wanted so badly, for me, was that there was not going to be a fear of color."
Bullock said that black is her anchor color. Art by black artists is the anchor of "The Chemistry of Color."
Again, what does color in art signify?
"Artists want to be identified first and foremost as artists, but it cuts both ways," Brigham said. "To the extent that they are commenting from an African-American perspective, I think that's an important vantage point we can learn from.
"Being able to see things from perspectives that are different from mine is an important value we can learn from art."
IF YOU GO
"The Chemistry of Color: Contemporary African-American Artists"
WHEN: Friday through May 9
WHERE: Columbia Museum of Art, Main and Hampton streets
ADMISSION: $5 to $10 Wednesday through Saturday and free on Sunday
INFORMATION: http://www.columbiamuseum.org or (803) 799-2810