Spencer Museum of Art The University of Kansas


Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist
  • Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist
  • 08-Sep-2007 - 02-Dec-2007
  • Central Court, Kress Gallery and South Balcony, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas

Organized by the Spencer Museum of Art at The University of Kansas, curated by Susan Earle, curator of European and American art and coordinated by Stephanie Knappe, doctoral candidate in art history. The exhibition and catalogue are made possible through the generous support of the Henry Luce Foundation, with additional funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Office of the Chancellor, The University of Kansas.

Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist presents the first nationally touring retrospective of the work of Aaron Douglas (1899-1979), the foremost visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance. A native of Topeka, Kansas, and a socially conscious artist, Douglas vividly captured the spirit of his time and established a new black aesthetic and utopian vision. Working from a politicized concept of personal identity, he combined angular cubist rhythms and seductive art-deco dynamism with traditional African and African American imagery to develop a radically new visual vocabulary that evoked both current realities and hopes for a better future. In paintings, murals, and illustrations for books and progressive journals, his forceful ideas and their distinctive artistic form produced the most powerful visual legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and made a lasting impact on the history of art and the cultural heritage of the nation.

The exhibition highlights this achievement, including Douglas's work in New York and his subsequent teaching at historically black Fisk University in Nashville. By considering Douglas and the work he created between the 1920s and 1940s as a prime example and test case, the exhibition will interrogate the boundaries of American modernism in order to assess the seminal but neglected role of the Harlem Renaissance and one of its most important artists. The substantial retrospective of approximately one hundred objects brings together many rarely seen Douglas works from public institutions and private collections. The exhibition features approximately ninety works by Douglas and incorporates several works by his contemporaries and students, as well as portraits of Douglas, printing plates and sketchbooks, and ephemera related to the Harlem Renaissance.

To accompany the touring exhibition, the Spencer and Yale University Press will co-publish a fully illustrated scholarly book that assesses Douglas's achievements and historical significance. Based on original research, the book contains essays by Renée Ater, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, David C. Driskell, Susan Earle, Amy Kirschke, Richard J. Powell, and Cheryl Ragar, along with a narrative chronology of Douglas's life and career by Stephanie Knappe and a foreword by KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway.

An interdisciplinary conference "Aaron Douglas and the Arts of the Harlem Renaissance" is also conceived to enhance Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist. Organized by William J. Harris, professor of English at the University of Kansas, the two-day interdisciplinary conference is scheduled for September 28-29, 2007, in tandem with the exhibition's opening. The conference will explore the complex constellation of visual and performing artists, writers, and political and creative thinkers who comprised the Harlem Renaissance and Douglas's place within it. The conference which is open to the public, will culminate with a Harlem Renaissance-style "Rent Party." Sponsors for "Aaron Douglas and the Arts of the Harlem Renaissance" include: the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc., the Spencer Museum of Art, the KU Interdisciplinary Jazz Studies Group, and the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas, and University Theatre.

After opening at the Spencer Museum of Art, the retrospective will subsequently travel throughout 2008 to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts (Nashville), the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, D.C.), and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York). The exhibition tour follows Douglas's trajectory with three of its venues closely related to the artist's career: northeast Kansas, where he grew up; Nashville, where he taught for 29 years; and New York, where he took center stage in the Harlem Renaissance.