Many kinds of heroism in Newark Museum’s ‘Modern Heroics’ exhibit

by JAY LUSTIG
Dmitri Wright's "Black Couple in Bed Looking at TV" (1971) is part of the "Modern Heroics" exhibition at the Newark Museum.

Dmitri Wright’s “Black Couple in Bed Looking at TV” (1971) is part of the “Modern Heroics” exhibition at the Newark Museum.

Don’t be misled by the title of “Modern Heroics:Ā 75 Years of African-American Expressionism at the Newark Museum.” This exhibit, which will be at the museum through Jan. 8, is not full of traditionally “heroic” images, though there certainly are some: In Bob Thompson’s “St. George and the Dragon,” for instance, which was inspired by the medieval legend; and in Purvis Young’s “Untitled (Don Quixote),” which pictures the character as a solitary figure, persevering in his arduous quest. Beauford Delaney’s apocalyptic “The Burning Bush” (see below) has an obvious connection to the Biblical story.

The sculpture “The Madjet,” a boat ingeniously assembled by Kevin Sampson from pieces of wood, metal and string, and found objects, looks like it could have played a part in some ancient tale.

But other works have more tenuous connections with the concept of heroism. Dmitri Wright’s “Black Couple in Bed Looking at TV” (above), for instance, seems to be as mundane in its subject matter as it is striking, visually, but an essay in the exhibition’s accompanyingĀ catalogueĀ notesĀ the influence ofĀ “the stately frontal pose of ancient Egyptian portrait statues.” The same essay argues that Young’s “Every Day in Overtown,” with its scenes of laborers going to work, elevates the everyday to the heroic.

Beauford Delaney's "The Burning Bush" (1941).

Beauford Delaney’s “The Burning Bush” (1941).

The exhibition, which is being presented in conjunction with Newark’s 350th anniversary celebration, features 34 works, most of which are part of the museum’s permanent collection. Norman Lewis, Emma Amos, Mickalene Thomas, Romare Bearden and Minnie Evans are among the other artists who are represented.

The museum has been acquiring African-American art since 1929, and now has about 360 works. It presented its first exhibition of African American art in 1931.

In his foreword to the museum’s catalogue, museum CEO Steven Kern writes that the exhibition’s title “is in some part an acknowledgement of the heroic struggles of modern and contemporary artists, who often overcome great obstacles to find their voice … . Perhaps more than other artists of the avant-garde, African-American artists, who successfully sort through the weight of the past while also dealing with the realities of identity and racial politics in America, are heroic in their invention of something new.”

Or, as aĀ uncreditedĀ message on the wall of the exhibition puts it, in abstract expressionism, “bold experimentation and the act of creating something new became something heroic in and of itself.”

“Modern Heroics:Ā 75 Years of African-American Expressionism at the Newark Museum”Ā is on display through Jan. 8; visit newarkmuseum.org.

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