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Some American History - catalogue

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1971
Published by: Institute for the Arts, Rice University
Year published: 1971

image of Some American History - catalogue

Catalogue for Some American History, a bold and hugely important exhibition, conceived by Larry Rivers, hosted by the Institute for the Arts, Rice University, Houston Texas, February 1971. It was in effect a major exhibition of work - a large multi-media installation - by Larry Rivers, supplemented with contributions by Ellsworth Ausby, Peter Bradley, Frank Bowling, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Joe Overstreet, and William T. Williams, The exhibition was commissioned by the Menil Foundation, and sought to animate aspects of race within American history. The boldness of the exhibition owed much to the central presence within the exhibition of the work of Larry Rivers, a white Jewish artist whose practice frequently incorporated images of Black people and issues relating to African American history. As such, Some American History created a curatorial model that has still, thirty years on, not been widely embraced by a gallery network that by and large insists that only ‘Black’ artists ought to address ‘Black’ issues or ‘Black’ audiences. Slavery, lynchings, the skewed sexualisation of the Black woman, the poets and prophets of the Black Power movement, these and other subjects were boldly taken up by Rivers, in his distinctive Pop Art influences montages, mixed media pieces and assemblage sculptures.

Another fascinating aspect of the exhibition was the representation of Ellsworth Ausby, Peter Bradley, Frank Bowling, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Joe Overstreet, and William T. Williams. These were artists, many of whom tended to be identified with abstraction, and not with pronounced narratives of social realism. To this extent, their contributions were as intriguing as they were poignant. Joe Overstreet contributed his celebrated and witty The New Jemima (1964), Frank Bowling contributed one of his powerful, vibrant map paintings, Middle Passage (1970), characteristically layered with meaning. And  Peter Bradley contributed a mixed media construction, Marcus Garvey (1970), a work that made use of iconic images of Garvey, including one of the most celebrated, by James VanDerZee.

The exhibition came with an invaluable catalogue, including a hugely important essay by Charles Childs, which opened with “In the turbulent dialectic of black peoples’ drives to affirm their own cultural identity, the idea of having a white artist comment on black subject matter, on first glance, seems unacceptable. Yet, one of the most famous artists of this generation, Larry Rivers, has pursued just this sort of endeavor and questions as to his intent and motivation say more about the “hang ups” in all of us than they do about just what, precisely, Larry Rivers is up to.”

The catalogue featured many colour plates, others in black and white, archival images, all interspersed with quotations from the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and others.

Contents as follows:

Title pages, including one stating ‘Film circulated with the exhibition: Slavery: the black man and the man, conceived by June Jordan and directed by John Chandler.’

Note by Dominique de Ménil, director, Institute for the Arts, Rice University, “Ronald Hobbs participated in this project from the beginning. He discerned the pitfalls as well as the promises. He gave time and devotion helping dodge the first and boost the second.” [Hobbs ran a literary agency in New York City, apparently representing Charles Childs.]

Essay: ‘Larry Ocean Swims the Nile, Mississippi and Other Rivers’ by Charles Childs

Extensive illustrations, colour and monochrome plates of Rivers’ work and the work of the other artists in the exhibition, plus reproductions of lithographs and engravings from African and American history. Further catalogue embellishments include quotes from publications referencing the Black American experience, plus, as mentioned, quotes from W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Eldridge Cleaver.

Exhibition listing.

Related people + view all 8

»  (Sir) Frank Bowling OBE, RA

Born, 1935 - 1937 (probably 1936) in British Guiana (now Guyana) Caribbean/S. America

»  Daniel Johnson/LaRue Johnson

Born, 1938 in Los Angeles, CA, USA

»  Joe Overstreet

Born, 1934 in Conehatta, MS, USA

»  Larry Rivers

Born, 1923

Related exhibitions

Related venues

»  Art Gallery, Rice University

Houston, Texas, United States of America