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African-American art shows variety

CHICAGO — At first glance, the portrait that leads off the exhibition of African-American art at the Art Institute of Chicago looks a bit out of place.

The 1805 oil shows a prominent Baltimore matron, Andrew Bedford Bankson, and her young son, Gunning, who are white. The work's colors are subdued, and the composition has the slight stiffness typical of early 19th-century American formal portraits.

Yet the painter, Joshua Johnson, is black, having once been listed in a Baltimore directory as a "free householder of colour." He advertised himself in a 1798 newspaper as a "self-taught genius."

Johnson's portrait of the Banksons is the first piece, chronologically, in an exhibit called "A Century of Collecting: African American Art in the Art Institute of Chicago" that runs through May 18.

About 100 pieces later in the exhibition — and nearly 200 years later in time — a work by a contemporary black artist also harks back to a genteel early 19th-century artistic form, the silhouette. But in her 1997 piece, "Keys to the Coop," Kara Walker stands traditional propriety on its head.

The silhouette is that of a young black girl, dress and petticoat flying, who is clutching the head of a freshly decapitated — and still flapping — chicken. to her mouth, as if to drink its blood.

If the exhibition has an underlying message, it is that there is no such thing as monolithic African-American art. In the 20 decades between Johnson's sedate portrait and Walker's shocker of a silhouette, the viewer encounters artists as anthropologists, artists as propagandists, artists as protesters and quite a few artists who wanted to be nothing but artists.

The works on display all are either from the Art Institute's permanent collection or are former Art Institute pieces that were passed on to other institutions.

The School of the Art Institute has admitted black students since the 1890s, and the museum itself has a fairly long history of collecting African-American art; it acquired its first major piece by a black American artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner's "Two Disciples at the Tomb," as early as 1906.

The Art Institute held its first major display of black American art in 1927 as part of "The Negro in Art Week," sponsored by the Chicago Women's Club. Nonetheless, it took the Art Institute a long time to come to a fuller appreciation of such works, said Daniel Schulman, who curated the current exhibit.

"We have an excellent collection here, but about 90 percent of it was acquired in the last 15 or 20 years," Schulman said. "There was almost none purchased until the 1940s, and then there was a steadily increasing trickle — turning into a deluge in recent years."

Some of the most familiar works on display are paintings by Archibald J. Motley Jr., whose widely reproduced scenes of nightlife in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood were strongly influenced by the art of the Harlem Renaissance. Particularly impressive is his self portrait, done about the time of his graduation from the School of the Art Institute in 1920.

Many of the artists represented, especially those from the mid-20th century, spent at least part of their careers working in France, Africa or Mexico City. For some, exile was for artistic reasons; for many, it was for political considerations.

Even before the trumpetings of black pride and the openly political art of the 1960s, the most innocuous works could contain social commentary. New Yorker Joseph Delaney's small oil, "Coney Island," from 1932, seems at first to be merely an expressionistic scene of some children on a carousel. But the faces of the adults in the background are masklike, and while the white children are smiling as they ride their horses, the black boy in the center appears brooding and unaware of his surroundings.

"I gave it to the Art Institute about two weeks before Delaney died in 1991," said donor Clarence S. Wilson Jr. "He was on his death bed, but he was happy because he always wanted to be shown here."

And even when art is only art, there can be consequences for the artist.

Norman Wilfred Lewis' "Green Bough," from 1951, is a deceptively simple little piece — some pastel chalk, watercolor and a few lines of black ink on a piece of ivory-colored paper. It carries a suggestion of great peace that Schulman said Lewis was rarely allowed to feel in his career.

"Lewis was a victim of double discrimination," Schulman said. "He was discriminated against first because he was black, and then he was discriminated against because he was an abstractionist. Blacks were supposed to paint black figures and 'black subjects' — not abstractions."