African-American Vernacular Art

In Atlanta, the «Hard Truths» exhibition was in its final days at the High Museum. Arnett was scheduled to give a talk there at six o’clock, and arrived early. On his way into the lobby, the toe of his loafer caught on a grate, and he fell toward a steel beam. His forehead just missed it. A guard helped him up, but Arnett dismissed him and hobbled inside, his khakis ripped at the left knee. «Can knees sweat?» he asked. «I don’t think so. I’m bleeding.» Soon, the khakis were wet and red.

He ignored this and walked over to «Monument to the Minds of the Little Negro Steelworkers,» one of two large Dial sculptures that dominated the ground floor of the Anne Cox Chambers wing. «Monument» has the look of an overgrown garden. Hand-forged curlicues of rusted metal: adorned with dangling cow bones, glass bottles, wire, and cloth sprout from a steel frame.

Arnett pointed at the metal flourishes and said, «This is based upon funeral sculpture that was in all the old graveyards. . . . Dial and all the people who grew up in his generation, they went to graveyards all the time that looked like this stuff all over the place, handmade iron ornaments. Dial’s version is a lot bigger than most. And it’s not like Dial’s trying to copy cemetery art. He is cemetery art. I mean, that’s what he came out of.»

An administrative assistant came by with bandages. Arnett’s son Matt, who works with him, had phoned the museum and asked someone to check on his father. Matt has a daughter with Vanessa Vadim, a film-maker; in 2002, he and Vadim released a movie about the Gee’s Bend quilts. She is the daughter of the director Roger Vadim and the actress Jane Fonda, who has helped Arnett publish books and has called him a «mad genius.» Fonda collects Dials work; a relief painting that she owns, Trophies (Doll Factory),» was included in the exhibition.

Arnett sat in a security guard’s chair. The museum assistant knelt before him, rolled up his pants leg, and wiped away rivulets of blood with a wet towel. «Are you kidding?» Arnett said, when asked if he wanted to go home and change clothes before his presentation. «How often do I get the chance to walk around with battlefield scars? I’m gonna say that I was defending the art against people who don’t think it belongs in museums.»

By the time he reached the second floor of the exhibition, he had invented an explanation for the blood: a story about fighting off forty Klansmen who disapproved of the art. Arnett found it humorous, and he tried it out on a gallery visitor, a black Army veteran in his forties who, overhearing Arnett talking about Dial, had asked him a question about scale. The man, Mike Sauls, an artist, was happy to discover that he was talking to Arnett; he knew of his role in championing African-American artists. Elated, Arnett gave him a tour of the show, narrating so exuberantly that another visitor asked him to hush.

He stopped before «Driving to the End of the World,» a stunning five-piece assemblage made with disjointed chunks of a rusted pickup truck that Dial dragged out of the woods. Arnett said, «I told him from the beginning, It doesn’t matter how good you are, somebody’s gonna have a target on you. Because if they accept you as the greatest artist in America, they’re gonna have to take you out. Because they can’t open doors to you. Just Like fifty or sixty years ago they couldn’t open the door to black music, because that meant who’s gonna listen to the white music anymore?» He added, «If you can keep the real black artists out of the museums, nobodyʼs ever gonna know about them.»

«Well, with the exception of Jean-Michel Basquiat,» Saids said.

«Yeah, but that’s a different thing,» Arnett said. «He was an educated guy, picked up by the New York art world.»

«He was doing a lot of graffiti»

«He was doing it to get noticed. He was a good artist, I’m not knocking him»

«He had the vice that stigmatizes a lot of African-American artists who are on the rise to become famous,» Sauls said. «They stigmatize us as being dmnk, alcoholic, on drugs.»

«Hey, man, I was giving these lectures before you were bom,» Arnett said, «You ain’t telling me I might be the wrong color, but no, hey.»

«Yeah, that’s what’s been stigmatized.» «Hey, I was there» Arnett said. «Basquiat came to my house once. Yeah, to see this man.» He meant Dial.

«Oh, yeah?»

«Yeah. A lot of people did. I liked the guy, and he’s a great artist. They can take one, you see.»

Sauls’s late father also had been an artist, and before Arnett went to deliver his talk Sauls told him, «My dad always applauded what you’ve done for the vernacular artists. They weren’t known in the art world, so this never would’ve come to the forefront if it hadn’t been for folks like you who said, «This is ait.»

«No, I didn’t say, This is art,» Arnett said. «I said, This is the greatest art in this stinkin’ country.»

Amett was born in Columbus, Georgia, on the Chattahoochee River, bordering Alabama. Dial was born in Emelle, Alabama, near the Mississippi line. The drygoods company that Arnett’s father owned was started by his grandfather, a Lithuanian Jew who immigrated, alone, at the age of twelve. Dial’s mother, an unmarried sharecropper, had ten other children and sent him to live with relatives in Bessemer, a steel town. In college, Arnett took a course on ancient civilizations and became fascinated with the art of other cultures. For Dial, school didn’t work out.»

In 1963, Arnett graduated from college; soon afterward, he boarded a ship to Liverpool with a small savings, a Eurail pass, and a plan to see the cathedrals and museums of Europe. Dial, meanwhile, poured iron, loaded bricks, welded pipe, mixed concrete, and delivered ice. «I done most every kind of work a man can do,» he once said.

Arnett decided that Europe was the place for him. In his spare time, he travelled. He moved into an apartment in the city and plotted a permanent return to Europe, as an art collector and dealer based in France.

He and Judy now had a young son, Paul, and eventually they had three more boys; Matt, Наrrу, and Tom. After Arnett left the reserves, in 1970, he put off moving to Europe and instead began travelling there, and to Asia, shipping home Hittite pottery and Chinese porcelain and jade. Later, he got into West and Central African tribal masks and wood carvings, and curated exhibitions from his holdings. In the early seventies, he moved his family into a large house near the governor s mansion. He put his boys through college. All of them have worked with their father at some point.

Around this time, a historian introduced Arnett to a Florida woodcarver named Jesse Aaron, whose creations fused black, white, and Seminole cultures. Arnett was excited by what he saw, and it made him wonder if the South held a hidden landscape of similar work. Folk art was gaining visibility, and pieces by black artists were showing up in collections and in exhibitions. By the mid-eighties, Arnett had suffered his first heart attack, and he abandoned the idea of living in Europe. Turning his attention to the South, he began amassing evidence of a deeply embedded visual language that had grown out of the black experience, not unlike the blues, jazz, and gospel.

The artists he found were being paid very little, if at all. Arnett encouraged them to raise their prices and started giving some of them a monthly salary hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars in exchange for the right of first refusal. This doubled the income of many of the artists. He got to know the families, and he asked the artists how they worked and why they felt compelled to create. His notes and photographs documented the artists’ lives «in a really thorough way, at a time when that was just not happening,» Bernard Herman, of U.N.C., says. «It wasn’t that the artists were unknown. There just wasn’t a systematic seriousness of purpose to preserve what was in danger of passing with little more than a cursory examination.

In 2000 and 2001, Arnett self published some of this research, along with essays by notable curators, critics, and civil-rights figures, in a remarkable two-volume book, «Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South.» Each volume weighs ten pounds, and together they cost more than a million dollars to produce. Arnett paid this out of pocket, with significant help from Fonda, who lived in Atlanta at the time. «It’s really scholarly work,» Herman says. Among other things, the books argue that, though the work of Southern black artists can sometimes be connected to African influences, the phenomenon sprang up largely on its own.

In an essay included in the first volume, Arnett elaborates on the genre’s lack of «historical precedent»:

There was no traditional framework within which their art had to conform, no body of traditional work to act as historical guideline, no ongoing dialog with other art traditions…. Their independence and relative isolation permitted them to make nearly all formal aesthetic decisions, notably those pertaining to choice of content, style and method, medium and materials.

Two aspects of this process radically distinguish it from any previous traditional art. First, the artists were free to decide who their audience would be,. . . Second was the artists’ inclusion of themselves in the content of their work. Inserted into their art were personal philosophies, attitudes, and autobiographical references.

The sculptures of Lonnie Holley supported Arnett’s thesis. Holley had turned his family’s one-acre property, near the Birmingham airport, into a landscape of stories told through repurposed junk. Arnett called it «possibly the most brilliant conceptual-yard-art environment in the world.» He paid Holley more than two thousand dollars a month for the exclusive right to buy his work, and for help locating other artists, which led him to Dial.

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