Elizabeth Catlett, 1986 (photograph by Fern Logan)
April 15, 1915|
Washington, D.C., United States
|Died||April 2, 2012
|Nationality||American and Mexican|
|Notable work(s)||Students Aspire The Black Woman (1946-1947) “Sharecropper,”|
Elizabeth Catlett (b. April 15, 1915. –d. April 2, 2012) was an African-American graphic artist and sculptor who is best known for her depiction of the African-American experience in the 20th century, especially those focusing on women. She was born and raised in Washington, DC to parents that worked in education, and was the grandchild of freed slaves. At the time it is nearly impossible for a black woman to pursue a career as a working artist and much of Catlett’s career was dedicated to teaching. However, a fellowship allowed her to travel to Mexico City where she worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular for twenty years as well as headed the sculpture department of the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas until 1975. In the 1950s, her work shifted from print to sculpture although she never complete gave up the former.
Her work is a mixture of abstract and figurative in the Modernist tradition, with influence from African and Mexican art traditions. According to the artist, her main purpose of her work is its social messages rather than pure aesthetics. While not very well known to the general public, her work is heavily studied by art students looking to depict race, gender and class issues. During her lifetime, Catlett received many prizes and recognitions including membership in the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana, the Art Institute of Chicago Legends and Legacy Award, honorary doctorates from Pace University and Carnegie Mellon and the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award in contemporary sculpture.
Catlett was born and raised in Washington, DC. Both her mother and her father were the children of freed slaves, and her grandmother told her stories about the capture of blacks in Africa and the hardships of plantation life. She was the youngest of three children. Both parents worked in education. Her mother was a truant officer and her father has taught at Tuskegee University then at the DC public school system. Her father died before she was born, leaving her mother to hold several jobs to support the household.
Catlett did her undergraduate studies at Howard University although it was not her first choice. She was admitted into the Carnegie Institute of Technology but she was refused admission when the school found out she was black. At Howard, her professors included artist Lois Mailou Jones and philosopher Alain Locke . She also came know artists James Herring, James Wells and future art historian James A. Porter . Her tuition was paid for by her mother’s saving and scholarships that the artist earned, and she graduated with honors in 1937.
At the time the idea of a career as an artist for blacks was far-fetched, so she did her undergraduate studies with the aim of being a teacher. After graduation she moved to her mother’s hometown of Durham, NC to teach high school.
Because Catlett became interested in the work of landscape artist Grant Wood, she entered the graduate program of the University of Iowa . There she studied drawing and painting with Wood as well as sculpture with Henry Stinson. Wood advised her to depict images of what she knew best, so Catlett began sculpting images of African-American women and children. However, despite being accepted to the school, she was not permitted to stay in the dormitories, requiring her to rent a room off campus. One of her roommates was future novelist and poet Margaret Walker . Catlett graduated in 1940, one of three to earn the first masters in fine arts from the university and the first African-American woman to receive the degree. Later in life, Catlett donated money to the university to found the Elizabeth Catlett Mora Scholarship Fund, which support African-American and Latino students studying printmaking.
After Iowa, Catlett moved to New Orleans to work at Dillard University, spending the summer breaks in Chicago. There she studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago and lithography at the South Side Community Art Center . In Chicago she also met her first husband, artist Charles Wilbert White. The couple married in 1941.
In 1942, the couple moved to New York, where Catlett taught adult education classes at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem. She also studied lithography at the Art Students League of New York and received private instruction from Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine . Zadkine urged her to add abstract elements to her figurative work. During her time in New York, she met intellectuals and artists such as Gwendolyn Bennet, W.E.B. Dubois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglass and Paul Robeson .
In 1946, Catlett received a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship to travel with her husband to Mexico and study. She accepted the grant in part because at the time American art was trending toward the abstract while she was interested in art related to social themes. Shortly after moving to Mexico that same year, Catlett divorced White. In 1947, she entered the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a workshop dedicated to graphic promoting leftist social causes and education. There she met printmaker and muralist Francisco Mora, who she married in the same year. The couple had three children, all of whom developed careers in the arts: Francisco in jazz music, Juan in filmmaking and David in the visual arts. The last worked as his mother’s assistant doing the heavy aspects of sculpting when she no longer could. In 1948, she entered the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado "La Esmeralda" to study wood sculpture with José L. Ruíz and ceramic sculpture with Francisco Zúñiga . During this time in Mexico she became more serious about her war and more dedicated to the work it demanded. She also met Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and David Alfaro Siqueiros .
She worked with the Taller until 1966, but the fact that a number of its members were Communist Party members, as well as her first husband and her political activism such as her arrest in 1949 while protesting during a railroad strike in Mexico City, brought her under surveillance by the US embassy. She was eventually barred from entering the United States and declared an “undesirable alien” unable to enter to country to visit her ill mother before she died. In 1962, she renounced her American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen.
In 1971, after a letter writing campaign to the State Department by colleagues and friends, she was finally issued a special visit to attend an exhibition of her work at the Studio Museum in Harlem .
After retiring from her teaching position at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas, she moved to the city of Cuernavaca, Morelos in 1975. In 1983, she and Mora bought an apartment in Battery Park City, NY where from then until Mora’s death in 2002, the couple spent part of the year.
Catlett remained an active artist until her death. The artist died peacefully in her sleep at her studio/home in Cuernavaca on April 2, 2012 at the age of 96. She was survived by her three sons, ten grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Very early in her career, Catlett accepted a Public Works of Art Project assignment with the federal government for unemployed artists during the 1930s. However, she was fired for lack of initiative, very likely due to immaturity. However, the experience gave her exposure to the socially-themed work of Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias .
Much of her career was spent teaching, as her original intention was to be an art teacher. After receiving her undergraduate degree, her first teaching position was in the Durham, NC school system. However she became very dissatisfied with the fact that black teachers were paid less and, she participated in an unsuccessful campaign, along with Thurgood Marshall, to gain equal pay. After graduate school, she accepted a position at Dillard University in New Orleans in the 1940s. There she arranged a special trip to the Delgado Museum of Art to see the Picasso exhibit. As the museum was closed to blacks at the time, the group went on a day it was closed to the public. She eventually went on to chair the art department. Her next teaching position was with the George Washington Carver School, a community alternative school in Harlem where she taught art and other cultural subjects to workers taking night classes. Her last major teaching position was with the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas (UNAM) staring in 1958, where she was the first woman professor of sculpture. One year later, she was appointed the head of the sculpture department despite protests that she was a woman and a foreigner. She remained with the school until her retirement in 1975.
When she moved to Mexico, Catlett’s first work as an artist was with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), a famous workshop in Mexico City dedicated to graphics arts promoting leftist political causes, social issues and education. At the TGP she and other artists created a series of linoleum cuts on prominent black figures as well as posters, leaflets, illustrations for textbooks and materials to promote literacy in Mexico. She remained with the workshop for twenty years, leaving in 1966. Her posters of Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, Malcolm X and other figures were widely distributed.
Although she had an individual exhibition of her work in 1948 in Washington, DC, her work began to regularly be shown in the 1960s and 1970s, almost entirely in the United States where it drew interest because of social movements such as the Black Arts Movement and feminism. Many of these exhibitions were collective but she had over fifty individual exhibitions of her work during her lifetime. Other important individual exhibitions include Escuela Nacional de Arte Pláticas of UNAM in 1962, Museo de Arte Moderno in 1970, Los Angeles in 1971, the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York in 1971, Washington, DC in 1972, Howard University in 1972, Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University in 2008, 2011 individual show at the Bronx Museum. From 1993 to 2009, her work was regularly on display at the June Kelly Gallery.
Catlett’s work can be found in major collections such as those of the Museum of Modern Art, National Museum in Prague, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico, the Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Carnegie Mellon University the University of Iowa, the June Kelly Gallery and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
During Catlett’s lifetime she received numerous awards and recognitions. These include induction into the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana in 1956, the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Iowa in 1996, a 1998 50-year traveling retrospective of her work sponsored by the Newberger Museum of Art at Purchase College a NAACP Image Award in 2009 and a joint tribute after her death held jointly by the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana and the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in 2013. Others include an award from the Women’s Caucus for Art, the Art Institute of Chicago Legends and Legacy Award, Elizabeth Catlett Week in Berkeley, Elizabeth Catlett Day in Cleveland, Ohio, honorary citizenship of New Orleans, honorary doctorates from Pace University and Carnegie Mellon and the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award in contemporary sculpture. The Taller de Gráfica Popular won and international peace prize in part because of her.
Art historian Melanie Herzog has called Catlett “the foremost African American woman artist of her generation.” By the end of her career, her works, especially her sculptures sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
Catlett is known primarily for sculpting and print work. Her sculptures are known for being provocative but her prints are more widely recognized, mostly because of her work with the Taller de Gráfica Popular. Although she never left printmaking, starting in the 1950s, she shifted primarily to sculpture. Her printwork was mostly woodcuts and linocuts with sculptures made of a variety of materials such as clay, cedar, mahogany, eucalyptus, marble, limestone, onyx, bronze and Mexican stone (cantera) . She often recreated the same piece in several different media. Sculptures range in size and scope from small wood figures inches high to others several feet tall to monumental works for public squares and gardens, which include a 10.5 foot sculpture of Louis Armstrong in New Orleans and a 7.5 foot work depicting Sojourner Truth in Sacramento .
Much of her work is realistic and highly stylized two and three dimensional figures, applying the Modernist principles (such as organic abstraction to created a simplified iconography to display human emotions) of Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi and Ossip Zadkine to popular and easily-recognized imagery. Other major influences include African and pre Hispanic Mexican art traditions. Her works do not explore individual personalities, not even those of historical figures. Instead they convey abstracted and generalized ideas and feelings. Many young artists study her work as a model for themes relating to gender, race and class, but she is relatively unknown to the general public.
Her work revolved around themes such as social injustice, the human condition, historical figures, women and the relationship between mother and child. These themes were more specifically related to the African-American experience in the 20th century with some influence from Mexican reality. This focus began while she was at the University of Iowa, where she was encourage to depict what she knew best. Her thesis was the sculpture Mother and Child done in 1939, which won first prize at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940.
Her subjects range from sensitive maternal images to confrontational symbol of the Black Power, as well as portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and writer Phyllis Wheatley, believing that art can play a role the construction of transnational and ethnic identity. Her best-known works depict black women as strong and maternal. The women are voluptuous, with broad hips and shoulders, in positions of power and confidence, often with torsos thrust forward to show attitude. Faces tend to be mask-like, generally upturned. Mother and Child (1939) shows a young woman with very short hair and features similar to that of a Gabon mask. A late work “Bather” (2009) has a similar subject flexing her triceps. Her work was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance movement and the Chicago Black Renaissance in the 1940s and reinforced in the 1960s and 1970s with the influence of the Black Power, Black Arts Movement and feminism .
The Taller de Gráfica Popular pushed her to adapt her work to reach the broadest possible audience, which generally meant balancing abstraction with figurative images. She stated of her time at the TGP “I learned how you use your art for the service of people, struggling people, to whom only realism is meaningful.”
Critic Michasel Brenson noted the fluid, sensual surfaces” of her sculptures, which he said “seem to welcome not just the embrace of light but also the caress of the viewer’s hand.” Ken Johnson said that Ms. Catlett “gives wood and stone a melting, almost erotic luminosity.” But he also criticized the iconography as “generic and clichéd.”
However, Catlett was more concerned in the social messages of her work than in pure aesthetics. “I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.” She was a feminist and an activist before these movements took shape, pursuing a career in art despite segregation and the lack of female role models. "I don't think art can change things," Catlett said "I think writing can do more. But art can prepare people for change, it can be educational and persuasive in people's thinking."
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- Karen Rosenberg (April 3, 2012). "Elizabeth Catlett, Sculptor With Eye on Social Issues, Is Dead at 96". New York Times. Retrieved February 11, 2015.
- Mujeres del Salón de la Plástica Mexicana 1. Mexico City: CONACULTA/INBA. 2014. pp. 60–61. ISBN 978 607 605 255 6.
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- Charlotte Streifer Rubenstein (1990). American Women Sculptors. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co.
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- "Elizabeth Catlett: The power of form" 13 (7). The World & I. July 1998. pp. 118–123.
- "5 Things to Know About Elizabeth Catlett" 42 (4). Scholastic Art. February 2012. p. 10.
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- "Fallece la escultora y grabadora Elizabeth Catlett: MÉXICO OBITUARIO". EFE News Service (Madrid). April 4, 2012.
- "Carnegie Mellon Honors Landmark Artist Elizabeth Catlett With Special Exhibition, Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, May 17-18". Carnegie Mellon University. May 15, 2008. Retrieved February 11, 2015.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Elizabeth Catlett.|
- Listings for over 70 works produced by Elizabeth Catlett during her time at the Taller de Gráfica Popular can be viewed at Gráfica Mexciana.
- Elizabeth Catlett Online ArtCyclopedia guide to pictures of works by Elizabeth Catlett in art museum sites and image archives worldwide.
- African American World . Arts & Culture . Art Focus |PBS Elizabeth Catlett page of the Social Activism section of the PBS article on African American Artists
- June Kelly Gallery Elizabeth Catlett Includes a detailed timeline of Catlett's life
- Distinguished Alumni Awards The University of Iowa Presents Elizabeth Catlett Mora
- Elizabeth Catlett's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
- Form That Achieves Sympathy A Conversation with Elizabeth Catlett by Michael Brenson in Sculpture, a publication of the International Sculpture Center
- Dufrene, Phoebe (1994), "A Visit with Elizabeth Catlett", Art Education (National Art Education Association) 47 (1): 68–72, doi:10.2307/3193443, JSTOR 3193443
- Brief Profile with nice picture
- Elizabeth Catlett's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
- Catlett's Children With Flowers, the Smithsonian Art Collectors Program
- Elizabeth Catlett, Sculptor With Eye on Social Issues, Is Dead at 96; New York Times; Karen Rosenberg; April 3, 2012