Elizabeth Catlett Sculpts Black Women Ready for Revolution

An artist with something profound to say about race, gender and dignity.

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Elizabeth Catlett, El Canto, 1968, bronze sculpture on mahogany base. One view of the asymmetrical artwork currently at Burning in Water gallery. All photos: Beck Feibelman.

Mahalia Jackson’s head is thrown back, her eyes are closed and she has a beatific smile on her face. Her hands are raised to the sky and the twisting folds of the lower part of her dress suggest movement, dancing. The details are simplified, but the emotional power is profound. Mahalia Jackson, New Orleans, 2010, is the most recent work in the exciting exhibition of sculptures and prints “Elizabeth Catlett: Wake Up in Glory,” on view through Feb. 3 at the Chelsea gallery Burning in Water. The show spans more than six decades of Catlett’s formidable career — the oldest sculpture on view, Negro Woman, dates from 1946 — which only recently came to an end when she died in 2012 at the age of 96. (I am solidly on record appreciating artwork made by very mature women!) Catlett, who was born in Washington, DC, studied at Howard University and earned the very first MFA from the University of Iowa (the university named a residence hall after the artist in 2016). A politically engaged activist, she taught art in both New York and New Orleans before emigrating to Mexico in 1946, where she lived, taught and worked for the rest of her long life. She isn’t as well-known as she ought to be; the Burning in Water show makes a brilliant case for righting that wrong.

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Catlett - Mahalia Jackson
Catlett’s 2010 portrait of Mahalia Jackson, bronze with mahogany base.
(Click to enlarge.)

The sculpture of Jackson, while certainly a faithful likeness of the iconic gospel singer, is more remarkable for the sensitive evocation of her ecstatic artistic spirit. Mahalia Jackson, New Orleans is the only true portrait in the show; no other works depict celebrities or specific individuals, but all of the figures are Black women. Catlett was open about her interest in imagery and visual languages drawn from her own diverse cultural heritage, including African art, the Harlem Renaissance, European modernism, pre-Columbian art and Mexican murals, among many more influences. This shows through in sculptures that seamlessly integrate elements of geometrical abstraction, African masks and an intersectional-feminist approach to representing Black women. (Last year, Catlett was one of the stand-outs in the fantastic Brooklyn Museum show “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85.”)

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There is a gravitas in the bearings of Catlett’s women. In facial expressions and, for the full-length figures, the poses and gestures, these women are self-possessed, proud, active. There is little concern for traditional female stereotypes, no passivity before the male gaze. These women meet your eye — in the case of Faces for Two Worlds, 1980, from both sides of the same head. Even in a sculpture like Political Prisoner, 1971, where the face is drained of specificity, stylized almost to the point of being an arrangement of geometrical shapes, the work still communicates strong emotion that looks like a mixture of fear and defiance. These complex emotions echo the body’s pose, tensed, beginning to twist under the indignity of her arms restrained behind her back. And as artist and Catlett family friend Unity Lewis points out in a moving video produced by the gallery for this show, Woman Walking (Standing Woman), 1987, is “sleek and elegant,” but with the clenched fist at her side, “she’s ready for revolution!”

El Canto [Singing], 1968 (see the image at the top of this page), is a thrillingly asymmetrical mask-like head engaged in, to my eye, some flirtation with afro-futurist elements, in the highly abstracted back that looks more like machine parts than organic life. Ultimately, though, this figure’s humanity wins out over these inorganic qualities. There is a flourish on the left side of the face, just off the eye, that quite effectively suggests something of her character or experience; we can read it as the abstraction of a distinctive, gorgeously severe cheekbone, or possibly a tear…or even a bruise.

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Catlett - Triangular Woman
Triangular Woman (detail), 1979, bronze with mahogany base.
(Click to enlarge.)

It is the surprise, complexity and intelligence in this kind of quirky detail in Catlett’s work that, finally, make the show so fascinating, such a pleasure to see. She does so much with her sculptures’ eyes, for example. The eyes in El Canto are rendered as horizontal lines. Some eyes bulge, some recede; Catlett sculpted some eyes in detail, others are stark voids in the bronze. Triangular Woman, 1979, is one of the oddest and most compelling works in the show. Reminiscent of Henry Moore’s reduction of bodies to almost abstract forms, Catlett stripped away any fine detail — the hands go utterly unarticulated — and the eyes are just tiny dots, concave hemispherical depressions in the bronze, on either side of a geometrical nose.

For the show to hold together as well as it does and for Catlett’s oeuvre to feel so consistent, even in light of this kind of variety in style and artistic idiom (I haven’t even mentioned the two excellent prints on view, as different from each other as they are from the sculptures!), is a testament to her artistic powers. Catlett herself is as powerful and fascinating a figure as the women she so evocatively created.