Artist Regarded as a Giant of 20th and 21st Centuries
Accolades have been pouring in following the April 2 death of renowned artist, sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett.
Catlett, 96, died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, which she had made her home for the past 60 years.
She gained international fame for sculptures and prints that focused on different elements of black life, as well as issues revolving around civil and human rights. Her style is said to have best reflected the social realism brought to the fore by artists like famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, her mentor Grant Wood and her first husband artist Charles White.
The Washington, D.C. native was revered by admirers, former students and colleagues, including David C. Driskell. Driskell is a longtime friend who was very fond of Catlett, who he met for the first time in the 1960s.
"She was one of the great voices of the 20th and 21st centuries," said Driskell, 81, a prominent and highly respected painter, who is also a printmaker, collagist, writer, consultant, curator, art historian and educator. "She was a real, dedicated artist, a professional of the first order and she was dedicated to social issues and principles. She established herself as one of our great artists. I gave a lecture last week where I referred to her as 'the Queen Mother of African American and American art' because of her loyalty and dedication to her craft."
Driskell said he was always struck by Catlett's seamless blend of art and the human condition, including critiques of American society and its power structures that perpetuated racism, injustice, discrimination and gender inequality.
"[For her,] art had a function beyond being beautiful," he explained.
Catlett was born in the District on April 15, 1915. She is a graduate of Dunbar Senior High School, earned a bachelor's degree from Howard University and a masters in fine arts from the University of Iowa.
Camille Ajeku, director of the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum, said she has been an admirer of Catlett since high school and mentioned the artist's simplicity, technique and sensitivity.
"Catlett was just a giant in the arts. She was phenomenal. She believed in giving back to the community," she said. "She was a phenomenal woman, a phenomenal artist and she inspired a lot of up-and-coming artists. She was revered by several cultures – Mexicans embraced her as did African Americans. She really cross-pollinated two cultures."
While living and working in Harlem, Catlett was married briefly to White, himself an acclaimed artist.
Driskell said after his friend trained at Howard University, she "went down to study with Mexican masters such as Rivera, [Jose Clemente] Orozco, [Francisco] Zuniga. That figured prominently in the way she saw art," he said.
In a 2003 interview with Michael Brenson that appeared in Sculpture Magazine, Catlett explained her artistic purpose.
"Since the '40s, my first aim has been to reach African American people ... I felt art was part of education, that it was a necessary part of education for people who were illiterate. I wanted my work to reach people who didn't have access to museums," she said.
Catlett received a Julius Rosenwald fellowship to study in Mexico in 1946, moved there and struck up a friendship with Rivera, and studied wood carving with Jose Ruiz and ceramic sculpture with Zuniga. It was there that she met her second husband, artist Francisco "Pancho" Mora, who she married in 1948. They had three boys, David, an artist; Juan, a filmmaker; and Francisco, a jazz musician.
Catlett was deeply influenced by her association with the Taller de Grafica Popular [The Peoples' Graphics Arts Workshop] whose defining principles included producing art of the highest quality, and creating art for the Mexican people. The group was dedicated to using its art to effect social change.
Catlett was an influential figure in the Black Arts and Civil Rights movements, and lived through just about every notable artistic and social movement in the last century, and she moved in some illustrious circles that included formidable artist Jacob Lawrence, black poet laureate Langston Hughes and singer, actor and civil rights icon Paul Robeson.
Catlett was never deterred by the wider society's attempts to corral her because of her sex and color.
For example, she recalled an incident in a 2003 Sculpture Magazine interview that crystallized her resistance.
"When I was teaching at Dillard University in New Orleans [1940–42], African Americans were not allowed into City Park, which was the site of the Delgado Museum. When they showed a Picasso retrospective I had seen at the Art Institute of Chicago, I wanted my students to see it. I had an art history class of about 130 students and had nothing to give them, except some old black and white slides of Greek and Roman art."
"You can imagine how it was. Suddenly with this exhibition I had an opportunity to talk to these students about what art is. An art educator at Sophie Newcomb College helped me. We went in a bus from the school. When we got out, we went into the museum on a Monday, when it was closed. Someone was waiting for us, beside Guernica. He talked to them about having an open mind and told them a little bit about Picasso, why he painted the mural, that it was Picasso's feeling about what was going on in Spain, about the Civil War. These sophomore students who'd never been in an art museum were running around, they were so excited. They were running from one room to the other and yelling, 'Come over here, see the woman in the mirror. Look at this hat.' For me, it was very emotional to see their reaction."
Catlett made a name for herself for her commitment to securing greater rights for workers, blacks and women in the United States and Mexico. Because she was arrested during a railroad workers' protest in Mexico City in 1958, the U.S. Department of State decided in 1962 to ban her from returning to the United States for nearly a decade because of her political affiliations.
Catlett secured Mexican citizenship in 1962.
Driskell said Catlett ran afoul of the Joe McCarthy witch hunt because of her stance on social issues and her refusal to bow to the House panel's demands.
He said he and Catlett conversed about the McCarthy Era.
"It was something that never left her memory," Driskell recalled. "They made erroneous, false accusations when she wouldn't give in to the notion of racial inequality and injustice. Then when she married a Mexican, they said she was a communist. [However], she overcame all that through the competency and rightness of her work."
When asked, Driskell was dismissive about a reporter's description in an obituary of Catlett as a "minor" artist of the 20th century.
"She was not a minor artist. That is a comment from someone who is uninformed," he said. "They surmised [that] because of research. Simply because she was absent did not mean that her work didn't have a profound impact. She is highly sought after in Europe, Asia."
"Because of American racism, she was not represented in major museum collections. Only recently have we had the fitting representation of her work. She was the equal of [many major] 20th century artists, but she was a woman of color. We haven't crossed that boundary yet."
Driskell and Catlett crossed paths many times, including when he was at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., in the 1970s and invited her to the campus.
"It was one of her first reengagements [with America]," he said. "She invigorated the student body and art community as no one else could do. She had a kind spirit and reached out."
Later, Driskell, who is the curator of Bill and Camille Cosby's art collection, said the couple
commissioned Catlett to create works of art for them.
"I lived in a guesthouse and watched her as she progressed," said Driskell, who has been an artist since the 1950s. "She created numerous pieces."
He said he also included a number of representations of Catlett's work in a book about the Cosby Collection he wrote, titled, "The Other Side of Color."
Robert Steele, executive director of The David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, said Catlett was internationally acclaimed and her work was vitally important for the national and international canon.
"Elizabeth Catlett is one of those rare artistic geniuses who had a way of affirming the African-American identity as well as the female identity," he said. "... If you talk about Tanner, Bearden, Lawrence, certainly, Elizabeth Catlett would be thought of in that company."