Catlett’s mobilizations of desire become more than assertion, belief, need and hope. They become will. In her sculpture, Catlett wagers that desire activated by and embodied in a language of organic form can be an engine of history.
Michael Brenson, 1988-
Burning in Water - New York is pleased to present Elizabeth Catlett: Wake Up in Glory. The exhibition will focus on the evolution of Catlett’s sculpture, featuring a diverse group of works drawn from across the seven-decade span of the artist’s career, including work in bronze, wood and marble. The show begins with Catlett’s stately Negro Woman bust. The most recent works in the show were created shortly before the artist’s death in 2012 at the age of 96.
Born in Washington, DC in 1915, Elizabeth Catlett forged a singular artistic career as a sculptor and printmaker. During the course of her long life, Catlett was profoundly influenced by a broad array of artistic genres and traditions, including the Harlem Renaissance, European Modernism, African art, American Regionalism, the Chicago Renaissance, Pre-Columbian art, Mexican Muralism and Post-Revolution Populism and the Black Arts Movement.
Rather than simply emulating or reacting to these diverse influences, Catlett synthesized disparate visual idioms to develop a highly-individual style. Catlett’s work was also profoundly shaped by a lifelong engagement with social and political concerns. While avoiding overt didacticism, Catlett developed a remarkable facility in using pared-down forms to convey powerful messages regarding the topics that mattered to her most: freedom, race and ethnicity, feminism and maternalism. Ultimately, Catlett rejected any distinction between the aesthetic and sociopolitical elements of her work. “I believe that art should come from the people and be for the people,” she commented in 1952. “I believe that art is important to the extent that it grows out of and affects the society of its time.”
Alice Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) was born in Washington, DC. She studied at Howard University, principally under the direction of James Porter. After graduation, she served as a public school art teacher in Durham, NC, where she also worked with Thurgood Marshall on a campaign against racial disparities in teacher salaries. Catlett subsequently studied art at the University of Iowa under the mentorship of the painter Grant Wood and became the first student ever to receive an MFA. Her thesis project sculpture, Mother and Child, was awarded first prize at the 1941 American Negro Exposition in Chicago. After a period in New York when she studied under the Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine and taught at the radically progressive George Washington Carver School in Harlem, Catlett moved to Mexico in 1946. She joined the Taller de Gráfica Popular artist collective in Mexico City. She also studied sculpture at the Esmeralda Escuela de Pintura y Escultura with ceramicist Francisco Zuñiga and wood sculptor José L. Ruíz. In 1959, Catlett became head of the department of sculpture at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico and subsequently chair of the art department. The city of New Orleans commissioned Catlett to create a ten-foot sculpture of Louis Armstrong for the city’s Bicentennial celebration in 1975.
Solo exhibitions of Catlett’s work have been mounted at the The Modern Art Museum, Mexico City (1970), The Atlanta Center for Black Art (1972), The Howard University Gallery of Art (1972), The Studio Museum in Harlem (1972, 1994), Southern University (1974), Scripps College (1975), the Malcolm Brown Gallery (1981), the New Orleans Museum of Art (1983), the African American Museum of Dallas (1984), Spelman College (1985), the Museo Diego Rivera in Guanajuato, Mexico (1987), the Neuberger Museum of Art (1998) and the Bronx Museum (2011).
Elizabeth Catlett’s work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums and institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Iowa, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico.