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Harold Neal and Detroit African American Artists

1945 through the Black Arts Movement

Julia R. Myers

African American Studies, Art, Detroit

Published: December 2020
ISBN: 9780912042015
Pages: 176 Size: 6.75x9.75
Illustrations: 42 color images

Over the last twenty years, numerous scholarly publications have treated the work of African American artists of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. At that time, Detroit was the fifth largest city in the country with a large African American population and a vibrant Black arts scene. Nevertheless, the aforementioned publications fail to discuss Detroit African American artists. This book, which accompanies an exhibition of the same title, focuses on the life and work of Memphis born, Detroiter Harold Neal, who created some of the most forceful artistic statements of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. It also discusses other Detroit African American artists, including his predecessors Hughie Lee Smith and Oliver LaGrone, who greatly influenced his career; his contemporaries Glanton Dowdell, Charles McGee, Jon Onye Lockard, Henri Umbaji King, LeRoy Foster and Shirley Woodson, and his successors Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts and Allie McGhee, who were greatly impacted by his work. Additionally the book addresses the rift in the Detroit African American art community in the wake of the Black Power/Black Arts Movements. Neal, like other artists of the Black Arts Movement, felt that art should speak directly to the experience of African Americans using African American figurative subjects, while others artists, like Charles McGee, sought to compete in the white art world, working in the abstract, non-objective styles then dominant in New York galleries.

The result of some ten years of research, this book presents a view of post-World War II African American art history essentially unknown to other scholars. It expands our understanding of Detroit African American art first set forth in the author’s 2009 publication Energy: Charles McGee at Eighty Five. For this later project, Dr. Myers conducted extensive interviews with artists, scholars, friends and family members of the above mentioned artists. Most of their works remains in private collections, and Dr. Myers surveyed many of these, some in states outside of Michigan, in order to select the highest quality works for the exhibition. The book is based on hundreds of contemporary articles, published in Michigan Chronicle, Detroit’s African American newspaper and in other local newspapers, as well as on other hard-to-locate archival materials. Dr. Myers assesses these Detroit artists in relation to their peers in other major metropolises such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles/San Francisco, thus establishing that Detroit artists were significant contributors to African American art in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Julia R. Myers is a professor emerita of art history at Eastern Michigan University. She is the author of Energy: Charles McGee at Eighty-Five, 2009, and Subverting Modernism: Cass Corridor Revisited, 2013, both published by Eastern Michigan Universities Art Galleries.

It is, in fact, an extraordinarily ambitious overview of thirty-five years of African American art in Detroit, and presents both an exhibition and a probing, in depth catalogue, the result of a ten year project, initiated and produced by Julia R. Myers, Professor Emerita of Art History at Eastern Michigan University, who now resides in New Mexico.

– Dennis Nawrocki, Detroit Art Review

The artworks that Julia R. Myers has assembled for "Harold Neal and Detroit African American Artists" take us on a mid-century tour of politically incendiary work by the city’s Black figurative artists. They speak eloquently of police violence, Black incarceration, of Black impoverishment and oppression--facts of Black life that sadly retain their relevance--in an exhibition that is both a celebration and an indictment.

– K.A. Letts, New Art Examiner

The book is, consequently, a handbook to uncover and
understand the Black Arts Movement and other African American Art currents from a
different prospective of the classic Harlem approach. The prospective reader will be
also satisfied by the lively writing, the division by topics and not exactly chronological
and the excellent choice of subjects, art pieces and artists.

– Tamara Espineira, Critique d’art