Updated April 4, 2012: Elizabeth Catlett died Monday, April 2, at the age of 96. In 2011 Valerie Gladstone profiled the celebrated artist while her art was getting stateside attention at the Bronx Museum and at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.
Artist Elizabeth Catlett works almost every day in her sunny studio in Cuernavaca, Mexico, taking afternoons off to knit or cook or swim in her pool. She keeps many of her sculptures — elegant African-inspired female figures and portrait heads made of bronze, wood and marble — around her, though recent exhibitions have meant that she has had to send works away. "Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation With 21 Contemporary Artists," at the Bronx Museum, runs through May 29, and "Dígame: Elizabeth Catlett's Forever Love" will be at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University through May 26. (On Monday, Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Root's editor-in-chief, will sit down for a chat with the sculptor at the Du Bois Institute.)
Currently finishing a wood sculpture of an embracing couple, she has had to put it aside for a month for her annual trip to New York for her birthday party, which was on Friday. Most of her life, she has come north — for many years, with her late husband, the Mexican artist Francisco Mora — to see her grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends. "I love to go to New York," she says, "but I also love to return home. It's quieter, calmer, and I work better."
In Catlett's presence, her friendliness and warmth can make one forget her historical and artistic significance. Hailed for the emotional power of her graphics and figurative and abstract sculptures, she ranks among the great artists of our time. "Elizabeth Catlett is a force of nature," says Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. "For over six decades, she has created unforgettable art that serves as eloquent testimony to the struggles of African Americans, especially women. Whether in works finely wrought in wood and bronze or in her elegiac works on paper, she has given us images of singular power and beauty."
Underlining her link to African-American art and her appreciation of the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, Conwill adds, "As a museum professional and a grateful beneficiary of her enormous gifts, I have been struck again and again by Catlett's ability to capture human emotion in a style whose power is both universal and timeless. She has long ago secured her place in the ranks of the most important American artists of her generation."
Catlett has faced many obstacles as an artist, chiefly being an African-African woman who solely depicts black Americans, Native Americans and Mexicans. Moreover, she has also lived in Mexico for the past 60 years, removed from the American art scene. During the McCarthy era, she encountered additional problems, caused by her commitment to the poor and disenfranchised. She was considered a communist for teaching at an allegedly communist school for laborers in Harlem in the 1940s and, later in the decade, for allying with Mexican communist artists who defended workers' rights.
In the '60s she provoked further controversy by supporting the black power movement. She paid a price for her convictions. After becoming a Mexican citizen in 1962 because her husband and their three sons, Francisco, Juan and David, were Mexican citizens, she was denied a visa by the U.S. State Department for nearly 10 years on the grounds that she was an "undesirable alien."
"Elizabeth is concerned with social issues, human rights and civil rights," says Ellen Sragow, her dealer for many years. "Through her art, she speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves. She never compromises. Her work has a clarity that does not need an explanation. It speaks for itself."
"Elizabeth is an amazing multidisciplinary, transnational artist," says Isolde Brielmaier, curator of the Bronx Museum exhibition. "A great deal has been made of her importance as a female artist of color, but not enough attention has been paid to her brilliant technique in printing, painting and sculpture, and the fact that she has worked across borders all of her life."
Catlett showed early signs of greatness. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., the granddaughter of slaves, as a little girl she liked shaping and molding things with her hands. Encouraged by her mother, Mary Carson, a truant officer, she began drawing and in high school carved her first sculpture, using Ivory soap. "I liked to draw," she told The Root, "and I was good at it."
While studying at Howard University, she developed affinities for certain artists, particularly African sculptors, the German expressionists Emil Nolde and Kathe Kollwitz, and the modernists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. She added sculptor Jean Arp and van Gogh to the list as she got older.
At the State University of Iowa in Iowa City, Catlett's teacher, the painter Grant Wood, urged her to portray what she knew best — which of course were her own people. After receiving the university's first master of fine arts degree in 1940, she accepted a job as head of the art department at Dillard University in New Orleans, already a political activist. The art critic Samella Lewis, who was her student there, recalled, "She confronted police on brutality, bus drivers on segregated seating and college administrators on curriculum."
Eager to extend her knowledge of sculpture, she left New Orleans for New York to work with the Russian-born sculptor Ossip Zadkine. He taught her that through studying African art, she could learn more about abstract forms and their power to communicate. However, she argued against his contention that only white subjects had universality. While in New York, she also taught at the reputedly communist George Washington Carver School. The students' avid interest in the arts made her realize that artists should create art for everyone, not just an elite.
In 1945 Catlett, her talent already well established, had received a $2,000 grant from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation to do a series of prints, paintings and sculptures of black women. Interested in the Mexican muralists, she decided to go to Mexico, both to finish the series and work with them at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a printmaking collective devoted to social causes.
Her move proved crucial to her development. At the Taller, she came under the influence of the muralists' Social Realist style and thrived in the communal atmosphere. "I learned how to carve wood and stone there, and by working with a collective, I developed my technique in linocut and lithography and became politically more aware of the social situation. I also expanded my subjects to Mexican people."
At the Taller, Catlett also fell in love with Francisco Mora, an early feminist who fully supported her artistic ambitions. While raising their family, she studied pre-Columbian sculptural techniques with the great sculptor Francisco Zúñiga and began exhibiting in Mexican galleries. In 1959 she became the first woman to head the sculpture department at the National School of Fine Arts.
But though she received early acclaim in Mexico, it was not until she first exhibited at the June Kelly Gallery in 1993 that Catlett began gaining the same stature in the United States. Previously, she had not had a significant exhibition of her sculpture in New York since a show at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1971. Afterward the Metropolitan Museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum and the Baltimore Museum of Art purchased her work, and in 1998 she was honored with a 50-year retrospective at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, N.Y. Since then she has had innumerable museum exhibitions throughout the country.
In the Neuberger Museum show's catalog, the art critic Michael Brenson wrote, "Catlett's sculptures communicate a deeply human image of African Americans while appealing to values and virtues that encourage a sense of common humanity. The fluid, sensual surfaces seem to welcome not just the embrace of light but also the caress of the viewer's hand."
With techniques learned from Zadkine in New York in the '40s, she builds form through the juxtaposition of positive and negative shapes, basing her pieces on identifiable subjects and then distorting and exaggerating them for expressive emphasis. She usually creates the same subject in various materials, curious how different substances affect the final form. Her sculptures achieve individuality through her painterly sense of color and texture.
Catlett knows that living in Mexico slowed her recognition in the United States. But she says the country offered a black female artist a more congenial atmosphere, and better conditions for raising a family. She stays in close contact with her sons and consults with them on her work, as she always did with Mora. In fact, when they moved to Cuernavaca from Mexico City in 1973, she and her husband asked the architect of their house to connect their studios with a courtyard so that they could be in easy contact.
When asked from whom she learned the most, she answers, "My mother and my husband. They taught me to be responsible, creative and to love people. I have done my best to follow their advice."