Elizabeth Catlett: The Spirit of Form

Elizabeth Catlett, Singing Head, 1979. Orange Onyx, 13 x 9 x 13 in.

Since the mid-1940s, American-born Elizabeth Catlett has worked as a graphic artist, sculptor, and teacher. Together with her husband, painter and graphic artist Francisco Mora, she has also raised a family in Mexico. Her sculptures in the United States and Mexico include monumental public sculpture, wall reliefs, busts, aerial and standing figures, and studio works of busts, torsos, reclining and standing figures. At present she divides her time between Cuernavaca, Mexico and New York City, working on sculptures and prints, receiving collectors, fellow artists, and visitors from around the world, and enjoying an extended family of grandchildren, relatives, and friends.

She has received top honors and commissions in Mexico, the United States, and Europe. A large portion of her sculptural oeuvre is now on exhibit in “Elizabeth Catlett Sculpture: A Fifty Year Retrospective.” The show opened at The Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, New York in January 1998 and will travel through 1999 to Blaffer Gallery, University of Texas at Austin, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Museo de Arte Moderna, Mexico City, and Spelman College Museum of Art, Atlanta. Twenty of the 60 works are from private collections, shown publicly for the first time.

Elizabeth Catlett’s themes include the mother and child, suffering due to racial injustice, the bodily and facial beauty of African Americans, especially of the African-American woman, social and/or political protest, love, dignity, and an essential human vitality. Catlett is the first sculptor to represent the African-American woman in the full range of her humanity. She is depicted as simply herself, with a natural nobility and dignity, as a mother, a social or political protester, a loving wife, and in moods that reveal her as tired, penetrating, or calm in thought, speaking out angrily against injustice, or singing with joy. Other subjects include African-American, South American, and Native American figures of all ages. However, as critic Michael Brenson observed in the catalogue essay accompanying the retrospective exhibition, a number of works defy racial and ethnic categorization, and show facial features that are ethnically mixed.

Catlett, like the late Native American sculptor Allan Houser, has created a figural realism with abstract elements, and both have depicted the race of which they are a part, a social, economic, and political minority. The closest one can come to identifying a category for Catlett would be “a modern abstract realist,” or “modern organic realist,” but neither term tells the complexity of the story. Like Houser, Catlett has created a unique vision of human history and of the present moment. Her work almost always begins with figural representation. Catlett has created few purely abstract sculptures. Intensifying the primary realism are styles, techniques, and purposes incorporated from Western and non-Western traditions. Brenson, like other critics, places Catlett’s style in the modern organic abstract tradition of Moore, Arp, Brancusi, and Zadkine. Beyond Modernism, the classical sculptural tradition of West Africa and the Pre-Hispanic modeling tradition of Mexico are the most profound influences.

Elizabeth Catlett, Pensive, 1963. Cedar, 19.5 x 13 x 18 in.

Like Brancusi, Catlett uses light as an active element to define form, enhance rhythm, and communicate meaning. Brancusi’s The Bird (1926) and Catlett’s Mujer (1964) both pull in light from the base, deftly carrying and diffusing it in finely abstracted curves to the top. The play of light is an active element which helps to create the unified rhythmic dynamism in these forms. Both also use radiant light, the light and color that resonate from within the stone, to intensify meaning. In Catlett’s bust Indian Head, the elongated shape of the head and open, keenly stylized facial expression extend from the black marble with an authority that commands the surrounding space. In Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse (1917), eye, nose, and mouth are depicted by a single undulating ridge, while the character of the light from the stone is soft, opaque, giving the oval form an ungrounded, ethereal quality.

Catlett’s reverence for and rendering of the organic vitality of the material are two aspects of her style that place her in the Western tradition of modern organic abstraction. Most of her sculpture is in wood, which she carves on the diagonal of the grain, letting the form “grow” according to the wood’s texture and color. This revelation of material is dramatically shown in Nude Torso (1987), in which the splintering of the cedar is embedded naturally in the unity of the abstractly contoured female torso. Also like that of Brancusi and Arp, Catlett’s sculpture is notable for its surface, polished to an almost shell-like patina.

Catlett is also a modeler. But the method she uses for terra-cotta heads is not the Western technique of applying the clay to an armature or modeling the clay itself. In Mexico she learned the art of coil-building from the Mexican master Zu–iga. She prefers this traditional process, which requires and enhances an organic dimensionality, an example of which can been seen in the finely shaped head of an African-American man, Head (1947) and Elvira (1997), in which the facial features are ethnically mixed, giving an image that appears at once one of every woman and of a female deity.

Elizabeth Catlett, Pensive, 1946. Bronze, 16.5 x 10.5x 8.5 in.

Her style also makes use of the volume or space surrounding the work to emotionally involve the viewer. In portraying the theme of suffering under racial injustice, the viewer standing directly in front of the face of an African-American man in Target (1970) is the presence without which the sculpture is incomplete. Our eyes, directed by the large gun sight of exact radial symmetry and cross lines in front of and encircling the man’s face, can only look through the sight to see his eyes. At the same moment we see his eyes focus on us. The gaze of the work demands we stop; we suddenly feel the moment before death. The emotional charge creates a social perception; the work forces us to be aware of our society and its racism. It gives a “shock of recognition”; we take in not just the head of the man depicted before us but the larger experience of endangered African-American men. And the targeted gaze demands we see our presence, our participation as individuals and as members of society, in a racism that is murderous.

Like Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, Catlett uses negative space to enhance mass and overall form, especially in the figure. This is most pronounced in the abstracted figure of an African-American woman, Homage to My Young Black Sisters (1968), in which an oval negative space incised in the torso, painted black, enhances the sense of mass as well as the rhythmic spiral of the form. Negative space is also used in the purely abstract Magic Mask (1971) and in the abstracted realistic works Mother and Child (1980), The Protester (1981), and Maternity (1990).

Catlett’s sculptural aesthetic gives equal weight to concerns for the spirit of the form and its social or cultural function, as well as to the form itself. This is why her sculptural oeuvre is dominated by the use of abstract and stylized elements within realism.

Elizabeth Catlett, Standing Mother and Child, 1978. Bronze, 23 x 6 x 6 in.

Like Moore, Picasso, and Brancusi, Catlett has been inspired by the forms of ancient West African and Pre-Hispanic sculpture. But she has also been animated by other aspects of these non-Western traditions. In the West African tradition, the Ife head of terra cotta, copper, or bronze did not simply represent the form of the head of a deity, but a form which embodied the spirit or power of the deity. It has been recently documented that this sculptural tradition was continued by African-American slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. Forbidden by owners to carve or model, they shaped rounded water jugs, with overly large stylized eyes modeled at the spout, out of clay. These have been identified as “Spirit Jugs”; the vital connection to West African sculpture is that no journey was attempted without the spirit jug- power protected and kept the escaping slaves from harm.

The creation of dimensional form that embodies a spirit within can be seen in the organically abstract work Singing Head (1979). Only a singing mouth is realistically shaped, while a line, jutting deep, divides the bust in half. Grains of yellow-orange and white-orange light in the onyx are illuminated by the run of the central line, which forms a high arc over the top, as if carrying notes. The sculptural brilliance of Singing Head, one of a series, is that the form is the enlivening, joyous spirit of singing.

The other aspect of the ancient West African and Pre-Hispanic traditions, that of having the sculpture function actively or meaningfully in the lives of the people, has been an important part of Catlett’s aesthetic from the beginning of her career. As she stated in an interview this year, “I find the African and Pre-Hispanic traditions more inspiring probably and partially because they were created as part of the lives of the people rather than just as an aesthetic experience. When the African is sculpting it is to be used socially, or religiously; it would be used in a religious context.”

Elizabeth Catlett, Elvira, 1997. Terra cotta, 15.75 x 8.25 x 11.5 in.

To accomplish this aim, like Moore and to a greater extent Houser, Catlett uses a primarily figural style to portray the physical beauty, the humanity, and the experience of oppression of African Americans to that community. She says, “I use the forms of the figure. I reflect the body and facial forms of African-American people because I want to show the physical forms. I would say at the same time they are expressing such qualities as dignity, strength, tenderness, love, and so forth. If I do a sculpture of a mother and child, I try to give a sense to all black mothers and their children; I want them to feel a sense of dignity in their accomplishment. This I try to accomplish through the shape and movement of form at the same time the sculpture is figurative. I also use abstract qualities within the figurative to strengthen my intention. My intention is to create a work of sculpture which has empathy or a relation to our lives so that they have an aesthetic experience.”

Catlett’s sculptural vocabulary also includes the use of paint, gems, or metal in order to enlarge or focus mass, or the volume or space surrounding the work. Paint is used in Homage to My Young Black Sisters, The Black Woman Speaks (1970), Magic Mask (1971), Political Prisoner (1971), Woman Resting (1981), and Face (1973), turquoise and opals in Woman Fixing Her Hair (1993), and Standing Woman with Blue Eyes (1994), and metal in Target. In Female Head (1966), a stylized head with a cubistically elongated jaw and nose, reminiscent of an African mask, the deeply cut ovals of the brow and lid of the eyes are painted black, enlarging mass.

In Pensive (1963), organically abstracted planes and contours create a spiral rhythmic form of multiple views, demanding the viewer follow the rhythm by walking around the work. It shows an African-American woman, seated on a round base, gazing upward, the dressed figure and face abstractly treated. The sensuously rendered contours give a continuous pleasure of subtly changing organic shapes. But the work also moves vertically. The dominating mass at the base creates a downward movement which pulls in and interiorizes the mood of silence, while, pictorially, the design of the left leg and arm are organically rounded diagonals which lead directly to the eyes gazing upward.

Vertical directionality is characteristic of almost all of Catlett’s sculptures, and is particularly effective in the carved wood seated figures, such as Woman Resting (1981) and Triangular Woman (1997). This aspect of her sculptural vocabulary, the transformation of organic and geometric shapes into abstracted lines to create vertical direction, is also a sublime communication of hope and belief in the human spirit. In Standing Mother and Child (1978), upward movement is reinforced by repetition of vertical lines in the pleat of the mother’s dress, embrace of the mother’s arms, and small, long back of the child. The mother stands upright with a simple dignity, but it is the melding of the child’s body into hers and the yielding expression on her face that make the work emanate a tender relationship.

Elizabeth Catlett, Target, 1970. Bronze, 19.5 x 12 x 15.75 in.

In contrast, Moore’s representation of mother and child is of a woman who is earth mother, an almost primordial mother spirit or deity who is all-powerful, at the same time progenitor and protector. A closer similarity exists with Houser, as some of his depictions of mother and child, especially Lullaby, echo the loving intimacy of Catlett’s.

The appreciation and understanding of Catlett’s sculpture by the public in the United States has suffered due to lack of exposure and inconsistent criticism. Although it is true that she is considered a major American artist, it is also true that her work has been and continues to be critically dismissed and tagged as “social realism,” “WPA art,” and “social and political protest art.”

These labels, disingenuous at best, hide a deeper problem of perception and training. In the mid-1930s Isamu Noguchi was panned by a prominent New York critic for creating an expressionistic sculpture, Lynching, explicit in its communication of final agony. This comment can now be recognized as racism on the part of that critic. But Catlett’s work is still not received as art that succeeds on its own terms, even in the case of Target, in which Catlett adopts a strategy similar to that of Noguchi. If there is little training or interest on the part of the critic in positive, true, or humane images of African Americans, will he or she be able to evaluate Catlett’s body of work? Ironically, in the case of a powerful artist like Catlett, it is the fact that she has succeeded in her intentions that brings such a strong negative emotional response, when there is any response at all, on the part of critics.

On the other hand, the retrospective and catalogue have been extremely popular with the public, drawing capacity audiences that are racially pluralistic. The artist is pleased with the popularity of the retrospective, not just for personal reasons, but as fulfillment of her aesthetic.

Elizabeth Catlett, Mother and Child, 1969. Black Marble, 23.5 x 13 x 9 in.

She feels strongly “that work about Black people should be in museums. Few African Americans have the chance to study and grow up with the art found in museums, which has little there that they can relate to, which has a relation to their lives. When there is work that interests them, they go. They don’t have a problem of an audience in the African Museum at the Smithsonian. I think the same applies to Latin American and Latin American people of descent in the U.S. When the Diego Rivera show was in the Detroit Institute of Fine Arts, Latin American people came in by the bus loads.”

Although it may be too early to measure, her influence on the work of other sculptors appears less as a stylist and more as a role model, a sculptor respected and revered for her achievement. Sculptor Mel Edwards comments, “My work is not at all stylistically like hers—the person was even more than I expected. The individuality of her statement and the dual and multiple set of resources (cultural, artistic, personal) make her an artist of significance. I would certainly say she is a corroborating older influence in my work. She is important to me in my resources of corroboration and in my thought processes.”

Edwards adds that, “There is a beautiful international aspect to her work; she is a very international sculptor. Everything is in her work: the woodworking by the subtractive method and the rendering by the most sophisticated techniques. She’s a complete sculptor. And she’s chosen her own terms.”

Elizabeth Catlett, Nude Torso, 1987. Wood, 31 x 11 x 10 in.

Catlett has forged an original style of figural realism infused with an organic abstraction combining Western, West African, and Pre-Hispanic traditions, and her own perceptions as an African-American woman. Catlett has contributed a profound humanist vision of the African-American experience, a vision that is lucid, magnanimous, compassionate, and penetrating—that offers her audience a view of their own humanity.

Martha Kearns is a writer living in Philadelphia.