Sunday, January 19, 2014

Lee-Smith, Hughie

oil on canvas
83.8 x 91.4 cm
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., USA (Fair use)

Hughie Lee-Smith's art conveys the alienation and isolation experienced by many African Americans during the middle decades of the twentieth century, yet his work speaks in larger terms about our inability to reach out and connect with others on grounds larger than race. He explored psychological corners of the human experience grounded in separation and displacement. Confrontation suggests the tension between the girls and their situation. They radiate alienation - from each other, and from the crumbling infrastructure of their surreal, beachfront surroundings.

"I think my paintings have to do with an invisible life - a reality on a different level." (Lee-Smith)

Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-1999) is one of America's foremost contemporary black artists. His signature works were slightly surreal in mood, often featuring distant figures seen under vast skies in desolate urban settings. He was born in Eustis, Florida, but his family moved north when he was a boy, settling in Cleveland, Ohio. There he studied at the Karamu House, a regionally well-known center for black artists and performers, and later at the Cleveland School of Art. He transferred to Wayne State University in Detroit where he completed a B.S. degree in art education.

He continued to live and work in Detroit until 1969, when he accepted a two-year appointment as artist-in-residence at Howard University in Washington, D.C.. Since 1972 he has taught at the Art Students League in New York. In 1975 he was one of the artists featured in the Whitney Museum's important exhibit.

Many years after winning a top prize for painting from the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1953, he recalled I was no longer called black artist, Negro artist, colored boy. When I won that prize, all of a sudden, there was no longer a racial designation.