|Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times|
First an Outcast, Then an Inspiration
By CELIA McGEE
IN the fall of 1932, fresh out of high school, Elizabeth Catlett showed up at the School of Fine and Applied Arts of the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, having been awarded a prestigious full scholarship there. But she was turned away when it was discovered that she was “colored,” and she returned home to Washington to attend Howard University.
Seventy-six years later, the institution that had rejected her, now Carnegie Mellon University, awarded her an honorary doctorate in recognition of a lifetime’s work as a sculptor and printmaker. By then, after decades of living and making art in Mexico, she had become a legendary figure to many in the art world, to the point where some were even surprised to learn she was still alive.
But not everyone, and certainly not the far younger, primarily African-American artists included along with her in the show “Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation With 21 Contemporary Artists,” on view now at the Bronx Museum of Art. “A lot of people like her are just kind of myths,” said Hank Willis Thomas, whose gold-chain and cubic zirconia nod to both the abolitionists of the 19th century and to rappers, “Ode to CMB: Am I Not a Man and a Brother,” is in the show and shares with much of Ms. Catlett’s work a concern with the history of slavery and “the black body as commodity,” he said. “A lot of her work,” he added, “especially from the ’60s and ’70s, could pass as art of today.”
Ms. Catlett, now 96, is known for her work’s deep engagement with social issues and the politics of gender, race and deprivation. She started down this road during the Depression, when she participated in the Federal Art Project, and followed it consistently into the era of the activist Black Arts movement in the ’60s and beyond. Which is not to say she has focused on message at the expense of form: she prepared for her M.F.A. under Grant Wood at the University of Iowa (“he was so kind,” she recalled recently, and he always addressed her as “Miss Catlett”) and also studied in New York with the Modernist sculptor Ossip Zadkine and at the Art Students League, developing her own brand of figurative modernism in bronze, stone, wood, drawings and prints.
New York Times slideshow of Elizabeth Catlett at home and in her studio: