Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett 2011Alice Elizabeth Catlett Mora (April 15, 1915 – April 2, 2012), the an American-born Mexican sculptor and printmaker, whose abstracted sculptures of the human form reflected her deep concern with the African-American experience and the struggle for civil rights, died in her sleep on Monday at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she had lived since the late 1940s. She was 96. Catlett is best known for the black, expressionistic sculptures and prints she produced during the 1960s and 1970s, which are seen as politically charged.

Catlett was one of the most celebrated American artists of the 20th century. She received the International Sculpture Center’s lifetime achievement award in 2003, joining Louise Bourgeois, Christo and Jeane Claude, Claes Oldenberg and Robert Rauschenberg in a select community. Ten universities have distinguished her with honorary degrees.

Her work is in the collections of the Instituto de Bellas Artes and the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C, and the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Catlett was born on April 15, 1915, in Washington, the youngest of three children. Her mother, the former Mary Carson, was a truant officer; her father, John, who died before she was born, had taught at Tuskegee University and in the local public school system. The granddaughter of slaves who sent all eight of their children — four boys and four girls — on to higher education, Catlett wasn’t even five years old when she started making paper dolls, outfitting them in swell wardrobes, and peddling them for five cents apiece.

She attended the Lucretia Mott Elementary School. The school was named after Lucretia Coffin Mott (January 3, 1793 – November 11, 1880) who was a Quaker, abolitionist, women’s rights activist and a social reformer. It was perhaps this experience that first impressed the young Catlett who would also become a women’s rights activist, and a social reformer in her own right.

Later, Catlett would finish her early education with her attendance at Dunbar High School in Washington. This school was named after Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906) who was an African-American poet novelist, and playwright of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, becoming one of the first nationally-accepted African-American writers.

Ms. Catlett became an educator, like her father, attending Howard University. Howard hadn’t been her first choice. She had won a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, in Pittsburgh, but the college refused to allow her to matriculate when it learned she was black. So she entered historically black Howard, with one semester’s worth of tuition saved by her mother. She earned scholarships to cover the rest.

In an interview in December 1981 in Artist and Influence magazine, she stated that she changed her major to painting because of the influence of James A. Porter, and because there was no sculpture division at Howard at the time. However, by the time Catlett graduated, Howard, had created such a degree and she received her B.S. in sculpture in 1935, graduating cum laude.

Catlett then accepted a position as a high school teacher in Durham, North Carolina but left after two years, frustrated by the low teaching salaries for black people.

An interest in the painter Grant Wood, who painted “American Gothic”, led her to pursue an M.F.A. in 1937 at the University of Iowa, where Wood was teaching. She once stated that Wood taught her to “work what you know.” For Catlett, this meant black people, and especially black women, and it was at this point that her work began to focus on African Americans. And, thus she began her life’s work on stone carvings rooted in her own experience — sensitive portraits of African-American women and children.

Her piece “Mother and Child”, done in limestone in 1939 for her thesis. The work is that of a young woman with close-cropped hair and features resembling a Gabon mask cradles a child against her shoulder. The piece won first prize in sculpture at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. In 1940, Catlett became the first woman to complete an M.F.A. in sculpture at the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History.

After graduating from the University of Iowa, Catlett moved to New Orleans to teach at Dillard University (previously Straight College before merging with New Orleans University in 1934 to form Dillard University), another historically black institution. It should be noted that Straight College was also the alma mater of Alice Ruth Moore, a teacher and poet from New Orleans, who was married to Paul Luarence Dunbar, whom Catlett’s high school was named after.

While at Dillard, Catlett organized a trip to the Delgado Museum of Art so that her students could see a Picasso exhibition. But this was no ordinary school trip; the museum was officially off-limits to blacks, so Ms. Catlett arranged to visit on a day when it was closed to the public.

While on a summer break from Dillard, she met the artist Charles White in Chicago. They married in 1941 and Catlett moved to Chicago, where she studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1942, the couple moved to New York, where Catlett studied lithography at the Art Students League of New York in 1942-1943, and with sculptor Ossip Zadkine in New York in 1943. Mr. Zadkine, who spent his formative years in Montparnasse alongside Modigliani and Brancusi, nudged Catlett’s work in a more abstract direction.

Catlett became the “promotion director” for the George Washington Carver School in Harlem located at 57 W. 125th St. Roy DeCarava was one of the students. Some of the teachers included Ernest Crichlow, Norman Lewis, and Catlett’s husband, Charles White.

During this period, she had flung herself into her job, that her art begin suffering. She’d made only one painting and one sculpture in a year when the Julius Rosenwald Foundation suggested that she should leave New York to jump start a stalled career. In 1946, the foundation gave her a grant and Catlett packed her bags. She went south to learn from Mexico’s great public artists. Catlett would study with the muralist Diego Rivera, ceramic sculpture with Francisco Zuñiga, wood carving from Jose L. Ruiz, and social realist painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. It never occurred to her that she would spend the rest of her life here. In remembering her arrival in Mexico City, with a twinkle in her eye, she stated.

“I arrived in Mexico City one night and the next evening I went to the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP). I got dizzy from the altitude so we all went to a café. I met my future husband that night. There were a lot of us, all artists. Leopoldo Mendez, Pablo Higgins, Francisco ‘Pancho’ Mora. Pablo said, ‘You should teach Pancho English, and he can teach you Spanish.’ He never learned English,”

The two didn’t need English to fall in love. A year later, in 1947, they were married and Catlett made Mexico her permanent home, later becoming a Mexican citizen.

Quickly, Catlett was invited to work at TGP, a group of printmakers organized in 1937 by Leopoldo Méndez, Raúl Anguiano, Luis Arenal, and Pablo O’Higgins and dedicated to using art to promote social change. While there she and other artists created a series of linoleum cuts on black heroes. They did posters, leaflets, collective booklets, illustrations for textbooks, posters and illustrations for the construction of schools, against illiteracy in Mexico. The TGP inspired her to reach out to the broadest possible audience, which often meant balancing abstraction with figuration. Of this period, she had stated.

“I learned how you use your art for the service of people, struggling people, to whom only realism is meaningful,”

Like other artists and activists, Ms. Catlett felt the political tensions of the McCarthy years. The TGP was thought to have ties to the Communist Party. While Catlett never joined the party, but Charles White, her first husband, had been a member, and she was closely watched by the United States Embassy.

In 1949 she was arrested, along with other expatriates, during a railroad workers’ strike in Mexico City. Eventually she was declared an undesirable alien by the U.S. State Department and her U.S. citizenship was revoked.

In her smoothly modeled clay, wood and stone sculptures, and vigorous woodcuts and linocuts, Ms. Catlett drew on her experience as an African-American woman who had come of age at a time of widespread segregation and who had felt its sting. But her art had other influences, including pre-Columbian sculpture, Henry Moore’s sensuous reclining nudes and Diego Rivera’s political murals. Her work became increasingly popular, not only in the United States, but abroad as well.

Ms. Catlett continued to teach even after becoming a successful artist. In 1958 she became the first woman hired to teach fine art at Mexico City’s Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) and later became the professor of sculpture and head of the sculpture department at UNAM. She tells the story…

“I had to meet with five professors. One of them said, ‘Why did you apply? You can’t get the job. You are a foreigner and a woman.’

“A week or so later I was sick in bed. There was a phone call for us at the store next door. Pancho went to get it and then he came upstairs. ‘Give me your hand. Now I am shaking the hand of a professor of the National University’.”

Catlett taught at UNAM until she retired in 1975, and moved Cuernavaca.

Meanwhile, during this period her art was still being presented and gaining popularity in the United States, often in major surveys in the 1960s and ’70s in particular. Still classified as an undesirable alien by the U.S. State Department, in 1971 she had to obtain a special visa to attend the opening of her one-woman show at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She was also honored in the exhibition, “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976. Her posters of Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, Malcolm X and other figures were widely distributed.

She took to Cuernavaca and its pace that allowed time for reflection and for work. She was active in the art community of Cuernavaca. After her move, Catlett admitted that she had fond memories of Mexico City of an earlier time.

“Mexico City was a calm, beautiful place. Not like it is now. It was a sunshiny, green, lovely city, where everything moved slowly. I realized this when one day I was standing on the corner talking to a friend and waiting for a bus. When the bus came, I said, ‘I’ve got to go.’ But the friend said, ‘Don’t worry, another bus will come along’.”

Her inspiration remained anchored, as Grant Wood suggested it should, in what she knew most intimately: her African American roots and what it means to be an African American woman. She carved worlds from African American history and the curves and angles of black women’s bodies. She was a storyteller with a chisel in her hand. Catlett’s work presents both the particulars and universalities of black female identity so that they will be accessible to any viewer, and especially to other black women.

There’s her simple, beautiful sculpture called “Female Torso“, fashioned from ebony stone polished to a high gloss. The figure has no arms, no head, no legs below the knee. It’s all thighs, breasts, wide hips, stomach and shoulders. A less talented artist might have carved woman as exotic object. Catlett’s long fingers shaped a substantial body that has borne children and inspired an artist. With a slight twist of the trunk, it’s as much verb as noun. The sculpture is comforting, womanly, and creative in every sense of the word. Real life stories are in that piece.

Ms. Catlett’s work is in museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the High Museum in Atlanta; the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City; and the National Museum of Prague. In 2003, the International Sculpture Center gave her a lifetime achievement award.

In 1980 Catlett donated a collection of her personal papers, exhibition catalogs, and other documentary materials to the Archives of American Art in the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian Art Collectors Program commissioned Catlett in 1995 to create a print to benefit the educational and cultural programs put on by the Smithsonian Associates. The resulting lithograph, Children With Flowers, highlights the unity and diversity of children, and hangs in the ongoing exhibit Graphic Eloquence in the S. Dillon Ripley Center on the National Mall in the District of Columbia.

In 1998, the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College in Westchester County exhibited a 50-year retrospective of Catlett’s sculpture. The critic Michael Brenson wrote in the show’s catalog, “Ms. Catlett’s sculptures communicate a deeply human image of African-Americans while appealing to values and virtues that encourage a sense of common humanity.” He also singled out the “fluid, sensual surfaces” of her sculptures, which he said “seem to welcome not just the embrace of light but also the caress of the viewer’s hand.”

In his review of that show in The New York Times, critic Ken Johnson wrote that Ms. Catlett “gives wood and stone a melting, almost erotic luminosity.”

In 2003, Catlett was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award, International Sculpture Center. Her art did not exclude men, her 2003 work; “Invisible Man,” is a 15-foot-high bronze memorial to the author Ralph Ellison, and can be seen in Riverside Park in Manhattan, at 150th Street.

In a recent piece, “Bather” (2009), a similar-looking subject flexes her triceps in a gesture of vitality and confidence.

On October 8, 2009, Swann Galleries auctioned Elizabeth Catlett’s life-size red cedar sculpture Homage to My Young Black Sisters, 1968, for $288,000—more than any previous work by the artist at auction. The prior record for a Catlett sculpture was set at Swann in February 2008 for a painted terra cotta work.

The Bronx Museum mounted “Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation With 21 Contemporary Artists,” in 2010. An exhibition that placed her sculptures, prints and drawings in the company of works by Ellen Gallagher, Kalup Linzy, Wangechi Mutu and others at the forefront of the contemporary art scene.

In her own words, Ms. Catlett was more concerned with the social dimension of her art than its novelty or originality. As she told a former student, the artist and art historian Samella S. Lewis…

“I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”

Catlett created numerous outdoor sculptures which are displayed in Mexico; in Jackson, Mississippi; and, Washington, D.C. She is represented in many collections through the world including the Institute of Fine Arts, Mexico, the Museum of Modern Art, NY; Museum of Modern Art, Mexico; National Museum of Prague; Library of Congress, Washington, D.C; Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA; State University of Iowa; Howard University; Fisk University; Atlanta University; the Barnett-Aden Collection, Tampa, Fl.; Schomburg Collection, NY; Rothman Gallery, L.A.; Museum of New Orleans, High Museum, Atlanta; and the Metropolitan Museum, NY.

Some of her best-known prints are Sharecropper (1968 or 1970) and Malcolm X Speaks for Us (1969). Well-known sculptured pieces include Dancing Figure (1961), The Black Woman Speaks and Target (1970), and The Singing Head. The National Council of Negro Women in New York City commissioned her to create a bronze sculpture, and her bronze relief adorns the Chemical Engineering Building at Howard University. Catlett’s statue of Louis Armstrong was dedicated in Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans, in 1976.

Catlett received numerous awards including the Women’s Caucus For Art. Her work at the Graphic Arts Workshop won an International Peace Prize. An Elizabeth Catlett Week was proclaimed in Berkeley, California, and an Elizabeth Catlett Day in Cleveland, Ohio. She was named an honorary citizen of New Orleans and has received the keys to many cities. She received an honorary Doctorate from Pace University, in New York and was accompanied to the presentation by fellow sculptor and good friend Manuel (Manny) Bennett, a fellow Cuernavaca resident.

At 96, up until her death, Catlett was still working. Even though carpal tunnel weakened her left hand – years of wielding drills, chisels and chainsaws having taken a toll – her mind remained a sharp and nimble tool. She had a staff of workers who she supervised from her wheelchair.

Pancho and Elizabeth had three sons together during their 56 years together. Francisco Mora Catlett, the oldest son is a musician living in New York. Juan Mora Catlett, the middle son, is a filmmaker in Mexico City. Her youngest son David Mora Catlett, is also an artist who splits his time between Hamburg, Germany and Cuernavaca. The three sons gave Catlett 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Catlett’s granddaughter, Naima Mora, was the Cycle 4 winner of the America’s Next Top Model television show. Catlett’s sculpture, Naima, is of Naima as a child.

Homage to Black Women Poets
Ms. Catlett’s “Homage to Black Women Poets.”

 

About G. William Hood

G. William Hood is a writer, fine arts painter, educator and world traveler. He lives in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
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