AFRICAN AMERICAN PAINTER AND PRINTMAKER Eldzier Cortor died on Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 26. Cortor was recognized for his dignified and graceful images of black women, often depicted in the nude, their lithe bodies referencing the lines of African sculpture. According to the New York Times, he died in Seaford, N.Y., on Long Island, at the home of his son Michael Cortor, who confirmed his father’s death to the newspaper. The artist was 99 years old, just about six weeks shy of turning 100.
Cortor spent most of his career in New York, but he had deep roots in Chicago where he grew up. Educated at the Art Institute of Chicago, he was employed in the late 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Program and was often described as one of the last living African American artists who participated in the WPA.
In 1940, with WPA funding, he helped to establish the South Side Community Arts Center in Chicago along with fellow African American artists Margaret Burroughs, Archibald Motley Jr., and Charles White, among others. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt officially dedicated the center in 1941. Still in existence today, the center describes itself as the only WPA arts center still in operation and the oldest African American art center in the country.
In 2012, Cortor donated a painting and 30 works on paper to the Art Institute of Chicago. Earlier this year, he returned to the city for the first time in more than half a century for the opening of an exhibition featuring the gifted works.
“Eldzier Cortor Coming Home: Recent Gifts to the Art Institute” was on view Feb. 21-May 31, 2015. Echoing the exhibition’s title, it was a true homecoming. The institute presented the artist with its 2015 Legends and Legacy Award on Feb. 20. The following evening, the South Side Community Arts Center hosted an event celebrating Cortor that included a public conversation between the artist and Nigel Freeman, director of African American fine art at Swann Auction Galleries.
BORN IN RICHMOND, VA., in 1916, like so many other African Americans during the time, his family migrated from the South up north to Chicago where he was raised from the age of one.
At the Art Institute in Chicago, a class trip to the Field Museum exposed him to African sculpture and the impact of its distinct forms would stay with him, profoundly influencing his aesthetic. His fascination with architecture, particularly the Chrysler Building in New York, would also be evidenced later when art deco motifs began to appear in his works.
“Eldzier studied at a time when artists studied design and drawing in a very classical sense. His focus is on the way that a picture is put together as well as the elements in it. His pictures are an amalgam of many different influences. They are not an academic realism. They are a realism of the mind,” says Mark Pascale, curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, in the video above.
“He developed his mature style using an image of women, black women as a kind of archetype for all people. Later he came to dance, images of women dancing, and that was something he developed in Haiti when he received two Guggenheim grants to work in Haiti.”
“He developed his mature style using an image of women, black women as a kind of archetype for all people.”
— Mark Pascale, Art Institute of Chicago
Cortor gained popular exposure when he was featured in Life magazine.
In July 1946, Life presented the work of 12 “Negro” artists who had won top U.S. honors. “Southern Gate,” one of Cortor’s most recognized paintings was featured most prominently. The image is of a statuesque woman with an elongated torso who is partially nude. A few years later, Cortor earned mainstream consideration when Life magazine included him among 19 Young American artists in its March 20, 1950, edition.
Cortor moved to New York around this time. He married Sophie Schmidt on Aug. 20, 1951, and they had four children.
Over the course of his more than 70-year career, major museums have acquired his work through both gifts and purchases. Cortor is represented in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Art Institute of Chicago, Studio Museum in Harlem, Brooklyn Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.
Recent exhibitions include “Black Spirit: Works on Paper by Eldzier Cortor,” which was presented at the Indiana University Art Museum in 2006. At the San Antonio Museum of Art, “Eldzier Cortor: Master Printmaker” was on view during winter 2013-14.
During the same period that Cortor gave the gift to the Art Institute of Chicago, he also made generous donations of his work to several other institutions including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA).
“Eldzier Cortor: Theme and Variations” opened in June 2014 at PAFA. The exhibition consisted of 53 objects spanning the 1950s to 2000—prints and preparatory materials related to the printmaking process.
Currently, there are two works by Cortor on view in “Conversations,” the controversial exhibition featuring the Cosby art collection at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Two still life paintings executed in the 1980s depict rare subjects in Cortor’s oeuvre—a wall of mailboxes in a vestibule and a boxing robe draped on a hook.
Overall, Cortor’s practice is under studied. As far as I have been able to determine, a retrospective of his paintings and works on paper has never been mounted and a substantive volume dedicated solely to Cortor and his output has yet to be published. The artist has laid the foundation for the scholarship, though. In 2009, Cortor donated his papers to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.
“Eldzier’s had almost a 70-year career. Chances are an artist will not have a career for more than 10 years,” says Pascale. “One of the things we try to do in the museum is show the development of a very significant artist. …He’s had a tremendous legacy and you cant’ say that, that often, about artists of any generation.” CT
TOP IMAGE: Screen shot from the Art Institute of Chicago video, “Eldzier is Coming Home.”
This study for “Southern Gate” is included in the forthcoming Dec. 15 sale of African American Fine Art at Swann Auction Galleries in New York – Lot 29: ELDZIER CORTOR, “Drawing for “Lantern Gate” (Southern Gate),” 1942-43 (brush, pen and ink on cream wove paper). | Estimate $15,000-$25,000