HAPPY 2014! WHAT BETTER WAY to plunge into the new year than to study the wise words of black artists past and present? After years of establishing itself as the chief purveyor of notable quotes and sayings, Bartlett’s recently published “Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations: 5,000 Years of Literature, Lyrics, Poems, Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs from Voices Around the World,” a compilation of nearly 5,000 quotable thoughts and gems, from a wide range of significant voices in black culture.

“Highlighting words, lost, omitted, or forgotten,” from ancient Egypt, slavery, and the Harlem Renaissance to the civil rights and apartheid eras through the present, the collection is culled from a rage of sources, including speeches, letters, memoirs, novels, poetry and the media.
Compiled by Retha Powers, the hefty tome features a number of groundbreaking visual artists and photographers, Charles Alston, Edward Bannister, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Ernest Crichlow, Thornton Dial, Aaron Douglas, Richard Hunt, Clementine Hunter, Lois Mailou Jones, Wilfredo Lam, Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, Archibald Motley Jr., Chris Ofili, Horace Pippin, Martin Puryear, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, Lorna Simpson, Henry O. Tanner, Alma Thomas, James Van Der Zee and Carrie Mae Weems, among them.

Here are some of the most engaging quotes.

Page 184, Alma Thomas (1891-1978) on the power of color:

The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me. Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.
— Interview in the art gallery (April 1970)

Two artists of different eras offer opinions about artistic expectations and religious subjects.

Page 136, Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937):

It has very often seemed to me that many painters of religious subjects seem to forget that their pictures should be as much works of art as are other paintings with less holy subjects. To suppose that the fact of the religious painter having a more elevated subject than his brother artist makes it unnecessary for him to consider his picture as an artistic production, or that he can be less thoughtful about a color harmony, for instance, than he who selects any other subject, simply proves that he is less of an artist than he who give the subject his best attention. (1902)
— From “Henry Ossawa Tanner” (1991) by Dewey F. Moss, Darrell Sewelll, and Ray Alexander Minter

Page 549, Chris Ofili (1968-):

[On use of elephant dung in controversial pieces such as “Holy Virgin Mary”] It’s what people really want from black artists. We’re the voodoo king, the voodoo queen, the witch doctor, the drug dealer, the magician de la terre. The exotic, the decorative. I’m giving them all of that, but it’s packaged slightly differently.
— Interview magazine (March 25, 1995)

From modern and contemporary artists, thoughts on artistic expression are aesthetic, intellectual and emotional. While some are profoundly personal, others consider the audience or “spectator.”

Page 173, Horace Pippin (1888-1946):

Pictures just come to my mind and I tell my heart to go ahead.
— From “American Artist” (1945)

Page 222, Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998):

The wonderful thing about being an artist is that there is no end to creative expression. Painting is my life; my life is painting.
— From “The Life and Art of Lois Mailou Jones” (1994)

Page 235, Romare Bearden (1911-1988):

I believe that there is an expression of what people feel and want. In order for a painting to be “good” two things are necessary: that there be a communion of belief and desire between artist and spectator; that the artist be able to see and say something that enriches the fund of communicable feeling and medium for expressing it.
— Artist’s statement (1940)

Page 247, Ernest Crichlow (1914-2005):

Art says “stop looking at my face or the clothes that I wear and look at another important part of me.” It’s the part of me I can’t talk about so I dance it or paint it or compose music about it.
— Interview in the Stanford Advocate (Feb. 5, 1981)

Page 263, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000):

My pictures express my life and experience. I paint the things I know about and the things I have experienced. The things I have experienced extend to my national, racial and class group. So I paint the American scene.
— Philosophy of art statement, solicited by the Whitney Museum (May 30, 1951)

Page 302, Betye Saar (1926-):

It is my goal as an artist to create works that expose injustice and reveal beauty. The rainbow is literally a spectrum of color while spiritually a symbol of hope and promise.
— From “Colored: Consider the Rainbow” (2002)

Page 363, Richard Hunt (1935-):

Art does not succeed in time by being more personal, different, or even original than any other. It succeeds by remaining intact, and…containing within its form ideas and associations, which can continue to stimulate people who view it.
— Artist’s statement (1967)

Page 411, Martin Puryear (1941-):

I value the referential quality of art, that fact that a work can allude to things or states of being without in any way representing them.
— Wall text, Museum of Modern Art (2007)

Page 494, Carrie Mae Weems (1953-) on humanity and identity in the artistic canon:

It was clear. I was not Manet’s type. Picasso—who had a way with women—only used me & Duchamp never even considered me.
— Text from Not Manet’s Type (1997)

Several quotes delve into the ever-evolving discussion around the definition of black art.

Page 167, Alain Locke (1886-1954):

The pioneer negro artists were, really, unbeknown to themselves, starting the Negroes’ second career in art and unconsciously trying to recapture a lost heritage…How was this heritage lost?…Slavery is the answer. Slavery not only physically transplanted the Negro, it cut him off sharply from his cultural roots, and by taking away his languages, abruptly changing his habits, putting him in the context of a strangely different civilization, reduced him, so to speak, to cultural zero.
— From “Negro Art: Past and Present” (1936)

Page 226, Charles Alston (1907-1977):

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “Black art,” though there’s certainly been a Black experience. I’ve lived it. But it’s also an American experience.”
— Quoted in the New York Times (Dec. 8, 1968)

Page 541, Thelma Golden (1965-):

Post-black was the new black. — From introduction to “Freestyle” (2001)


And a pair of Southern artists, who thrived despite having no formal training, reflect on their craft.

Page 169, Louisiana artist Clementine Hunter (1887-1988):

Painting is a lot harder than pickin’ cotton. Cotton’s right there for you to pull off the stalk, but to paint, you got to sweat your mind.
— From “Painting by Heart: The Life and Art of Clementine Hunter, Louisiana Folk Artist” (2000) by Selbey R. Gilley

Page 309, Thornton Dial (1928-):

Art ain’t about paint. It ain’t about the canvas. It’s about ideas.
— From “Thornton Dial, Strategy of the World” (1990)

Candor and wisdom abounds in the volume. Insights from those who are not artists themselves, but who have played an influential role in the art world, such as writer and arts patron Alain Locke (1886-1954), New Yorker writer Hilton Als, and Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, are also included. CT


“Bartlett’s Familiar Black Quotations: 5,000 Years of Literature, Lyrics, Poems, Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs from Voices Around the World,” Edited by Retha Powers (Little, Brown and Co., 832 pages) Published Nov. 19, 2013.


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