Chicago artist Eldzier Cortor is renowned for his images of serene, regal African-American women with elongated features influenced by African sculpture. Typically, they wear a vibrant headband inspired by the Gullah women of the Sea Islands. One of the first African-American artists to make black women his main focus, Cortor, born in 1916, is the oldest living black artist who worked for the Works Progress Administration prior to World War II.
“Eldzier Cortor: Master Printmaker,” on view through March 2 at the San Antonio Museum of Art, features three complete suites of prints of the Jewels, Facets and L’Abbatoire series plus four of his paintings, including two lent by local collectors Harriet and Harmon Kelley. All of the prints and paintings in this exhibit have been donated to the museum, making a remarkable addition to SAMA’s nationally recognized collection of African-American art.
Because Cortor spent most of his career in the Midwest and dedicated himself to “classical composition,”—his term for describing the solemn heads and elegant figures of black women—he may not be a familiar name, but his reputation as a master printmaker has been on the rise since the Indiana University Art Museum presented the exhibit “Black Spirit: Works on Paper by Eldzier Cortor” in 2006.
In the Jewels series, model-beautiful black women float, dance and pose within jewel-like frames based on emeralds and other gems, decorated with Art Deco-style patterns derived from African sources. Vistas of outer space can be glimpsed in the backgrounds, perhaps a precursor of Afro-futurism, making the women appear timeless and modern.
Cortor was born in Richmond, Va., but his father, a successful electrician frustrated by Southern racism, moved the family to Chicago in 1917. Cortor attended the Art Institute of Chicago and had his first encounter with African sculpture during a visit to the Field Museum. He also studied at Chicago’s Institute of Design with the Bauhaus-trained László Moholy-Nagy.
During the 1930s, Cortor worked for the WPA’s Federal Art Project and later co-founded the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago, also funded by the WPA and the first black art museum in the country. In 1944, he received grants from the Rosenwald Foundation to study the Gullah community on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas, which preserved many West African traditions. Cortor achieved national acclaim in 1946 when one of his female figures was published in Life magazine.
Cortor comes closest to abstract expressionism in L’Abbatoire, from the French word for “slaughterhouse,” based on his two-year stay in Haiti on a Guggenheim Fellowship. Responding to the horrors of the brutal regime of “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his murderous henchmen, the Tonton Macoute, which resulted in the death of at least 30,000 Haitians, the red and black L’Abbatoire prints depict no discernable figures, yet evoke blood, muscle, bones, teeth and tortured skin.
In the Facets series, Cortor merges poetry and small relief prints on paper of voluptuous female bodies. His meticulous attention to detail makes his paintings, especially Tableau II (2001) with two women talking, a draped shawl and sleeping cat, resemble miniature mosaics. For Cortor, his lovely black women provide a positive symbol for the transcendent spirit of African Americans, reflecting strength, integrity and pride in their African heritage.
Eldzier Cortor: Master Printmaker
$5-$10 (free 4-9pm Tues; 10am-noon Sun)
10am-9pm Tue, Fri, Sat; 10am-5pm Wed, Thu; 10 am-6pm Sun
San Antonio Museum of Art
200 W Jones
Through March 2