Below the Border

Searching for Universal Artistic Vocabularies

Melanee C Harvey

John Wilson, Mother and Child (1952), No. 5 of 50 lithographs, Courtesy Martha Richardson Fine Art Gallery  Eternal Presence, Danforth Museum, Framingham, Massachusetts, November 15, 2012 - March 24, 2013.

John Wilson: Mexico, 1950-1956, Martha Richardson Fine Art Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts, through November 3, 2012


John Wilson, Mexican Woman (1950), lithographic crayon on paper, 9.5 x 11.5 inches, Courtesy Martha Richardson Fine Art Gallery   Nestled in the Newbury Street corridor of Boston’s Back Bay community, the Martha Richardson Fine Art Gallery presented an exhibition on the experience and influence of Mexico in the art of Boston native John Wilson.  John Wilson: Mexico, 1950-1956 is an intimate collection of prints, sketches and a sculptural model that provides a focused account of Wilson as a methodical draftsman, sculptor and printmaker who expanded and solidified his artistic voice and stylistic vocabularies during his five years in Mexico.

John Wilson, La Calle (1954), No. 8 of 22 color lithographs, Courtesy Martha Richardson Fine Art Gallery   In his introduction to  Dialogue, John Wilson/Joseph Norman, published by the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, art historian Edmund Barry Gaither has suggested that this phase of Wilson’s career “reflect[s] the themes that preoccupied the Mexican artist” during this time.  This exhibition presses this assertion further by providing visual proof of the cultural exchange at the root of Wilson’s search for a universal artistic language.  John Wilson: Mexico, 1950-1956 successfully reveals how Wilson’s time in Mexico determined the thematic and aesthetic trajectory of his oeuvre and career, which aimed to create a “universal artistic language” to communicate the essential aspects of the human experience.  At the core of Wilson’s development during this period was a desire to recast the African American experience through a humane lens that revises historical narratives and visual histories. John Wilson: Mexico, 1950-1956 offers an introspective view into the artistic process and influences of the artist and documents the evolution of his aesthetic, concerned with visualizing the conflict and tension intrinsic to the experiences descendants of Africans in the New World.

John Wilson, study for Dialogue, (1955), watercolor on paper, 10.5 x 7.75 inches, Courtesy Martha Richardson Fine Art Gallery    Gallery director Leah Triplett offered an introductory overview to the exhibition that framed it as a synthesis of Wilson’s training and travel, stating, “Prints and murals that John Wilson made in Mexico were two public forms of art that show his formal training at the Museum School with Karl Zerbe and in Paris with Leger. The work he made in Mexico weds his mastery of form and his deep social concerns.”

John Wilson, Black Boy (1964), pencil lithograph, 17 x 13.5 inches, Courtesy Martha Richardson Fine Art Gallery   One year after studying with Léger in Paris and briefly teaching at his alma mater, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, John Wilson was awarded the John Hay Whitney Fellowship (1950-1951) which allowed him to travel Mexico City to study the Mexican muralist tradition.  In a 1995 interview with art historian Patricia Hills, John Wilson recalled the pivotal role Elizabeth Catlett played in creating artistic community and introducing him to the Taller de Gráfica Popular, where he produced prints that reflect this period of cultural exchange in his search for the universal.  Catlett and Taller de Gráfica Popular exposed Wilson to subject matter and stylistic strategies that informed his artistic practice.

John Wilson, Eternal Presence, (1987) Courtesy Martha Richardson Fine Art Gallery Catlett’s influence may be apparent in one of Wilson’s most popular compositions, Mother and Child (1952).  (Figure 1) Unlike the more geometric abstracted pair figured in Catlett’s Mother and Child (1944) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wilson presents a more sculptural, voluminous pair, defined by tonal contrast. Reflecting his awareness of African American art tradition exhibited by artists like Jacob Lawrence and William H. Johnson, Wilson employs enlarged hands as a means to convey African American agency against the odds.  The compositional features and thematic implications of John Wilson’s Mother and Child may have influenced how he constructed his images of father and son from the 1960s, such as in Father and Son Reading.

Despite this point of convergence in subject matter, Wilson differs from Catlett by using this visual trope to further the overall narrative of his mural, The Incident, which explored the terror and vulnerability that lynchings caused African American communities. The visual strategy of casting the widowed black mother in the same light as the grieving mother of Jesus was used by American artists included in the anti-lynching exhibitions of the 1930s as well as by Jacob Lawrence, who offered an abstracted view of a childless mother in Panel 15 of “The Migration Series, There were Lynchings” (1941).  Working alongside Catlett offered Wilson the opportunity to engage a master draftswoman and printmaker who was also exploring the experience of African descendants in the Americas and to participate in definition through cultural exchange.

Although John Wilson worked with popular mid-century Mexican motifs, as seen in the color lithograph, La Calle (1954), he used the Taller de Gráfica Popular’s mexicanidad aesthetics to begin to formulate his universalized human form. (Figure 2) In the article, “Elizabeth Catlett in Mexico: Identity and Cross-Cultural Intersection in the Production of Artistic Meaning,” published Vol. 11 No. 3 of The International Review of African American Art, Melanie Herzog describes how this mexicanidad aesthetic was promoted in most artistic communities Wilson was associated with, noting, “Like the paintings of the Mexican muralist, the work of the Taller had its ideological roots in the expression of indigenism and national cultural identity known as mexicanidad, or Mexicanness, that grew out of the Mexican Revolution.”

In the earliest months of his time in Mexico City, Wilson explored this style by using the monumental human form in his drawing, Mexican Woman (1950). (Figure 3) The contrast between light and dark contribute to a spotlight effect, which highlights and elevates this somewhat generalized representation. The background provides geographic descriptors that reinforce the Mexican locale. But the relationship between the female figure and her surroundings reflect Wilson interest in monumental figure.  She appears to tower over the adobe architecture, visually elevating the human experience over local specificities. The archways that adorn the structure also establish a circular rhythm that leads the eye to the hollowed, dark spaces that serves as the woman’s eyes. Although the use of a dark void as eyes may find its roots in Wilson’s introduction to Olmec heads that represent Pre-Columbian civilizations, Wilson continued to employ this strategy as he developed his universal form that express the emotive qualities of struggle and perseverance.

The extent to which his time in Mexico informed his identity as an artist can be seen in the prints he produced after his departure from Mexico in 1955. In Mexico, John Wilson was consistently reevaluating and synthesizing his past experience as a black man from New England with the artistic styles he encountered in Mexico.  In the aforementioned interview, Wilson remarked, “A book like Native Son was a model. What Richard Wright was doing was forcing you to get into the psyche of black people so that you would relive it. . . . Some of those murals by Orozco and the early Diego Rivera moved me as much as Richard Wright’s book [Native Son].”  John Wilson explored these two spheres in his lithographic print, Black Boy (1965) (Figure 4).  Based on a 1954 charcoal study completed while in Mexico, Black Boy maintains the cropped view of the sitter as seen in Mexican Woman, but eliminates the descriptive background. The contrast produced by situating the dark form against a stark white backdrop and collared shirt serves to isolate the figure and draws attention to immense detail found in the darker portions of the composition. The beauty of this print lies in the way texture communicates phenotypical traits, such as the use of expressive lines for curly hair or the use of straight thin lines as pattern to convey dark, smooth skin. Wilson uses lighter tones to create a dull spotlight effect, thus elevating the importance of the sitter. Although Wilson has implied the presence of a pupil and iris, he depicts the sitter’s eyes in a way that evokes the dark hollowed void as seen in Mexican Woman. Black Boy represents the artist’s attempt at using mexicanidad visual strategies to recast and universalize this vision African American identity. 

In addition to the cultural exchange that influenced Wilson’s work, John Wilson: Mexico, 1950-1956 also highlights his artistic process, characterized by tenuous studies produced in several different media. One remarkable example of such is Wilson’s watercolor study for Dialogue, one of the last prints from his time in Mexico. (Figure 5) The artist used delicate brushstrokes to create his massive static figures. Although Wilson was still working with contemporary Mexican imagery of the laborer, he maintained his interest in presenting large-scale figures, defined by contrast and the use of shadow. This watercolor is one of six artworks included in the exhibition that feature Wilson’s mastery of chromatic compositions.

By far, the jewel of this exhibition was the maquette of Wilson’s 1987 sculpture installed at the National Center for Afro-American Artists, Eternal Presence. (Figure 6) This figure that greets visitors as they enter the gallery represents the culmination of Wilson’s search for a universal form that conveys a history of oppression and the spirit of perseverance intrinsic to mankind. Although Wilson has acknowledged monumental Buddha statues as his sculptural reference point for Eternal Presence, this exhibition allows the viewer to see how his artistic production in Mexico influenced his work throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.  The maquette offers the viewer a chance to understand how Wilson worked with bronze in smaller scale in order to adapt detail and form to the monumental statue. 

John Wilson: Mexico, 1950-1956 contextualizes the experience of an artist at the crossroads of cultural exchange with the goal of formulating an effective universal form. This exhibition also offers a glimpse into the artist’s process and evolution, working through study after study to perfect the communicative abilities of his public art. This exhibition is a must-see for John Wilson scholars and beyond this exhibition; the Martha Richardson Fine Art Gallery is home to several Wilson prints and extensive academic literature on the artist. Due to the success of the exhibition, John Wilson: Mexico, 1950-1956 will be extended to November 3, 2012. Boston’s exploration of Wilson’s art will continue at the Danforth Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Eternal Presence, opening November 15, 2012 through March 24, 2013.

Melanee Harvey is an art history graduate student at Boston University



1  Barry Edmund Gaither, “John Wilson/Joseph Norman: An Introduction,” Dialogue, John Wilson/Joseph Norman. John Wilson and Joseph Norman, ed. 1995. (Boston: Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston., 1995) 11

2  This notion of African American artist’s experience with cultural exchange in Mexico comes from Melanie Herzog’s “Elizabeth Catlett in Mexico Identity and Cross-Cultural Intersection in the Production of Artistic Meaning”. Melanie Herzog, “Elizabeth Catlett in Mexico: Identity and Cross-Cultural Intersections in the Production of Artistic Meaning," International Review of African American Art (1994). 11: 18-25.

3  Melanee Harvey, Notes from visit to Martha Richardson Gallery discussion with Gallery Director, Leah Triplett  Thursday, Oct  11 2012.

4  Patricia Hills, “A Portrait of the Artist as African-American: A Conversation with John Wilson,” Dialogue, John Wilson/Joseph Norman. John Wilson and Joseph Norman, ed. 1995. (Boston: Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston., 1995). 32

5  Hills, 32.

6  The oil painting version of Mother and Child (1952), 1952 winner of the Portrait/Figure Award at the Atlanta University Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Prints and Sculptures by Negro Artists of America, serves as the frontispiece for From Rearguard to Vanguard: Selections from the Clark Atlanta University Collection of African-American Art, Second Edition (2006).

7  Gaither, 13.

8  For more on antilynching exhibitions of the 1930s, see Helen Langa, “Two Antilynching Art Exhibitions: Politicized Viewpoints, Racial Perspective, Gendered Constraints,” American Art, Vol. 13, no. 1, Spring, 1999, 10-39.

9.  Herzog, . 18-25

10  Hills, 28,32.

11  Hills, 31.