Friday, August 23, 2013

Hale Woodruff: Talladega Murals

The Mutiny on the Amistad, 1939. Oil on canvas Overall: 71 1/4 x 125 3/8 x 2 1/8in. Collection of  Savery Library, 
Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama 
Hale Woodruff's exhibition, Talledega Murals, are a bright spot in the late summer art season. The recently refurbished works, and several ancillary works by the underheralded artist, hang in NYU's 80WSE Gallery (that's 80 Washington Square East) through Oct 13. Don't miss the show.

The murals were commissioned by Talladega College in 1938 by President Buell Gallagher to commemorate the end of slavery. The intent was no doubt noble, but Woodruff's lively sculpting, eye for detail, and vibrant palette transformed the elegiac exercise into something far greater. Woodruff (1900—1980) went to Paris in 1927 to study, absorbing influences of Cubism that are felt in works such as Two Figures in a Mexican Landscape. And in 1936, he studied in Mexico with the great muralist Diego Rivera. When he returned, he taught for a couple of decades at NYU.

Opening Day at Talladega College, 1942Oil on canvas. Overall: 70 1/8 x 243 7/8 x 2 1/16in. Collection of Savery Library, Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama 
Historical murals such as Rivera's and Woodruff's are rarities for most New York art viewers, unless you happen to work in a building that emerged during the Gilded Era or WPA; I have seen a handful of them. But when I saw Woodruff's Talladega series, I felt I had been ignorant of a concise education in both art and history. Every part of the paintings contains a piece of information that contributes to a greater dramatic story. The type of footwear (or lack thereof), a book, a clothing detail—all serve to flesh out the main characters. 

The Mutiny on the Amistad conveys the unbridled anger of the rebels, who had been enslaved in Sierra Leone and rebelled en route to Cuba, ultimately obtaining their freedom in Connecticut courts, and subsequent return to Sierra Leone. Hardwick does not soften the depiction; instead he captures the coiled violence and abject desperation of the moment. In Opening Day at Talladega College, you see the moment of transition between lives based on farming and formal education, and the American promise of a brighter future.  

Also on view are a selection of charming, strikingly graphic woodcuts, depictions of a rural Southern black homestead, and comparative studies: The Results of Poor Housing and The Results of Good Housing, perhaps the strongest reminders of the underlying social messages that provide the spine of the exhibition.

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