An Insightful Collection of African-American Art at KMA Inspires Admiration

With 70-plus selections from Larry and Brenda Thompson's respected and varied collection of more than 500 works of African-American art, Tradition Redefined, opening tonight at the Knoxville Museum of Art, consists of paintings, sculpture, mixed media, drawings, and prints from as long ago as 1890, and as recently as 2007. Featuring an impressive number of little-known pieces by previously underacknowledged artists, the exhibition provides a fresh perspective on art produced in this country throughout the last century.

There are complicated and sometimes ugly reasons that these artists haven't been recognized—after all, segregation of artists has meant segregation of their art, too. Tradition Redefined does much to bring worthy works collected for almost 40 years to our attention and incorporate them into the panoply of already familiar contemporary art. What's more, it reminds us of the importance of collectors driven by something beyond financial investment or social status.

For quite a while now, the Thompsons have been true benefactors, beginning in Atlanta in the late 1970s. They have lived in New England, where Larry is an executive with PepsiCo, for the last nine years, but plan to return to Georgia. What sets them apart as collectors is their concern for the success of artists as well as their enthusiasm for what those artists have created.

The Thompsons met as students at Michigan State University and married in 1970. Following time spent in Missouri, they moved to Atlanta in 1977 and got serious about acquiring art—at first from the Southeast, then from other states. Theirs is an unusual story when it comes to collecting. Initially borrowing paintings from a St. Louis library to enjoy in their home, the mortgage-indebted parents of two sons worked to purchase, little by little, what amounts to a significant oeuvre of African-American art spanning decades both turbulent and transformative.

Alongside "Bullfight," a 1940s watercolor and gouache by the famed Romare Bearden, museum visitors can see "Girl With Bird" (oil on paper, 1950) by lesser-known Pacific Northwest artist Thelma Johnson Streat. Her memorable painting is reminiscent of Paul Gauguin's work in Tahiti and the Marquesas. Incidentally, local pride comes easy when taking in works by Knoxville's Vine Avenue-bred brothers Beauford and Joseph Delaney. The glowing yellow pigment of Beauford's "Portrait of Imogene Delaney" (oil on canvas, 1963) beckons us into one of two ground-level galleries sharing the new show. Joseph's "Woman in Striped Dress," from the following year, in the same medium, is no less capable. However, his sedate yet saucy sitter, given the complexity of her rendering and the painting's overall composition, is better suited to its display on an interior wall.

If Tradition Redefined sounds self-consciously noble in its efforts to support artists ignored by the mainstream, or if we find Brenda Thompson's referring to collected pieces as her "children" a bit cute, we should remember that the Thompsons have valued and promoted art sometimes dismissed due to the skin color of its makers. With the exception of the 1935 Federal Arts Program (part of the Works Progress Administration), blacks have historically had difficulty making a living as artists. This particular couple's commitment has likely preserved valuable art that could have been lost, as well as kept quite a few children fed and clothed.

In addition to presenting often disenfranchised artists, Tradition Redefined defies clichéd notions about African-American art; that is, the perception that such work is inherently bold and colorful, socio-political or urban in emphasis, and possibly naive or unschooled. Then there's the persistent question of whether or not it's acceptable to cluster art into categories based on racial identity (or on gender or ethnicity, for that matter). In any case, many pieces in the exhibition are abstract, not illustrative; as a whole, the works are consistently striking, no matter what their provenance or goals.

Tradition Redefined, with its smattering of pedestals supporting pieces crafted from granite, molded sawdust, carved and cut-out wood, bronze, wire, and welded steel, is nonetheless a predominantly two-dimensional show. And Camille Billops' ceramic chair seems out of place without accompanying ceramic pieces. But the overwhelming dominance of texture (owing to substrates like Joe Overstreet's metal screening, if not a simple impasto approach) lends many works surprising visual depth.

The Thompsons' long-term commitment to tracking down exceptional work by unrecognized artists calls to mind a passage from writer Zora Neale Hurston's 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road: "Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein." In an otherwise stellar show, I lament only the exclusion of fine-art photography. Yet the quality of art on view makes up for any deficiencies. In short, Tradition Redefined should not be missed.