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  • James A. Porter

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Self-Portrait (c.1935)

(1905–1970)

Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

[End Page 1049]

James A. Porter was an art historian, educator, curator, and visual artist. He was, in other words, practitioner of what he researched and wrote about, of what he taught, and of what he gathered and mounted in galleries and on museum walls. He is first remembered by academics as an art historian who taught some of the best minds and visual artists who studied at Howard University during the span of his teaching career. "A pioneer in establishing the field of African American art history," writes Jeffreen M. Hayes, who rightly declares that

James A. Porter was instrumental as the first scholar to provide a systematic, critical analysis of African American artists and their works of art. An artist himself, he provided a unique and critical approach to the analysis of the work. Dedicated to educating and writing about African American artists, Porter set the foundation for artists and art historians to probe and unearth the necessary skills essential to their artistic and scholarly endeavors. The canon is borne from Porter's determination to document and view African American art in the context of American art.

Although she does not ignore Porter as visual artist and educator, Hayes directs our attention to his achievements as author of Modern Negro Art, first published in 1943, a text which made a broad and profound impact on the study of art in the United States as well as on those future African American artists and academics who would write about African visual art. In one of his Callaloo interviews, Xavier Nicholas asks David C. Driskell about Porter as his mentor, of which Driskell explains in terms of the interrelationship between Porter's research and teaching, between the mentor and the art historian:

I took a course with Professor Porter in 1952, the year after I came into art. He called the course "Negro Art," and he used his textbook Modern Negro Art. I guess I was probably the only student in the United States, maybe in the world, taking a legitimate course in Negro art at that time because it was only taught at Howard. I mean, they would mix a little in here and there in courses. I was his only student that semester. Now he had more students at other times, but you really couldn't get many students to take a course in Negro art; they took Western art. At Professor Porter's memorial in February of 1970, I was asked to speak by his wife, Dorothy, and I mentioned that course. I said, "He taught that course as though he had a hundred students there, and I was the only one." I was so enamored of his scholarship that I almost committed to memory the lineage of history in his book Modern Negro Art.

"James A. Porter approached his art with an almost religious sense of mission," argue Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson in A History of African American Artists (1993), "to disprove the myth that African-Americans had no visual or plastic art." They continue,

Despite his teaching, historical research, and administrative duties as head of the Howard University art department, Porter never stopped painting, mounting many one-man shows, and executing numerous portraits, an art form that lent itself to his specific talents. His paintings tended to be elegantly realistic, detached, and academic until near the end of his life when, after a year-long visit to Africa, they became more expressionistic.

No comparable figure exists among American artists. Most art historians have never seriously used a brush, and most artists tend to be unaware of the social forces behind historical shifts in art. [End Page 1050]

Like Bearden and Henderson, Driskell, in his introduction to the 1992 edition of Modern Negro Art, also reminds us that Porter's praxis as visual artist was indeed interconnected with his other work:

Equally important … to Porter's review of history was his own art. He successfully achieved the balance between his own creative life as a painter and his life as a scholar, and the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6512
Print ISSN
0161-2492
Pages
pp. 1049-1120
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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