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Elizabeth Catlett dies at 96; among 20th century's top black artists

The U.S.-born sculptor and printmaker, who lived most of her life in Mexico, blended art and social consciousness. Her work confronted the most disturbing injustices against African Americans.

April 04, 2012|By Mary Rourke and Valerie J. Nelson, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Elizabeth Catlett stands in 1999 with her works "Homage to Black Women Poets," left, and "Homage to My Young Black Sisters."
Elizabeth Catlett stands in 1999 with her works "Homage to Black Women… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Elizabeth Catlett, a sculptor and printmaker who was widely considered one of the most important African American artists of the 20th century despite having lived most of her life in Mexico, has died. She was 96.

Catlett, whose sculptures became symbols of the civil rights movement, died Monday at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, said her eldest son, Francisco.

Her imposing blend of art and social consciousness mirrored that of German painter Max Beckmann, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and other artists of the mid-20th century who used art to critique power structures.

From the start of her career, Catlett "was part of a broad political milieu" that encompassed artists of many ethnicities who were committed to social justice, Melanie Anne Herzog, who wrote the 2000 biography "Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico," told The Times in 2005.

Catlett's decision to focus on her ethnic identity, and its association with slavery and class struggles, was bold and unconventional in the 1930s and '40s, when African Americans were expected "to assimilate themselves into a more Eurocentric ethic," art curator Lowery Stokes Sims said in a 1993 National Public Radio interview.

Confident that art could foster social change, Catlett confronted the most disturbing injustices against African Americans, including lynchings and beatings. One of her best-known sculptures, "Target" (1970), was created after police shot a Black Panther; it shows a black man's head framed by a rifle sight.

But she also made far more hopeful statements with lithographs and sculptures of Harriet Tubman, a slave who led others to freedom, and Sojourner Truth, a slave turned abolitionist. Catlett often returned to the enduring theme of mother and child, and her 1946 series of prints called "The Negro Woman" reflected the heroic dignity she saw in her subjects.

"I wanted to show the history and strength of all kinds of black women," Catlett told the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times in 1992. "Working women, country women, urban women, great women in the history of the United States."

Catlett's early work was grounded in a figurative style that gave way to Cubism as she moved on to semi-abstract sculptures, which she came to prefer after studying the form as a graduate student in the late 1930s.

The American South and African American history remained prominent in her sculptures. "Black Unity" from 1968 shows a burnished mahogany fist on one side and African mask-like visages on the other. "Homage to My Black Young Sisters" from the same year is a red-cedar abstract of a woman with raised head and fist.

The two simple, stylized pieces "became not only symbols of a movement, but also Catlett's own signed missive that her head and heart were rooted deeply in the struggle," Lynell George wrote in 1999 in The Times.

Usually in print form, Catlett also portrayed African American male subjects — factory workers, middle-class men in jacket and tie, and prominent cultural figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

After moving to Mexico in the 1940s to study ceramics, she remained committed to African American causes but also took up the struggles of Mexican workers. She referred to "my two people" and sometimes blended their physical features in her art.

In Mexico City, she quickly found artistic soul mates in the Taller de Grafica Popular, a collective known for mass-produced posters supporting populist causes. She gained a level of acceptance she never knew at home and married fellow workshop artist Francisco Mora in the late 1940s.

"There's a different attitude toward art in Mexico," she said in the St. Petersburg Times interview. "As an artist you're greatly admired rather than looked at as something strange."

Even after becoming a Mexican citizen in 1962, she continued to champion progressive black causes. Her lithographs from the late '60s include images of Malcolm X and Angela Davis, two leading social activists of the time.

"Elizabeth Catlett is part of a history of protest art in America," Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, director of the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., said in a 2005 Times interview. "She made statements in her art about the human condition, about social justice and injustice."

The collective's left-leaning political affiliations partly led the U.S. government to declare Catlett an "undesirable alien" in 1959, when she was briefly held in a roundup of Americans living in Mexico who were suspected of communist activity.

Throughout the 1960s, she was denied a U.S. visa, a development that — combined with her race — made her a relatively obscure figure in mainstream American art.

The granddaughter of freed slaves, Catlett was born April 15, 1915, in Washington, D.C. Her father was a math professor who died before she was born, and her mother worked as a truant officer.

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