24 in. x 30 in. (60.96 cm x 76.2 cm)
Henry Melville Fuller Fund,
Charles Alston’s Palaver #1
is an abstract representation of four people interconnected into a ring. The figures, composed of curving white and ochre planes, are delineated into separate bodies. At the same time, the shapes that indicate their bodily features merge into one another. More geometric planes of yellow, white, black, and two shades of gray suggest an interior behind them. The artist applied the paint flatly, creating a shallow, spatially ambiguous image.
Context and Analysis
Charles Alston played an important role in New York’s art community in the mid-1900s, as an artist and a teacher. He earned a master’s in fine arts degree from Columbia University Teachers College in 1931, during the Great Depression. He then went to work for the federal government, becoming the first African American supervisor for the Work Progress Administration’s Fine Arts Project. He taught in the Harlem Arts Workshop and in 1950 became the first African American instructor at the Arts Student League. He also taught at City College of New York.
Alston’s art varied in style from abstract to representational. In Palaver #1
, he drew on the influence of Cubism and other Modernist styles, abstracting his figures into ambiguously defined planes of color. Alston also found inspiration in African art, apparent in Palaver #1
in his use of earth tones and in the planar abstractions of the figures. For European Modernists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and others, African art provided a visual source from which to create innovative art outside the Western tradition. With its abstracted figures joined together in a ring, Palaver #1
recalls Matisse’s groundbreaking series of Dance
paintings of 1909 and 1910, though Alston’s mode of abstraction is quite different from Matisse’s.
For African American artists like Alston, African art had additional meanings beyond just artistic style, and became a source for establishing their own cultural and artistic identities. Alain Locke, an intellectual figure of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, encouraged black artists to look to African art for inspiration, opining that “the African spirit . . . is at its best in abstract decorative forms.” Alston himself stated that African art “played a tremendous part in my work. I think if you look at my work you can see that very clearly—the kind of plastic feeling about the figure.” (His use of the term plastic
refers to the way traditional African art uses three dimensional abstract shapes to evoke rather than realistically depict human features.)
The title of Palaver #1
is intriguing. Palaver
is an archaic term, related to parley, that suggests a discussion or negotiation between two cultural groups. The word dates to the early 1700s and is derived from Portuguese traders’ slang for negotiations with West African tribes. Thus, the title evokes some of the issues embedded in Alston’s own cultural negotiation between Western Modernism and African artistic traditions.
The Currier’s collection includes a number of other paintings, collages, and prints by African American Modernists that also explore issues of identity through abstraction. Jacob Lawrence, who had been a student of Alston’s, painted Playroom
in 1957 (Currier, 2013.23
). Like Palaver #1
uses flat planes to represent figures, in this case children at play with dolls in a sparsely furnished room. Romare Bearden, an artist with whom Alston cofounded the artist group Spiral in 1963, created Battle with Cicones
in 1977 (Currier, 2012.28
). Part of a series inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, Battle with Cicones
is a Modernist collage with visual references to African art, which reflects on the epic’s universal themes. Bearden’s watercolor Train Whistle Blues
(c. 1979) (Currier, 2012.16
) also mixes multiple vantage points and scales into a single image to reflect on the African American experience in the American South
Written by Martin Fox
Alston, Charles Henry. Oral history interview, October 19, 1968. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-charles-henry-alston-11460(accessed July 29, 2013).
Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists, from 1792 to the Present
. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.
Sims, Lowery Stokes. Challenge of the Modern: African-American Artists, 1925–1945
. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2003.
2004 Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, "African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum." April 2 - June 7.
2014 Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, "Romare Bearden and the Currier" May 24 – September 2.
2016 Currier Museum of Art, "Max Pechstein: Paradise Lost" Nov. 23, 2016 - March, 2017
2021 Currier Museum of Art. The Body in Art: From the Spiritual to the Sensual. April 1 - Sept.
Purchased by Currier Museum of Art, 2003