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With the acquisition of John Axelrod’s collection, the Museum of Fine Arts’ holdings now represent almost every major African American artist of the past 150 years

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
With the acquisition of John Axelrod’s collection, the Museum of Fine Arts’ holdings now represent almost every major African American artist of the past 150 years
“Cocktails,” Archibald Motley (American), about 1926, Oil on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection - Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY. (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Author: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston“Cocktails,” Archibald Motley (American), about 1926, Oil on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection – Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY.

Author: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston“Cocktails,” Archibald Motley (American), about 1926, Oil on canvas. The John Axelrod Collection – Frank B. Bemis Fund and Charles H. Bayley Fund. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY.

With the acquisition of John Axelrod’s collection, the Museum of Fine Arts’ holdings now represent almost every major African American artist of the past 150 years

Distilling African American history into a single panoramic image, a 1930 study by muralist Aaron Douglas renders such icons as a church steeple, a shackled slave and a man raising a trumpet to his lips as silhouettes. Framed by palm fronds, the figures ascend in overlapping arcs toward a shaft of elevating light.

The spare Douglas study shares the sleek art deco lines and silver tone of the objects that surround it in the John Axelrod Gallery of the Art of the Americas Wing in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA).

The image and the nearby selections of home décor and fashion also share the same source: John Axelrod. In 2008, the longtime MFA supporter gave the museum his large collection of American decorative art from the ’20s and ’30s. And the Douglas study is one of 67 works by African American artists that Axelrod recently sold to the MFA for a fraction of their actual value.

Assembled over 15 years by Axelrod, the collection transforms the MFA into a leading repository of art by black Americans. With this acquisition, the MFA’s holdings now represent almost every major African American artist of the past 150 years.  

Spanning pre-Civil War stoneware to canvases painted in the 1980s, the Axelrod Collection includes works by such U.S. luminaries as Loïs Maillou Jones, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, as well as 18 paintings and sculptures by Brazilian artists of African descent.

“These important works allow us to tell the broader story of American art,” says Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the MFA’s Art of the Americas Department.  

A multimedia guide to the new acquisitions is in development and a catalog is planned for publication in 2014. “At some point, we hope to celebrate the whole collection with its own exhibition,” says Davis.

Meanwhile, the museum will present individual works from the collection. The Douglas study is one of seven alluring new acquisitions now on display.

With scene-stealing vitality, the works bear witness to African American history and life and offer an insider’s view of a community — often with a regional accent.

The John Axelrod Gallery is the setting for Archibald Motley Jr.’s “Cocktails” (ca. 1926). Motley’s portrayals of African American life in Chicago’s South Side call to mind the black-tie social satires of his German contemporary Max Beckmann. In this painting, he renders a jovial quintet of elegant ladies with mask-like faces. Surrounding it are objects that suit its urbane style, including a svelte gown and a gleaming silver cocktail set.  

Five paintings from the Axelrod Collection are on display in the adjacent Melvin Blake and Frank Purnell Gallery, an installation of mid-century American works on the theme of place.

Here, they join two works by African American artists previously acquired by the MFA, Allan Rohan Crite’s endearing South End street scene, “Tire Jumping in Front of My Window” (1936, 1947), and the enigmatic “Room No. V” (1948) by Eldzier Cortor, another artist who came of age in Chicago’s South Side.

With the Axelrod acquisition, the 1948 Cortor meets its mate, “Environment” (1947). Both share surreal, memory-laden imagery, thickly encrusted pigments, and the artist’s original frames of distressed wood.

Evoking African statuary, an elongated female figure is central to each image. In the 1947 painting, she wears a polka-dot dress and roams a dreamscape that juxtaposes interior and exterior layers of a dismantled house. In the 1948 work, the figure is a nude reflected in the mirror of an old dresser that resembles a votive shrine. The hem of the polka-dot dress peaks out of a drawer.

 Forming a triptych, the pair of paintings flanks a much larger canvas by Cortor, “Still-Life: Past Revisited” (1973). A weightless alarm clock dangles from a cord, a hoarder’s delight of wood furniture hovers in a towering stack, and vintage necklaces drape over a mirror. Despite the absence of a human figure, the scene bursts with life.  

In “Big Wind in Georgia” (ca. 1933), an oil painting by Hale Aspacio Woodruff, a cyclone-force storm sweeps a mule, an outhouse, fencing and uprooted trees into a churning spiral. Like the landscapes of Missouri native Thomas Hart Benton, Woodruff’s image also evokes the social turbulence of its time, the era of the Great Depression, looming war in Europe and a series of natural disasters.

“We’re still unpacking the meanings of these works,” says Davis.  

All is still in the monumental “Shotguns” (1983-86) by John Thomas Biggers. Witty and solemn at the same time, the drawing builds an intricate grid out of an iconic structure — the long, narrow cottage once common throughout the South. Resembling the rounded, stylized figures of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, large women in checkered dresses fill the doorways like pillars. Marching behind these silent totems are endless rows of triangular rooftops.  

A step closer to abstraction is Beauford Delaney’s “Greene Street” (1940). With thick, bright pigment and bold lines, Delaney turns his low-rent corner of Greenwich Village into an exuberant crossroads of directional arrows, lampposts and traffic lights.

Axelrod, 65, first encountered paintings by African American artists at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York. “It was love at first sight,” he says, talking by phone from his Back Bay home.

During the ’20s and ’30s, Axelrod notes, African American artists were off the grid of the institutional art world. “Galleries weren’t showing their works or producing exhibition catalogues, which is part of the material that is used to create art history,” says Axelrod, a former businessman who grew up in Andover and graduated from Harvard Law School.

As a collector, Axelrod focuses on undervalued works. His current passion is early ’80s graffiti art from New York’s Lower East Side.

A vigorous promoter of diversity in the MFA’s collections, organization and outreach, Axelrod is pleased that his extraordinary finds have helped the museum close a major gap in its holdings.  

“I’m so happy to see these paintings on view,” says Axelrod. “Works by African Americans are important to a museum of great American art. You can’t have a great American art collection without these artists.”