How do you keep a dream alive, a dream as important as Martin Luther King's dream of racial equality through nonviolence? One way is by charting the remarkable progress of implementing that dream and the life and memory of its most memorable articulator through art.
"In the Memory of Martin: The Living Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." tells its compelling story through 115 works of art by more than 100 artists in a variety of media. The touring exhibition, now at the Smithsonian International Gallery in Washington, D.C., briefly illustrates the history of black slavery and life, moves through a history of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, surveys Dr. King's life in the movement and demonstrates the profound ongoing inspiration of his ideas.
The photographs, so crucial to the cause for Civil Rights, are especially well chosen. An anonymous 1935 print of a lynching, Eliot Erwitt's eloquent black-and-white of Segregated Water Fountains, North Carolina from 1950, Charles Moore's portraits of the brutal harassment of peaceful protesters and Beuford Smith's poignant photo of a man responding to the news of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., are all moving images and valuable documents.
Among many fine portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., is one by his childhood friend, Archie Byron. Byron has created a moving low-relief bust portrait in his trademark materials of sawdust and glue. Faith Ringgold's personal interpretation of King, a life-sized soft sculpture in an ecclesiastical robe, is another stand-out.
Seeing Jacob Lawrence's harrowing screen print Confrontation of the Bridge, it's hard but not impossible to focus on the technical aspects of the work -- its unique palette, Lawrence's own style of Cubism, his masterful use of darks and lights -- and its symbolism -- abstract cloud-like shapes that threaten, the uphill tilt to the marchers climb and that unforgettable dog. Although we see only the dog's head and one leg, the animal's feral hostility looms large enough to terrify the marchers.
Lawrence is that rare thing, a story-telling modernist. Even with his recent retrospective, I find Jacob Lawrence one of our most underrated artists.
The exhibition ends in celebrating Martin Luther King's message of toleration and nonviolence. Malcah Zeldis's Peaceable Kingdom, featuring a panoply of her heroes from Gandhi to Beethoven, puts King next to Anne Frank and Lincoln at the top of her exuberant oil.
The curators -- Gretchen Sullivan Sorin (history), Helen M. Shannon (visual arts) and Steve M. Kasher (photography), and Gary M. Chassman, who conceived the project and its companion book -- have done a great job of pulling together paintings, prints, sculpture and photography and using them to tell the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
This is the first time such a visual history of the Civil Rights Movement has been attempted. It's one very important way to pass on the legacy. I found the family guide and the curriculum guide that accompany the show -- all three generously underwritten by PepsiCo -- excellent resources for students. The works, abstract, realistic and in many media, create a charged visual history that it is utterly absorbing.
The exhibition remains on view through July 27, 2003, at the Smithsonian International Gallery. The exhibition was seen earlier at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the Bass Museum of Art in Miami and the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis.
After leaving Washington, the show moves to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tenn. (Aug. 30-Nov. 30) and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Ala. (Jan. 3, 2004-Mar. 28, 2004).
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.