Sculptor Elizabeth Catlett at 94 is still making important art, and as she continues to carve out her place in art history, an exhibition of her recent work, in wood, marble, onyx and bronze, is currently on view at the June Kelly Gallery through May 2.
Early in her career, Catlett won her first prize in sculpture, a limestone Mother and Child, at the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago. That figurative icon was an early representation of the distinctive vision and sculptural idiom that she has maintained throughout her career.
Although Catlett’s work celebrates African-American identity, it is the female form to which she most often pays homage, endowing it with dignity, strength and sensuality, and frequently with maternal compassion and tenderness.
Catlett moves between figurative and expressionist and abstract forms in her work. Torso, in mahogany, for example, is clearly a female figure, while Mask, in orange onyx, is an abstract tour de force. The exhibition in its entirety reflects her nearly seven decades of sensitivity toward the beauty and sensuality she finds in the human form and toward her materials.
At the University of Iowa, where she was a post-graduate student, she studied with Grant Wood, head of the art department, and was influenced in her sculpture pieces by his concept of regionalism and the common thread of humanity that joins all people.
Catlett studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago; many of her most important early pieces are in terra cotta. Later she moved to New York, where she worked privately with French sculptor Ossip Zadkine, an important and influential teacher, and learned lithography at the Art Students League.
Catlett moved to Mexico in the late 1940s, where she continued to study ceramics with Francisco Zúñiga and woodcarving with Jose L. Ruiz at the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura. She became a member, along with her late husband, Mexican artist Francisco Mora, of the national art center, El Taller de Grafica Popular, founded in 1937 by Luis Arenal, Leopoldo Mendez and Pablo O'Higgins. She and Mora remained active members of the Taller group until 1966.
Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. She holds a BA from Howard University and an MFA in sculpture from the University of Iowa. She has been the recipient of many awards in sculpture and printmaking. She has received 12 honorary doctorate degrees, including Pratt Institute in 1999 and Carnegie Mellon University in 2008.
Catlett's work has been seen in numerous one-person and group shows throughout the United States, Mexico and Europe. Her work is represented in many national and international museum collections, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art and The Studio Museum in Harlem in New York City; National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC; The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; New Orleans Museum of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; The Narodnike Musea (National Museum), Prague, Czech Republic; and El Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico.