The U of R's Rush Rhees library currently is home to two exhibits featuring the artwork of - and in-depth looks at the lives of - two inspiring African Americans. Trust librarians, ever-amazing at researching and making sense of the world, to go above and beyond the usual scope of an art show.
In the main lobby of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library, several display cases organize and lead us through the life of the Rochesterian Steven Wynder "Rocky" Simmons. Viewers learn that involvement in a segregated sports world brought him to Rochester, and here he became passionately involved in the community. He served as a leader in Rochester's 7th Ward and in 1964, became the first African American to hold the position of Monroe County Family Court Attendant. While serving, Simmons recognized the value of youth outreach. A newspaper article on display calls him the "one-man entertainment bureau for kids," and as such, he organized sports teams, talent shows, and beauty pageants to keep youths involved in healthy, self-esteem-building activities.
Simmons' photography provides a window into African-American life in Rochester in the 1950's and 60's. Here again, his passion for the community is apparent. He provided picture advertisements for new businesses and young, talented musicians, in which the gleam of youthful exuberance is immortalized in black and white. Whether visually documenting marriages or the daily life of kitchen workers, Simmons smartly stepped back to include the details of his subjects' contexts, providing nuances that might otherwise be lost to the larger waves in history's turbulent seas. These crucial insignificances of the mundane link the viewer to his subjects on a personal level. It's unsurprising that such a socially active artist possessed the sensitivity to create such an achievement.
The library also hosts a collection of Herbert Gentry paintings, along with several works by his contemporaries, and an abundance of material illuminating his life and influences. Raised in Harlem by his single mother - a Zeigfeld dancer who held informal art salons with friends Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, and Louis Armstrong - Gentry was practically born to be an artist. But he found America's segregated society to be stifling, and after his service in WWII, he moved to the more accommodating Europe.
As a student, Gentry found that in Paris he could live as a free man, if not one embraced by the white-owned galleries. Undeterred by racially based rejection, he opened "Chez Honey," his own gallery-by-day, club-by-night establishment, and introduced modern jazz to European culture. The club hosted Duke Ellington and Lena Horne, and acted as a cultural hot spot, fostering the kind of magical chemistry that happens between creative minds. Richard Wright, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, and Orson Welles were regular fixtures.
The previously restricted galleries soon opened to Gentry, and by 1954 he was making his living solely by his art. Abstract Expressionism was a logical turn for Gentry, who worked closely with jazz greats, and at times penned the music to be played at his club. In a perceptive piece written specifically for this exhibition, author Clarence Major notes the important link between jazz's emphasis on improvisation and the quick, capture-the-moment way in which the painters worked. Major also philosophizes on the psychological result of war on the human mind, and declares that the "results of the juxtaposition of anxiety and playfulness [in the art] are a pleasing and sophisticated irony," an aspect also found in the "bitter-sweetness" of jazz.
This anxious optimism is most apparent in two of Gentry's paintings included in the show. "Man's and Animal's Earth" captures complex emotions with rapid, impulsive brush work and the blending of bright, restless color with faded, haunting tones. Animal and human features seem to emerge from and recede into an imposing forest shot through with beams of sunlight. Ironically, Gentry's work explores the theme of alienation through overcrowded space, hinting at the failings of seeming "togetherness." In "Speech," the massive surface holds the features of a listening crowd, with craning necks and expressions ranging from bored to curious - but each face is relatively closed off from the rest. The caustic red of the painting provides the buzz of a crowd in a sort of backward synesthesia. This work refuses to be overlooked; it shouts from across the room.
The tension of collective space/inner isolation is repeated in much of Gentry's work, with layered faces often sharing features with each other, though still maintaining a private, desolate thought-world. The show's title work, "Facing Other Ways - E," is a drawing consisting of hasty Expressionist lines, but with the distorted, confused, and distraught expressions found in many Cubist pieces.
Simmons and Gentry worked around the social forces that threatened the fullness of their lives. Neither man was daunted by limitations based on his race, and both did much to pick away at social barriers. This valuable exhibits offer a rare opportunity to enjoy artwork, and also learn about the socio-cultural context in which the artists lived and created.
Facing Other Ways: Herbert Gentry & African American Abstraction
Through March 31
Celebrating Rochester's Rocky Simmons: The Life & Photographs of an African American Activist
Through April 30
Rare Books & Special Collections, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester
Mon-Fri 9am to 5pm, Wed 9am to 8pm, Sat11am to 3pm, 585-275-4477, www.library.rochester.edu