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Traveling Afro-American art

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) steals the show of Afro-American art at the Bronx Museum of the Arts here and proves once again that he was one of the best American painters of his time. He isn't the only one to stand out in ``Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800-1950,'' however. Horace Pippin, Edward Bannister, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Mary Edmonia Lewis also score heavily in this major survey exhibition -- the largest in a decade -- of 84 paintings, sculpture, and drawings by 42 black American artists. Pippin's extraordinary ``John Brown Going to His Hanging,'' which hangs with several others of his panels, is almost certainly the best ``primitive'' painting America has produced to date. And the smallish pieces by Lawrence and Bearden, while not as powerful as what these artists produced after 1950, nevertheless indicate clearly the depths of their talents.

It is Tanner, however, who dominates the exhibition. His ``Christ Walking on Water'' and ``Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah'' are masterful performances, at once provocative in theme and original in form and execution. Even the slightly lesser ``Portrait of the Artist's Mother'' is excellent and projects a mood somewhat reminiscent of Eakins's brooding studies of seated men and women -- but with a delicacy of touch that is entirely his own.

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Why, one wonders, isn't Tanner better known? His race, obviously, was an important factor, originally. I suspect, however, that other issues enter into it, most particularly the sentimentality of many of his subjects and the specifically religious nature of a large number of his pictures. If those are indeed the major reasons, it's a pity, for he was a remarkable artist and deserves to be honored as such.

Another happy surprise is Edward Bannister (1828-1901), a landscape painter of uncommon ability and the first black American to win a national art award (at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876). He also deserves much wider recognition for pictures like his 1870 ``Oak Trees.'' While not quite on the level of the best landscapes of Inness and Wyant, it nevertheless possesses many of the characteristics of major scenic views.

Of the remaining pieces, little stands out for other than social or historical reasons -- although some of the portraits of Joshua Johnston (1765-1830) are noteworthy for their attention to individual identity, and Palmer Hayden's humanity-packed folk tales and urban studies of the 1930s and '40s are both fascinating and delightful.

After its closing at the Bronx Museum of the Arts on March 9, this interesting and worthwhile show travels to the following locations: the California Afro-American Museum, Los Angeles (April 7-June 2); Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Conn. (July 4-Aug. 31); the Mint Museum, Charlotte, N.C. (Sept. 22-Nov. 17); San Antonio Museum, San Antonio, Texas (Dec. 15-Feb. 9, 1987); the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio (March 8-May 3, 1987); the Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Md. (June 1-July 27, 1987); the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pa. (Aug. 23-Oct. 18, 1987); Oklahoma Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, Okla. (Nov. 15-Jan. 10, 1988).

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