Elizabeth Catlett Speaks at MoMA

Conversations: Among Friends – May 19, 2009

On May 19, 2009, 94-year-old Elizabeth Catlett and David C. Driskell shared “Conversations: Among Friends,” at the Museum of Modern Art. Driskell, a noted African-American art historian and accomplished artist, played moderator as Catlett discussed her extraordinary art career, which has spanned seven decades. Sharp and humorous, Catlett shared anecdotes about her family; including her grandparents who had been born into slavery, her three sons (an artist, a musician, and a filmmaker), and her two husbands. She spoke about high school and college, the struggles she faced due to her upbringing as “poor but middle class,” and the segregation that prevented her admittance to Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh. When that institution, now Carnegie Mellon University, awarded her an honorary degree in 2008—one of 12 honorary doctorates she holds—she received profuse apologies from the university’s current administration.

Related Reading: Nigel Freeman on the Legacy of David C. Driskell, 1931-2020

Elizabeth Catlett, Torso, Portrait of Joan, painted terra cotta sculpture, 1960. Sold in African-American Fine Art on February 19, 2009 for $216,000. A record for the artist at the time of the auction.

Related Reading: Fine Sculpture by African-American Artists

Catlett mused about her tumultuous relationship with first husband, acclaimed artist Charles White, with whom she first traveled to Mexico in 1946. Catlett has lived and worked in Cuernavaca ever since. In that time Catlett struggled with both the U.S. and Mexican governments, once being asked to name communists as part of a new law. Another time, the Mexican government removed her by force from her home and took her to a holding center with other foreigners. She was nearly deported. Soon after, Catlett became a dual citizen of both the U.S. and Mexico.

In addition to anecdotes of her early life, some of her most interesting ruminations came as a result of the Q and A portion of the night. Asked directly about her artistic process, Catlett responded that the material (wood, stone, etc.) comes before the subject, and she described how hard it is to get good material for her renowned sculptures—despite her advanced age, Catlett is still a working artist, and one of her sons serves as her assistant. She also expressed her support of President Obama, and said she feels the U.S. does not place enough of an emphasis on arts and culture.  

Related Reading: Notes from the Catalogue: Elizabeth Catlett’s Varied Mediums

Catlett also offered advice to a new art-school grad, telling her to do the art she is passionate about, not what she thinks will sell, or make her famous. By doing what you love, Catlett advised, the rest will come. Wise words, indeed, from a socially aware artist whose love for her art and reflections on her long career filled the MoMA’s auditorium with both laughter and lessons to ponder.

Swann regularly offers works by celebrated African-American artist Elizabeth Catlett—in fact, our October 2009 auction featured her Homage to My Young Black Sisters, a sculpture in red cedar from 1968, which sold for $288,000.

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