African American artists made their own contributions to the culture of America. The daily struggle of minorities influenced the work of Charles White, who created “images of dignity” and believed that “art must be an integral part of the struggle. It can’t simply mirror what’s taking place. It must adapt itself to human needs. It must ally itself with the forces of liberation. The fact is, artists have always been propagandists. I have no use for artists who try to divorce themselves from the struggle.”
At the end of the 20th century, painters started to reference historical influences in their depictions of the American spirit. Artists such as James Kerry Marshall, Walton Ford, and Alex Katz looked to American cultural history for inspiration. McGuigan wrote, “A maverick from the beginning, Katz came of age when Abstract Expressionism still reigned, yet he turned to painting landscapes and the human figure. Over time, his paintings got bigger”. “Appropriating the monumental scale, stark composition, and dramatic light of the Abstract Expressionists, he would beat the heroic generation at their own game,” the critic Carter Ratcliff wrote in a 2005 monograph on Katz. Alex Katz also used “flat, bright figures that had an everyday quality that linked them to commercial art and popular culture.” His compositions involving landscapes and people often
positioned figures in parklike environments close to or touching the border, giving the impression that the viewer is passing through the scene.
Kerry James Marshall’s work “is drawn from African American culture and rooted in the geography of his upbringing”. Charles White’s belief that artists should create works reflective of their culture’s struggle influenced Kerry James Marshall. His work is a blend of abstraction, realism, and collage addressing African American culture in American history. African American figures were depicted so darkly that they were almost completely blacked out. He elegantly addressed cultural stereotypes by removing any chance of the viewer seeing these figures as unique individuals. His work “Better Homes Better Gardens” juxtaposes suburban and urban cultures in the same composition, forcing the viewer to consider their connections.
Walton Ford’s work was inspired by early naturalist illustrators like American John James Audubon. Most of Ford’s works are large scale water color paintings. He created images that were meant to fill in the blank spots in history. His work lets us know that the idea of men like John James Audubon is better than the reality and that they were
only living within their own time. History is filled with characters that would not stand up to the tests of our contemporary culture. An honest judgement of them must be accompanied by an understanding of the times in which they lived. Walton Ford uses the depiction of animals in unnatural situations or behaving badly to illustrate our own shortcomings.