Reginald Gammon: An Artist for the People

By Shantay Robinson 

 

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Reginald Gammon

Reginald Gammon, a native of Philadelphia, attended Philadelphia Museum College of Fine Art and the Stella Eakins Tyler School of Fine Art at Temple University. He moved to New York to join the art scene there in 1951.  The first year, of his stay in New York, he claims he was very lonely, but he eventually came to be a part of a community of artists. Camille Billops interviewed Gammons for Black Thought and Culture in 1974 and then again in 1995. Though he was a professor at both times, he talked lovingly about the struggling artist lifestyle he led between 1951 and 1970. In reminiscing about that time, Gammon includes stories about Paul Robeson, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden. His life was a who’s who of colorful characters, he, being one himself.

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Freedom now, Reginald Gammon 1963

During the weekend of September 14 -16, 2018 Black Art in America will host the Fine Art Show in Philadelphia. While there will be a lot of work available by contemporary artists, there will also be work available by legacy artists, including Reginald Gammon, one of the members of the Spiral Group.

Spiral was comprised of art legends including Hale Woodruff, Romare Bearden, Emma Amos, Norman Lewis, and others. The group formed in 1963 because of the March on Washington. They wanted to keep the momentum going among black artists working in New York City. They met once weekly and would discuss issues particular to black artists. Some members thought the group should include white members, but Gammon was one who did not agree with this. In the interview with Camille Billops in 1974, he stated, “There were all kinds of clubs for white artists and they didn’t go out of their way to invite us.”

Spiral had one group exhibition at their Christopher Street location called Black and White. The group wanted to touch on issues of race through their artwork. All the work created was done in black and white whether figurative or abstract.  Gammon created Freedom Now for the show. But the show wasn’t reviewed by any publications, so there isn’t any record of the show. After the group show, the landlord wanted to raise the rent and the group couldn’t afford to pay for their meeting space, so Spiral disbanded in 1966.

Holy family, Reginald Gammon 1965

Although most of the group members were already established, Gammon, as a novice, was invited to the group by Richard Mayhew in 1965. Critiquing works wasn’t common for the group, but when they viewed Gammon’s work, they were concerned with his desire to work with figures instead of abstraction as the rest of the art world was doing. They asked, “Why are you so involved with breasts?” But that’s what he studied – figurative art.  In the interview with Billops, Gammon stated, “I have always been a figure painter and will die a figure painter. I think all the abstraction, the landscapes, comes from the figure, really. I have caught hell for maintaining that view. I think the human physiognomy is as great a landscape as you can find or as great a still life as you can find.” Though his contemporaries had taken to modernism and were more interested in line and shape than with the human form or still lifes and landscapes, Gammon was sure enough a figurative painter until he died.

In 1969, Tom Hoving director of the Museum of Modern Art had invited a group of black artists to a cocktail party to discuss an upcoming show, Harlem on My Mind. But in the end, the show was curated by one person, Holland Carter. Gammon didn’t think the show was true to Harlem. He felt the curator did a good job of showing the Jewish immigration to Harlem, but Carter didn’t know the black people who lived there. He, Romare Bearden, and Norman Lewis had all lived in Harlem and they knew the neighborhood but they felt slighted for not having been consulted for the exhibition.

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The Yellow Tree, Reginald Gammon

Gammon was later involved with The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) that picketed the Whitney Museum for lack of representation at the museum. Gammon recalls that at any time there were always about 100 people on the picket line made up of all kinds of artists. Gammons work with the BECC didn’t last long, but it did get black people into the museum. The black people included at the Whitney might not have been the people who were protesting, but they were black. Gammon told Camille Billops, “They were establishment people. They were the abstract artists, and the media was representing what they wanted in the final group. For example, I consider Joe Overstreet to be my friend, but he stood across the street from the Met and refused to picket with us. I told him when we got into the museum he would be the first to be in line, and sure enough, he was.”

Gammon was involved with the BECC for only a year. In 1970, he was offered a job in Michigan for a visiting artist position at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He ended up staying for 21 years until he retired in 1991 as Full Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts and Humanities. Gammon retired and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife where he became very active in the arts community.

Over time, his work evolved. In 2000, he turned to painting jazz and blues musicians that would perform in Albuquerque. While his earlier works were based in the political climate of the time, his later works expressed a sort of sense of humor about the world. After joining a health club in 1994, he created a series of painting of people working out.

Reginald Gammon passed away in 2005 at the age of 84 and he leaves behind a rich legacy of activism especially for black artists. While there was a time when black artists weren’t included in museum exhibitions at the most prestigious museums, at times, they were not even able to visit museums. Gammon and his contemporaries changed that with passion and vision. Gammon is one of the artists responsible for standing up for black artists at a time when black artists weren’t even existing on the margins of the art world.

featuring artwork by Jurell Cayetano, Karen Powell, Woodrow Nash, Charles White, Romare Bearden, Nelson Stevens, David Driskell, Najee Dorsey, Lavett Ballard, Richard Barthe and Jamaal Barber

Black Art in America Fine Art Show Philadelphia

The Black Art In America™ Fine Art Show Philadelphia, September 14-16th at The Historic Belmont Mansion and Underground Railroad Museum is a hybrid fine art fair featuring an impressively curated array of artworks presented by our invited galleries, dealers and artists. Artwork will be offered in a range of media from paintings, photography, limited edition prints, mixed media as well as works on paper and sculpture.  All artwork will be for sale. More

 Featuring works by:

Norman Lewis, Sargent Johnson, Hughie Lee-Smith, Reginald Gammon, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Samella Lewis, Richard Yarde, Richard Mayhew, Charles Alston, Charles White, Jacob Lawrence, Barbara Bullock, James E. Dupree, Lavett BallardJamaal Barber, Benny Andrews, Charles Ethan Porter, Masa Zodros, Kevin Cole, Woodrow Nash, Najee DorseyGerald Lovell, Charly Palmer, Delita Martin, Jurell Cayetano, Charles Porter, Barkley Hendricks, Bob ThompsonNelson Stevens and more

Participating Galleries

Black Art In America GalleryTyler Fine ArtsJubilee Fine Arts, WaterKolours Fine Art, Ellis Fine Art, (works from) Kenkeleba House.

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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