Louisville's Black Avent-Garde: Robert L. Douglas
Professor Emeritus, Robert L. Douglas (1934 – 2023), a prolific visual artist, was a longtime resident of Louisville’s West End, a former community organizer, and a teacher and mentor to generations of artists and thinkers. Douglas’ work is at once rife with visual references drawn from art history and uniquely his own. A scholar, and multidisciplinary artist Professor Douglas explores many themes in his work, including (but not limited to): Defining Black art and aesthetics; connections between Africa and African America; standards of beauty and femininity; art and everyday life; and improvisation and abstraction in the creative and artistic process.
Featuring more than 30 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures, Louisville’s Black Avant-Garde: Robert L. Douglas presents rarely seen work from throughout the artist’s career, demonstrating the breadth of his practices and the continued relevance of his work in examining and reflecting the Black community in Louisville. Under Douglas’ leadership alongside other prominent artists such as Sam Gilliam, G.C. Coxe, Ed Hamilton, Johnny Richardson, Fred Bond, and Kenneth Victor Young, the Louisville Art Workshop publicly debuted in January 1967 in a converted West End Louisville storefront with the exhibition Designs in Space. The show and the subsequent exhibitions attracted the attention of other local artists, who joined and went on to organize workshops for a diverse array of subjects including sculpture, photography, poetry, creative writing, music, and theater. The Louisville Art Workshop was a creative hub in the city with a variety of educational workshops, artistic critiques for artists to hone their craft, and group shows for emerging talents to display their work. Through their community-centered approach, the group fostered a dynamic and forward-thinking atmosphere that challenged artistic and cultural norms, and was notably one of the only integrated artistic groups at the time. Despite his talents and experience as an artist, Douglas was denied work in the arts early in his career due to discriminatory hiring practices, and he turned to serving the community through social work and political organizing. Douglas brought this perspective to his work with the Louisville Art Workshop, helping to establish a social mission for the organization whose ultimate goal was to support and uplift the community instead of measuring success based on commercial interests. Inspired by revolutionary art theory and the ongoing Civil Rights movement, Douglas and his contemporaries embraced the concept of artists using their artistic creations to liberate oppressed people, while acknowledging that the mainstream art industry would deny them resources and platforms to showcase their work.
“The spirit of the Louisville Art Workshop is alive in Professor Douglas, and we rightly honor his legacy as a leader in the arts and champion for those underrepresented in our industry. While in the past, the Speed has omitted the rich cultural tapestry that the Louisville Art Workshop wove, we now have the unique opportunity as the state’s museum to recognize the historic contributions and modern-day impact of the Workshop,” Speed Curator of Academic Engagement and Special Projects fari nzinga said. “Professor Douglas himself influenced countless students through his own work, in community workshops, and in the University of Louisville classrooms, so it is truly exciting to trace his impact on Louisville’s contemporary art scene. We look forward to continuing this series with exhibitions honoring other noteworthy leaders of the movement.”
“This is indeed a great honor and opportunity, having visited the Speed Museum since my thirteenth birthday (my present to myself). Having my life and purpose as I have come to understand it shared with my community through my paintings and sculptures will give visualization to my life, also as a scholar and educator,” Robert L. Douglas said. “It is also fitting that I join my colleagues, Bob Thompson, Sam Gilliam, and Ken Young as a Speed Museum ‘fellow.’”
Louisville’s Black Avant-Garde is intended as a four-part annual series spotlighting leading artists of the Louisville Art Workshop. Louisville’s Black Avant-Garde: Robert L. Douglas is organized by the Speed Art Museum and curated by Dr. fari nzinga, Curator of Academic Engagement and Special Projects at the Speed, with support from Sarah Battle, Coordinator of Academic Programs and Publications, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, whose oral history research project, Painting a Legacy: the Black Artistic Community in Louisville, 1950s-1970s, provided a scholarly foundation for the exhibition.
Upcoming Dates For This Event:
- Sunday, October 1