Born in Cairo, Illinois in 1900, Woodruff spent his formative years in Nashville, Tennessee. He expressed an interest in art from an early age and served as a cartoonist for his high school’s newspaper. Following graduation, he moved to Indianapolis, Indiana and enrolled in the John Herron Art Institute but was forced to withdraw when he could no longer afford the tuition. Woodruff continued to pursue a career in the arts, working as a political illustrator for the historically black newspaper the Indiana Ledger and was first introduced to historic African art when a local art dealer gifted him a copy of Carl Einstein’s Afrikanische Plastik. Enamored by this distinct aesthetic, he developed an affinity for African sculpture; the bold, angular designs he observed were a major influence on his work and he was inspired by their linear framework. In 1926 Woodruff won a bronze medal in the Harmon Foundation’s annual competition and used the prize money to help fund a trip to Paris. He remained there for four years, studying at the Académie Scandinave and the Académie Moderne, and working alongside a group of expatriate African American artists including Henry Ossawa Tanner, Augusta Savage and Alain Locke. Though Woodruff did not directly engage with Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne or other members of the Gertrude Stein circle, he was nonetheless aware of their avant-garde aesthetics and began to incorporate elements of Cubism into his work.
Painted circa 1926, likely in Chicago, Picking Cotton is emblematic of Woodruff’s early aesthetic. The work was commissioned by Kaunders & Steuber Company, a Chicago-based cotton corporation, and depicts a group of workers tending to their crops. Utilizing broad brushstrokes and expressive color, he infuses the scene with emotion and conveys the ceaseless, repetitive nature of the labor. The scale of the composition foreshadows Woodruff’s later murals and engages the viewer. As David Driskell writes, “Hale Woodruff’s attitude toward his work is direct and pragmatic; he does not veil his methods or motives…In Woodruff’s paintings contours are opened to allow flesh and environment to flow into one another, and anatomical forms are fragmented. Line is permitted to function independently of form; its natural role of describing contours is minimized in the interest of an allover rhythm of swiftly executed dramatic movement” (Two Centuries of Black American Art, Los Angeles, California, 1976, p. 157).
Despite its early date, Picking Cotton is undoubtedly modern and progressive. Woodruff utilizes tactile, expressionistic brushstrokes to render the sea of cotton plants, blending the boundaries of representation and abstraction. The pastel lines on the horizon evoke the minimalist, meticulously rendered grid paintings of Agnes Martin from the 1960s and 70s (Fig. 1). While her canvases lack the gestural spontaneity present in Picking Cotton, both artists were concerned with color and line and utilized these tools to capture the world around them. Woodruff painted at least one other version of Picking Cotton, which presents a slightly varied view of the same scene and is in the collection of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1931, after returning from his sojourn in Paris, Woodruff founded the art school at Atlanta University, a predominantly African American institution. He received a grant to travel to Mexico and study under the tutelage of the renowned muralist Diego Rivera in the summer of 1936. While there, he observed the Mexican master’s process closely, assisting with the preparation of colors and the transferal of his figurative sketches onto walls. Woodruff admired the social and historical significance of Rivera’s murals (Fig. 2), which he later sought to translate into his own work. Indeed, he began producing more socially daring work following his time in Mexico. In 1939, Woodruff received his first largescale commission to create two cycles of murals for the Savery Library at Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama, where he has been invited to teach an art history course. The first series, known as the Amistad Murals, depicts the mutiny by African slaves aboard the Spanish ship Amistad in 1849, their subsequent trial in New Haven, Connecticut and finally their repatriation to West Africa following their acquittal. The second series illustrates the story of the Underground Railroad and the history of Talladega College. Undoubtedly influenced by Rivera, Woodruff utilized the bold, figurative style associated with social realism to capture these historical events for a national, public audience. Together, they are vibrant depictions of the longstanding struggle for civil rights and arguably Woodruff’s most iconic images.
In addition to his accomplished career as a painter, Woodruff also served as a teacher and mentor for an entire generation of African American artists. After establishing himself as a patron of the arts in the south, he initiated the Atlanta University Art Annuals, a national juried exhibition for black artists that expanded the opportunities for many who had previously been excluded from the American art scene. He also held teaching positions at New York University and was a founding member of Spiral, a group of fourteen African American artists in New York, including Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden among others, who came together to explore their common cultural experiences. As Driskell notes, “He left behind a legacy of a concerned and dedicated artist who helped nurture a number of important American artists of different races during a long, distinguished career as an artist and a teacher” (The Other Side of Color, Rohnert Park, California, 2001, p. 55).
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