“I think abstractly because I think that abstraction is another kind of reality. And although [as an artist] you may see a realistic subject like a glass or table or chair, you have to…transform that into a picture, and my whole feeling is that to get the spectator involved, [art] has to extend his vision, not…verify that which he already knows, but extend his vision and his way of seeing so that there is a wider experience open…to him, and this is the way I work.”[i]
Hale Aspacio Woodruff was born in Cairo, Illinois and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, by his widowed mother, Augusta, a domestic laborer who recognized her son’s gift for art and encouraged it. In high school, Woodruff was the school paper’s cartoonist, and after graduating in 1918, he moved to Indianapolis to study at the John Herron Art Institute. Unfortunately, his art education was cut short when he could no longer afford tuition. In the early 1920s, Woodruff moved to Chicago in search of better opportunities. He applied to and was accepted by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but was dissatisfied with the program and returned to Indiana. Woodruff’s passion for African art was sparked when local art dealer Herman Lieber gave him a book by Carl Einstein titled Afrikanische Plastik. Although Woodruff spoke no German, he was captivated by the images, and began to incorporate African aesthetics into his work. In 1926, he won a bronze medal in the Harmon Foundation’s annual competition. Impressed by his accomplishment, members of the town of Franklin, Indiana raised money for his 1927 trip to Europe. Woodruff stayed in Paris for four years, studying at the Académie Scandinave and the Académie Moderne. While in Paris, he met Henry Ossawa Tanner as well as Claude McKay, Augusta Savage, and Walter White of the NAACP. In 1931, when the Depression made it impossible for Woodruff to stay in France any longer, he returned to the United States, taking a teaching position at Atlanta University.
In 1936, Woodruff traveled to Mexico to spend the summer learning mural painting from Diego Rivera. Over the course of his career, Woodruff created several murals in the United States, some with the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, and some independently. In 1939 the president of the historically black Talladega College in Alabama commissioned Woodruff to do a series of murals commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Amistad uprising. In 1949, he and Charles Alston collaborated on two murals for the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company in Los Angeles, depicting the roles African Americans played in the history of California. However, in Woodruff’s eyes, his most significant mural work was his series titled Art of the Negro. Commissioned in 1950 for the library of Atlanta University, the works celebrated the numerous contributions of African Americans to all the arts and were completed in 1951.
Like Romare Bearden and Charles Alston, Woodruff refused to limit himself to either figural representation or abstraction, and he often worked in both visual languages within the same period of his life. Woodruff was well-versed in the principles of European and African abstraction and had been creating abstract art since 1931. In 1946, he left Atlanta for a teaching position in the art education department at New York University, where his colleagues included William Baziotes. Woodruff was in the city during the height of abstract expressionism, and while the work of the New York School had an influence on his art, equally important was his life-long interest in African art. In his abstract paintings of the 1950s and 1960s, expressionistic color and brushwork intersect with patterns, shapes, and pictographic forms inspired by the dynamic compositions of African sculpture, painting, and textile design.
When Spiral was founded in 1963, it was Woodruff who suggested the name, after by the spiral of Archimedes, “because, from a starting point, it moves outward embracing all directions, yet constantly forward.”[ii] Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, the artists of Spiral, including Bearden, Lewis, Alston, Ernest Crichlow, and Emma Amos, met regularly to discuss the role art would play in the struggle for racial equality. While each member pursued his or her own vision, Spiral lived up to Woodruff’s artistic ideals about the relationship between local experience and universal humanity in art. As he explained in an interview, “any black artist who claims that he is creating black art must begin with some black image. The black image can be the environment, it can be the problems that one faces, it can be the look on a man’s face. It can be anything. It’s got to have this kind of pin-pointed point of departure. But if it’s worth its while, it’s also got to be universal in its broader impact and its presence.”[iii]
Woodruff was a beloved teacher and respected artist throughout his career, although wide-scale success eluded him to some degree. In 1979, the year before he died, the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York mounted a retrospective survey of fifty years of his work. Since then, his work has been included in several historical shows, including A Shared Tradition: Art by Four African Americans at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (1996) and Abstract Expressionism: Further Evidence at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (2009). In 2013, Woodruff’s newly restored Amistad murals were the subject of a traveling exhibition, Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College. His work is represented in public collections throughout the country, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Baltimore Museum of Art; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; Howard University Gallery, Washington, DC; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Studio Museum in Harlem.
[i] “Hale Woodruff, Painter-Teacher,” Obituary, New York Times, September 11, 1980.
[ii] Sharon Patten, African-American Art (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1998), 185.
[iii] Oral history interview with Hale Woodruff, 1968 Nov. 18, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
SELECTED MUSEUM COLLECTIONS
Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, AR
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA
Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH
The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
Howard University Gallery, Washington, DC
Jackson College, Jackson, MI
Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
New York State University at Oneonta, NY
New York University, New York, NY
Bertha Schaefer Gallery, New York, NY
Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Spelman College, Atlanta, GA
The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY
Talladega College, AL