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John Biggers (1924-2000)


1 of 8

The Gleaners, 1943
oil on canvas
27 1/4" x 40", signed

Old Couple (aka Home Sweet Home), 1944

oil on board
40" x 32"

Sharecropper, 1945
oil on canvas
24" x 18", signed

Untitled, 1945
graphite on paperboard
24" x 17 1/2" sheet size
23 1/2" x 17 1/8" sight size, signed and dated

Freedom March, 1952
terracotta
20 1/2" x 7 1/2" x 12"

The History of Negro Education in Morris County, Texas, 1955

conté crayon and gouache on paper
31 1/2" x 130 1/4"

 

Cradle (Mother and Three Children), c.1970

graphite and conte crayon on paper
30" x 22 1/4", signed

 

Family Circle, 1997
acrylic on canvas
60" x 36"
signed 

Exhibitions


New & Noteworthy

Art in America, April 2005

by Jonathan Goodman

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New York Press, December 2004

by Julia Morton

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Prints & Publications


Artist Information

“I began to see art not primarily as an individual expression of talent, but as a responsibility, to reflect the spirit and style of the Negro people. It became an awesome responsibility to me.”[1]

Known for his narrative murals and outstanding draftsmanship, John Biggers dedicated his work to the depiction of the human condition. Born to Paul and Cora Biggers, John was the youngest of seven children, and grew up in segregated Gastonia, North Carolina. When Biggers was two, his older sister died at the age of ten from diabetes. Eleven years later, his father succumbed to the same disease. Placing her children’s education above all else, Cora Biggers sent John and his brother Joe to Lincoln Academy, a private boarding school for African American children in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. At Lincoln, Biggers worked as the school’s “fireman” to help cover tuition costs, lighting the morning fires for the dormitories. This job gave him a rare opportunity to be alone, and Biggers would read The New York Times Book Review and make sketches based on newspaper stories. In addition to providing Biggers the opportunity to pursue art, Lincoln also gave Biggers a sense of connection to African culture. The school’s principal, Henry McDowell, had been a missionary in West Africa, and he taught his students about the value of African culture, a lesson Biggers would carry with him throughout his career.

In 1941, Biggers entered Hampton Institute (later renamed Hampton University), where he studied art under the guidance of Viktor Lowenfeld. At Hampton, Biggers also met and befriended artists Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett. In 1943, Biggers’ mural, Dying Soldier, was featured in the landmark exhibition Young Negro Art, organized by Lowenfeld for the MoMA. That same year, his studies at Hampton were interrupted when he was drafted into the US Navy. In 1945, Biggers was sent to a naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, where he became severely depressed. After a shore leave visit to his brother, Biggers checked himself into the Philadelphia Naval Hospital where the medical board declared him temperamentally unfit for service and granted him an honorable discharge. In 1946, Biggers enrolled in 1946 at Pennsylvania State University to continue his studies with Lowenfeld, receiving his BS and MS degrees in 1948. In 1954, he also earned his PhD in education from the university.

In 1949, Biggers moved to Houston, Texas where he chaired the nascent art department at Texas State University (later renamed Texas Southern University). The following year, he entered a state-wide competition sponsored by the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston) and won the purchase prize for his drawing The Cradle. However, Biggers was unable to attend the opening of the exhibition because of the museum’s segregationist policies restricting black visitors to Thursdays only. The incident motivated the museum’s director, James Chillman, to successfully campaign to end the institution’s discriminatory practices. In 1952, Biggers again encountered a similar situation when he won a purchase prize from a competition at the Dallas Museum of Fine Art.

In 1957, Biggers won a UNESCO fellowship and became one of the first black American artists to travel to Africa. Over the course of six months, he and his wife, Hazel, visited Nigeria, Togo, Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin), and Ghana, where they met and befriended scholar Patrick Hulede, who enlightened them about Ghanian culture and history. For Biggers, this trip was a “positive shock,” that strengthened the sense of connection to Africa he had felt since high school. Ultimately, the journey inspired Biggers to create his award-winning illustrated book Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa, which was published to acclaim in 1962. He went back to Africa again in 1969 with funds he received from the Danforth Foundation’s E. Harris Harbison Award for Distinguished Teaching. On this six-month trip, Biggers and his wife returned to Ghana and also visited in Egypt, Sudan, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Over the course of his long career, Biggers moved from paintings that were overtly critical of racial and economic injustice to more allegorical compositions, but certain motifs, such as the shotgun house that he used as a symbol of black American life, persist across his entire diverse body of work. Biggers drew inspiration from African art and culture, from the injustices of a segregated United States, from the stoic women of his own family, and from the heroism of everyday survival. His work continually evolved over five decades, and in 1995, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Hampton University Art Museum organized his first comprehensive retrospective, exposing the depth of his rich legacy. In 2004, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery presented the artist’s first gallery exhibition and the first opportunity to view in New York City more than a singular work.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is the exclusive representative of the Estate of John Biggers.


[1] John Biggers, quoted in Olive Jensen Theisen, A Life on Paper: The Drawings and Lithographs of John Thomas Biggers (University of North Texas Press, 2006), 13.
 

 

 

Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and Atlantic 1945-1965
Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany
October 14, 2016 – July 2, 2017
http://www.hausderkunst.de/

1941               
The Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA (later Hampton University)

1948              
B.S. and M.S, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

1954               
Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

SELECTED PUBLIC COLLECTIONS

The Adept New American Museum, Mt. Vernon, NY
The African-American Museum, Dallas, TX
Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, AR
Atlanta University Collection of African American Art, Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY
California African American Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, SC
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX
Diggs Gallery, Winston-Salem State University, Winston-Salem, NC
Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA
Hampton University Museum, Hampton, VA
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin, TX
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
Northeast Texas Community College, Mount Pleasant, TX
Palmer Art Museum, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA
Paris Public Library, Paris, TX
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, NY
Texas Southern University Museum, Houston, TX
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT
 

1951 
Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

1962 
Paintings by Dr. John Biggers, Jewish Community Center, Houston, TX
Drawings of West Africa: Dr. John Biggers, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Illustrations, Fort Worth Art Center, Fort Worth, TX

1963
Drawings by John Biggers, Dallas Public Library, Dallas, TX; Shreveport Public Schools,
Shreveport, LA; Houston Jewish Community Center, Houston, TX; Laguna Gloria Art  Museum, Austin, TX; Lubbock Museum of Fine Arts, Lubbock, TX

1967
Huston-Tillotson College, Austin, TX

1968
John Biggers: One Man Show, Fine Art Department, Winston-Salem State University, Winston-Salem, NC; River Oaks Garden Club, Houston, TX

1969  
John Biggers, Graceland College, Lamoni, IA

1975 
The Art of John Biggers, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX

1978
The Web of Life in Africa: An Exhibition of Drawings and Paintings by John T. Biggers, African American Cultural Center, Dallas, TX

1980
Ceremonies and Visions: The Art of John Biggers, Laguna Gloria Museum, Austin, TX

1983
John Biggers: Bridges, California Museum of African American History and Culture, Los  Angeles, CA
Boats and Bridges, Sutton’s Black Heritage Gallery, Houston, TX

1984
Dr. John T. Biggers, Traditional African Art Gallery, Texas Southern University, Houston, TX

1987 
John Biggers: Patchwork Quilts and Shotguns, Transco Gallery, Transco Energy Company,  Houston, TX
Selected Prints of John Biggers, 1950 to the Present, Balene, Inc., Houston, TX

1989
John Biggers: Paintings and Drawings: 1949-1988, Delta Fine Arts Center and Sawtooth Center  for Visual Arts, Winston-Salem, NC

1990
Five Decades: John Biggers and the Hampton Art Tradition, Hampton University Museum, Hampton, VA
John Biggers: Selected Works, Pyramid Gallery, Little Rock, AR

1991
John Biggers: Mural Sketches, Diggs Gallery, Winston-Salem State University, Winston-Salem, NC

1993
John Biggers: Cultural Legacy from 1950-1992, Northeast Texas Community College, Mt  Pleasant, TX 
John Biggers: Paintings and Drawings, Fayetteville Museum of Art, Fayetteville, NC

1995
The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT; Hampton University Museum, Hampton, VA; Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

1999
Five Decades of Drawings by John Biggers, Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State  University, University Park, PA
Aunt Dicey Tales: John Biggers’ Drawings for the Folktale, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin, TX

2001
Remembering John Biggers (1924-2001): A Memorial Exhibition, National Center of Afro-American Artists, Boston, MA

2004
John Biggers: My America, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY; New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA

2010
The Art of John Biggers, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA

2016
John Biggers: Wheels in Wheels, Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC

1943 
Young Negro Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

1944
3rd Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculptures and Prints by Negro Artists, Atlanta University,  Atlanta, GA; 1947, 1950, 1953
Exhibition of Paintings & Sculpture by Art Departments of Virginia Colleges, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA

1945
Tenth Exhibition of Work by Virginia Artists, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA; Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD

1947
Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture, and Prints by Negro Artists, Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA

1950
25th Annual Exhibit of Works by Houston Artists, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955
12th Annual Texas Painting and Sculpture Exhibition, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX

1951
Student-Faculty Art Exhibit of Drawings, Ceramics, Sculpture and Paintings, State Capitol Building, Austin, TX

1952
Fifth Southwestern Exhibition of Prints and Drawings, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX
Texas Contemporary Artists, M. Knoedler & Company, New York, NY; Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX

1953
Integration: The Use of Painting and Sculpture with Architecture in Daily Life, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX
Painting Sculpture Ceramics from Texas Southern University, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX

1954
Drawings and Paintings by John Biggers and Jack Boynton, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; Architectural League, New York, NY

1958 
Ford Foundation Invitational Art Exhibit, Fort Worth Art Center, TX; 1959

1960
Life in West Africa, City of Philadelphia Commercial Museum, Philadelphia, PA

1965 
Creativity and the Negro, Burpee Center, Rockford College, Rockford, IL

1966
New Art Faculty Exhibition, Wisconsin Union Galleries, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI

1968
Sphere of Art in Texas, Institute of Texan Cultures, University of Texas, San Antonio, TX
Benin, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Festival of the African Peoples, International Art Show, Los Angeles Sports Arena, Los Angeles, CA

1969
Twelve Black American Artists, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI

1970
An Exhibition of Black American Art from Times of Slavery to the Present, Muskingum College, New Concord, OH
First Annual Black Arts Festival: Operation Breadbasket, 2413 Dowling Street, Chicago, IL

1971
Texas Painting and Sculpture: The Twentieth Century, Pollock Galleries, Owen Arts Center, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX
Home Folk Africa, Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, Boston, MA

1972
Reflections: The Afro-American Artist, Benton Convention Center, Winston-Salem Delta Fine  Arts, Inc., Winston-Salem, NC

1975
Exhibition of Afro-American Art Collection, California State Museum of Science and Industry, Los Angeles, CA

1976
Two Centuries of Black American Art: 1750-1950, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; Brooklyn  Museum, Brooklyn, NY
Bearden, Biggers, Gilliam, Hayes, Stovall, Erwin, Hill, Taylor Art Gallery, North Carolina AT&T State University, Greensboro, NC

1978 
Great Kings of Africa, Southern University, Baton Rouge, LA
Fire! An Exhibition of 100 Artists, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TX

1980
Houston Area Exhibition: Recapitulation 1928–1960, Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, Houston, TX

1983
Images of Texas, Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas, Austin, TX; Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi, TX; Amarillo Art Center, Amarillo, TX

1985
Fresh Paint: The Houston School, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; Institute for Art and Urban Resources, Inc., P.S. 1, New York, NY; Oklahoma Art Center, Oklahoma City, OK
America at Work: Realism Between the World Wars, Transco Energy Company, Houston, TX

1986
Artists Select: Contemporary Perspectives by Afro-American Artists, University Art Museum, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ

1989
Black Art – Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African–American Art, Dallas Museum of Art, TX; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism, Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, DC; California African American Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Duke University Museum of Art, Durham, NC; Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston,  Houston, TX; The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY
Forerunners and Newcomers: Houston’s Leading African American Artists, Art Gallery, University of Houston, Clearlake, TX
Messages from the South, Sewall Art Gallery, Rice University, Houston, TX
The Private Eye: Selected Works from Collections of the Friends of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Houston, TX

1990
Tradition and Innovation: A Museum Celebration of Texas Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston,  TX

1991
Black Heritage, Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas, Austin, TX
Forerunners and Newcomers Revisited: Houston’s African American Artists in the Lead, Dishman Art Gallery, Lamar University, Beaumont, TX

1992
Alone in a Crowd: Prints of the 1930s-40s by African American Artists - From the Collection of Reba and Dave Williams, Newark Museum, Newark, NJ; Long Beach Museum, Long Beach, CA; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England; New York State Museum, Albany, NY; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT; J.B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY; Philadelphia Museum, Philadelphia PA; Baltimore Museum, Baltimore,  MD; Gibbs Museum of Art, Charleston, SC; Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach, FL;  Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, AR; Fine Arts Museum of the South, Mobile, AR; The  Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY; The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; Saint Louis Museum, St. Louis, MO; The High Museum,  Atlanta, GA
Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists In the Collection of the National Museum of American Art, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT; IBM Gallery of Science and Art,  New York, NY; Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN; The Columbus Museum, Columbus, GA

1994
The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African-American Art, San Antonio Museum, San Antonio, TX; El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, TX; Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory  University, Atlanta, GA; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH; Hunter  Museum of Art, Chattanooga, TN

1996
In the Spirit of Resistance: African-American Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY; African American Museum, Dallas, TX;  Diggs Gallery, Winston-Salem State University, Winston-Salem, NC; Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, OH; The Mexican Museum, San Francisco, CA

1997
Revisiting American Art: Works from the Collections of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, NY

1999
Locating the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in African-American Art, Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, The  Studio Museum in Harlem, NY; Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries, Atlanta, GA; North  Carolina Central University Art Museum, Durham, NC; Fisk University with Tennessee State Museum, Nashville, TN; Hampton University, Hampton, VA; Howard University  Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Transatlantic Dialogue: Contemporary Art In and Out of Africa, Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC; National Museum of African Art,  Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; DuSable Museum of African American  History, Chicago, IL

2000
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, VII, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Appleton Museum of Art, Florida State University, Ocala, FL
Our New Day Begun: African American Artists Entering the Millennium, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, Austin, TX; University Museum, Texas Southern University, Houston, TX
Coming Home, Art 1, Gastonia, NC

2001 
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, VIII, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY; Texas Southern University Museum, Houston, TX
A Spiritual: An Exhibit of Prints by Dr. John Biggers and Three of His Former Students, Charles  Criner, Earlie Hudnall, Harvey Johnson, Longview Museum of Fine Arts, Longview, TX
Curator’s Choice: Works on Paper from the Hampton University Museum Collection, Hampton University Museum, Hampton, VA

2002
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, IX, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY
In the Spirit of Martin: The Living Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles H. Wright  Museum of African American History, Detroit, MI; Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach,  FL; Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, MN; International Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN; Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, Montgomery, AL

2003
African-American Art: 20th Century Masterworks, X, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY
African-American Masters, Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, New York Historical Society, New York, NY; Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN; The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Jacksonville, FL; Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH; Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH; The Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE; Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA; Utah Museum of Fine  Arts, Salt Lake City, UT; Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts, Atlanta, GA
Painting History: The Making of the Murals of Charles White and John Biggers, Hampton  University Museum, Hampton, VA
Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art, Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando, FL; New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA; Texas Southern University Museum, Houston, TX; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX; Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, NC

2004
Ascension: Works by African American Artists of North Carolina, Diggs Gallery, Winston-Salem State University, Winston-Salem, NC
Embracing the Muse: Africa and African American Art, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York,  NY
John Biggers: My America, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York, NY

2005
Syncopated Rhythms: 20th Century African American Art from the George and Joyce Wein Collection, Boston University Art Gallery, Boston, MA
Eye Contact: Painting and Drawing in American Art, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY
The Collector's View, Noyes Museum of Art, Oceanville, NJ

2006 
In the Hands of African American Collectors: The Personal Treasures of Bernard & Shirley
Kinsey, California African American Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Building Community: The African-American Scene, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

2007
The Harmon & Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art:  Works on Paper, The College of Wooster Art Museum, Wooster, OH
Black Masters, American University Museum, Washington, DC

2008
Landscape of Slavery:  The Plantation in American Art, Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC; University of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville, VA; Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, GA
African American Art:  200 Years, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

2009 
Collecting African American Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York, NY; Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, Baltimore, MD; I.P. Stanback Museum & Planetarium, Orangeburg, SC; Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Skokie, IL; Florida Holocaust Museum, St. Petersburg, FL; National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia, PA; Holocaust Memorial Center, Farmington Hills, MI; Dusable Museum of African & American History, Chicago, IL

2010
African American Art: Highlights from the Hervy Hiner Collection, Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont, TX
Translating Revolution: U.S. Artists Interpret Mexican Muralism, National Museum of Mexican Art, Chicago, IL

2012
African American Art in the 20th Century, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Civil War Vignette: Paintings and Drawings of Freedom Fighters, Hampton University Museum, Hampton, VA
Full Spectrum: Prints from the Brandywine Workshop, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
INsite/INchelsea: The Inaugural Exhibition, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

2014
RISING UP/UPRISING: Twentieth Century African American Art, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
The Harmon & Harriet Kelley Collection of African American Art: Works on Paper, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA

2015
Represent: 200 Years of African American Art in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Collectors Legacy: Selections from the Sandra Lloyd Baccus Collection, The David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD

2016
Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945-1965, Haus Der Kunst, Munich, Germany; Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

2017
Constructing Identity: Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African-American Art, Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR
Origins: The Historical Legacy of Visual Art at Winston-Salem State University, Diggs Gallery at Winston-Salem State University, Winston-Salem, NC
The Last Ten Years: In Focus; Selections from the David C. Driskell Center Collections, David C. Driskell Center Gallery,University of Maryland, College Park, MD
Figuratively Speaking, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

2018
Histórias Afro-Atlânticas, Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) and Instituto Tomie Ohtake, São Paulo, Brazil

 

 

1950 
Purchase Prize, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Purchase Prize, Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA

1951  
Schlumberger Prize, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX

1952
Purchase Prize for Drawing, Neiman Marcus Company, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX
Stipend, Ella Lyman Cabot Trust, Cambridge, MA 

1953 
Purchase Prize for Prints, Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA
Purchase Prize for Sculpture, Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA

1957 
UNESCO Fellowship for study in West Africa

1963
Excellence of Design Award, Chicago Book Clinic, for Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa
Excellence of Design Award, Southern Book Competition, for Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa 
Best Texas Book Design, Dallas Museum of Art, for Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa

1964
Professor Award for Outstanding Scholarly and Academic Achievement, Minnie Stevens-Piper Foundation, TX

1968 
E. Harris Harbison Award for Distinguished Teaching, Danforth Foundation, St. Louis, MO

1972 
Distinguished Alumnus Award, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

1981 
Mayor’s Award for Outstanding Contributions as Visual Artist, Houston, TX

1988 
Texas Artist of the Year, Art League of Houston, Houston, TX

1992 
VanDerZee Award, Brandywine Graphic Workshop of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA

2013
John Biggers’ Seed Project, the city of Minneapolis with partners Obsidian Arts, Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center and the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, Minneapolis, MN

 

COLLECTION DESCRIPTION

Biographical Note

John Thomas Biggers (1924-2001), African American artist, author, and educator, was born on April 13, 1924 to Paul and Cora Biggers in Gastonia, North Carolina, the youngest of seven children. He attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Hampton, Virginia and started taking art classes under the tutelage of Viktor Lowenfeld, but was drafted into the US Navy in 1943 and served until December 1945. Also in 1943, Biggers was featured in the exhibit Young Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Biggers returned to Hampton in 1946 for one semester, and when Lowenfeld moved to Pennsylvania State University (State College, Pennsylvania) in mid-1946, Biggers followed him to study in the art department there, receiving a Bachelor of Science in January 1948 and a Master of Science in September 1948. On December 27, 1948, Biggers married Hazel Hales, whom he had met at Hampton in 1942. Biggers received a doctoral degree in 1954 from Pennsylvania State University with a thesis entitled The Negro Woman in American Life and Education.

Biggers commenced a teaching career soon after obtaining his masters degree. In 1949, Biggers accepted a position as an instructor at Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery, but moved to Houston, Texas, in August to establish and serve as department head of the Art Department at Texas State University for Negroes (later Texas Southern University), where he spent over thirty years of his career. Biggers published a book entitled Black Art in Houston in 1978 with Carroll Simms and Edward Weems. He retired from teaching in 1983.

Biggers' first major works were the egg tempera paintings Dying Soldier (1942), Community Preacher (1943), and U.S. Navy Mural (1945). The current locations of the first two works are unknown, and U.S. Navy Mural is currently disassembled. Biggers followed these works in the late 1940s with the murals, Burial, Sharecroppers, Baptism, Day of the Harvest, and Night of the Poor. The next phase in Biggers' career came with his move to Houston. In the 1950s Biggers produced Harvesters and Gleaners (1952), Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education (1953), History of Education in Morris County, Texas (1955), and History of the International Longshoremen's Local 872 (1957).

In developing his artistic projects, Biggers traveled extensively to learn about the African cultural experience. In 1957, John and Hazel spent six months on a United Nations fellowship traveling in Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Dahomey. He published Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa, a book based on these travels, in 1962. A Danforth award in 1969 allowed John and Hazel to spend six months in Egypt, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana. In 1980, Biggers visited Haiti along with other Texas Southern faculty and also visited Amsterdam and Kenya in 1987, and attended the National Conference of Artists meetings in Dakar, Senegal (1984) and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1988). After a United Nations-funded trip to Africa, Biggers began to incorporate more abstract and symbolic images and patterns in his work, starting with the transitional works Web of Life (1960), Red Barn Farm (1960), and Birth from the Sea (1966).

Biggers undertook a number of major mural projects throughout his career and in his later works, increased the scale of abstract iconography and began to incorporate quilted patterns in his murals. He produced a number of murals in Houston buildings, including Family Unity (1974-1978), Quilting Party (1980-1981), Song of the Drinking Gourds (1987), East Texas Patchwork (1987), and a mural honoring Christia V. Adair, one of Houston's most important civil rights leaders.

Biggers returned to Gastonia in 1990, and was commissioned to complete two major mural projects. He completed Ascension and Origins at the Winston-Salem State University library in North Carolina in 1991, and painted House of the Turtle and Tree House at Hampton University that same year. In 1994, he drew the illustrations for Maya Angelou's poem "Our Grandmothers," but suffered from declining health in the late 1990s. John Biggers died in 2001.
Scope and Content Note

The collection consists of the papers of John Biggers from 1950-2001. The papers include correspondence, photographs, printed material, professional materials, subject files, printed material, writings, and audiovisual material. The materials document his entire professional career, starting with his work at Hampton Institute, but the bulk of the material relates to his work at Texas Southern University. Correspondence includes Biggers' personal and professional correspondence with friends, colleagues, and former students especially documenting his relationship with mentor, Viktor Lowenfeld (1903-1960); his work as founder and dean of the Art Department at Texas Southern University; and his work as a muralist. The photographs and slides consist primarily of images Biggers used while researching and composing his murals, in addition to extensive documentation of his in-progress and finished works. Also included are photographs of events he attended or that were held in his honor and people involved in his life including friends, family, and collegues.

Printed material contains information about or collected by John Biggers. Included are calendars, clippings, newsletters and annual reports, pamphlets and programs, periodicals, and promotional materials that highlight Biggers' life and work. Biggers' work as an artist and as an educator is further documented by his professional material. Documents relating to John Biggers' work as an artist and arts advocate include planning and promotional material from a number of public exhibitions of Biggers' work as well as handwritten research notes on African art; financial documents about loans and sales of his work; artwork and sketches by Biggers and other artists; as well as a significant amount of material from Biggers' tenure as the head of the Art Department at Texas Southern University in Houston. Subject files contain materials on topics such as community projects as well as other professional endeavors such as invitations for speaking and art project opportunities.

Writings contain works by both by John Biggers and by others including Olive Theisen. The writings by Biggers consist of notes and typescript corrections of two of Biggers' books, Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa (1979) and Black Art in Houston: The Texas Southern University Experience (1978). Also included in Biggers' writings are shorter works such as lectures, abstracts, and eulogies. Writings by others consist of longer works written about Biggers and his artwork, as well as unpublished essays and typescripts collected and read by Biggers. Of particular note are three typescript editions of Olive Theisen's The Murals of John Thomas Biggers: American Muralist, African-American Artist, an extensive collection and analysis of Biggers' murals. In later published editions, Biggers is listed as a co-author of the work; in this finding aid, all drafts are described under Theisen for continuity. Also included in writings is a typescript for Tales of Aunt Dicy, an annotated collection of Biggers' drawings of folk tales, as well as other shorter essays on Biggers, including "John Biggers: American Muralist." There are also manuscripts of collected poetry, short stories, student essays, lectures, and an unidentified typescript on the Texas State University Arts Center. Audiovisual material consists of audiocassettes and VHS tapes of exhibits and commencement ceremonies as well as recordings on topics of interest to Biggers such as intrasound and animal rights.

Arrangement Note

Organized into 7 series: (1) Correspondence, (2) Photographs, (3) Printed materials, (4) Professional material, (5) Subject files, (6) Writings, and (7) Audiovisual materials.

http://findingaids.library.emory.edu/documents/biggers1179/