Leo Twiggs: American Original
By Wim Roefs
Not so long ago, painter Leo Twiggs took U.S. 178, then 378, from Orangeburg, S.C., to Athens, Ga. The back roads led through the small towns where, in the 1960s, the sight of rebel flags and Civil War monuments would trigger Twiggs’ exploration of the South’s Confederate legacy. As during those 1960s trips, Twiggs, perhaps the country’s best-known batik artist, was on his way to the University of Georgia. This time it was not to become that institution’s first African-American Ed.D. in art education, as he did in 1970. This time Twiggs went to see “Myths and Metaphors,” the first retrospective of his work, which opened in January 2004 at the Georgia Museum of Art on the UGA campus.
The Confederacy features prominently in the exhibition, which in April 2006 completes its two-year tour at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia. Images of ragged rebel flags, including a white one, are dominant in four paintings from 1970-71. They are part of Twiggs’ Commemoration series, in which he addressed the Confederate shadow over the South. During Civil War centennial celebrations in the early 1960s, with the Civil Rights Movement in full swing, South Carolina politicians had raised a rebel flag over the State Capitol in Columbia, claiming the state once again for its white population and its white population only. As South Carolinians in the 1990s again fought over the Confederate mark on their capitol, Twiggs revisited the theme. Through paintings of weathered rebel flags, also represented in the retrospective, he again denied whites a monopolistic hold on this icon of exclusiveness, simply by painting it.
The rebel flag also features in many of Twiggs most recent paintings. In Flag, of 2005, a small whitish flag with an overly dark cross is swallowed, or perhaps peaks through, a much larger cloud-like field of grayish purple. While the flag’s visual dominance suggests a Confederate presence, the flag’s smallness surely doesn’t suggest a triumphant one, nor does its whiteness or the dark cross through it. In his new High Cotton series, Twiggs plays with notions of societal hierarchy, placing flags of different colors, with the familiar cross, on top of a cotton field near the top of the canvas, next to a plantation home or a palmetto tree.
“What I like to do is change the way people perceive things,” Twiggs says. “The X of the Confederate flag is the Cross of St. Andrew, but it’s also a really great graphic design. Does it have the same power if you change its colors? Is it still the same thing? No one sees the Cross of St. Andrew or the cross on the Episcopalian logo as Confederate, so if you change the color of flags, it might create a certain ambiguity. And if you change the way you look at something, the thing you look at will change.”
Throughout his career, Twiggs has reminded those who need reminding that African Americans, too, are a part of the Confederate and neo-Confederate South. In Veterans with Flag, from 1970-71, a white man and black child sit underneath a rebel flag. In the Silent Crossings series of a few years back, a Cross of St. Andrew is stripped of Confederate trappings and looks like a railroad crossing sign, a common image in the rural South. The series, Twiggs says, symbolizes race issues that people have to overcome silently, as they linger without being discussed. Silent Crossing #5 includes a figure marked by a target and became the point of departure for Twiggs’ recent Moving Targets series.
“Early on, we were moving targets,” Twiggs says, “especially black people who were successful in business or otherwise moved out of ‘their place.’ Often they were accused of corruption, castigated for things others would get away with, destroyed. Then comes 9/11, and not just African Americans but all of us become moving targets. I am from a generation that always was aware of being a moving target. Now everyone is aware of that.”
Twiggs is “an American original,” art historian Frank Martin has argued. He makes “formal and aesthetic contributions unlike those of any other American painter.” Twiggs, Martin wrote in the retrospective’s catalogue, has “an uncanny ability to reconcile a multiplicity of cultural traditions with integrity, while simultaneously offering insightful commentary regarding aesthetic, ethical, and social issues that are translated, with understated power, through his unique experience.”
Twiggs began to experiment with batik in the mid-1960s and within years became closely associated with the medium. In several 1970s exhibitions, Twiggs shared the stage with a who’s who of African-American art, including Jacob Lawrence, Lois Mailou Jones, Romare Bearden, Selma Burke, Richmond Barthe, John Biggers, Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff. Woodruff had been his teacher at New York University in the early 1960s. During the 1970s, Twiggs was included in books on African-American art by J. Edgar Atkinson, Samella Lewis and Elton Fax. He had solo museum exhibitions at North Carolina’s Asheville Museum, New York state’s Schenectady Museum, and the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Although Twiggs studied in Chicago and New York in the 1960s, he stayed put in his native South Carolina, in Orangeburg, far away from metropolitan art centers and major universities where reputations often are built and maintained. He focused on developing his art, his art department at South Carolina State University, his university’s museum and his home state’s art infrastructure.
At S.C. State, where Twiggs taught from 1964 to 1998, the art program he led built a cadre of African-American art teachers for K-12, a first for South Carolina. He spearheaded the establishment of the university’s I. P. Stanback Museum and Planetarium and the university’s new fine arts building. Twiggs hopped on boards here and commissions there, making decisions about, say, his state’s arts commission, its art collection, its State Museum, the Guild of South Carolina Artists, and the Governor’s School for the Arts. Often as the token black fellow, he put black South Carolinians on the radar as artists, art administrators and audiences. In 1981, he was the first to receive as an individual South Carolina’s highest art award, the Elizabeth O’Neil Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts.
To do all Twiggs has done and keep his art as fresh as he has is almost impossible, says artist Benny Andrews, a Georgia native living in New York City. Fax called it “a near miracle” in 1978. “Someone of his stature,” says Andrews, who retired from Queens College at the City University of New York, “could have very easily gone to a white university as a chair of a department or a very solid professorship. They really were raiding those [smaller] schools, even Harvard and Yale and City University and all those kind of places. They were looking for people like him.” But Twiggs stayed at S.C. State, which had art courses but no department when he arrived. “I couldn’t wait,” he says, “to start an art department.”
Twiggs was born in 1934 and raised in rural St. Stephen, north of Charleston and not far from Orangeburg. St. Stephen, Orangeburg, South Carolina, the South and especially the black community remained Twiggs’ home and inspiration. His art is about subjects, topics, issues and people from or close to his Southern upbringing and countryside home. But through familiar specifics, Twiggs addresses broader themes, be it black culture, including the blues, the relationship between generations, religion and spirituality, or his region’s lingering Confederate mindset.
“In a single work,” Martin wrote in the retrospective’s catalogue, “Twiggs may present Southern regional themes, allude to a realm of intuition, magic, and traditional African religious elements, offer autobiographical information, and evoke, without effort, an aesthetic linkage to the most advanced aspects of Abstract Expressionism.” Martin is the former curator of exhibitions and collections at S. C. State’s Stanback Museum and intimately familiar with Twiggs and his work.
While Twiggs’ paintings are always of something, his images often don’t dominate as images but as shapes, lines and fields of color. As such, the paintings seldom are straightforward snapshots but abstracted tableaus that are at once symbolic and narrative, allowing for interpretation on different levels.
Twiggs’ imagery, symbols and cast of characters include old and young folks, whom he deliberately links, as in 1984’s Extended Family Portrait, which, at 52 by 38 inches, is his largest painting. The figures, clustered just off-center, are simply colored-in contours, without facial features, whose ages are, in typical Twiggs fashion, suggested only by the size, shape and heaviness or lightness of their forms.
South Carolina’s native Palmetto tree, a beach, and shacks appear in 1999’s Blues at the Beach, which seems to mock the sanitation of the blues, as in the House of Blues chain, for instance in nearby Myrtle Beach. In Blues at the Beach #5 of 2003, briefs-and-bikini-clad pinkish people lay around leisurely but starkly cut off from their darker surroundings, populated with distant, introverted and clothed figures looking away or in from out of bounds. The pinkish people lay under a dark cloud, literally and in their state of segregated bliss.
Twiggs’ use of regional and cultural specifics to communicate universal concerns echoes Hale Woodruff’s approach. Black art, Woodruff argued, had to begin with a black image, but that image could be anything, from an environment, a problem, or the look on someone’s face. Despite this necessary departure, Woodruff argued, “if it’s worth its while, it’s also got to be universal in its broader impact and its presence.”
Twiggs’ Hurricane Hugo series isn’t only about bad weather but about the theme of man versus nature and the resilience of African Americans in the face of adversity. The series We Have Known Rivers, with an assist from poet Langston Hughes, refers to Twiggs’ great-grandmother being sold as a slave to a plantation “over the river,” as Twiggs’ mom would put it. It’s also about the Mississippi River of his father’s youth and the Ashley and Cooper rivers in Charleston, for many Africans the pathways from Charleston’s harbor to inland slavery. The series further symbolizes the African rivers where slaves learned to grow the rice they and their descendents then grew in Lowcountry South Carolina. “In a still larger sense,” Twiggs says, “the series is a tribute to human beings who began their journey to civilization along the rivers of the world.”
Twiggs’ recent Sanctuary series came about after his retrospective. “People kept asking me how I had managed over the years to keep the work so consistent despite my teaching job, being on boards, etcetera. I had no answer for that – you just do it. I had never seen all the work together, though, but when I did in the retrospective I realized that my work was my sanctuary. That’s where I could go into myself, work on a piece, walk away from it to let it dry, do what I had to do elsewhere, then come back to it later and pick up where I left off. That prevented inconsistency.”