George Buckner painted more deliberately and patiently than other Highwaymen.
Collection of Rich and Andria Kerchner

 

The Highwaymen Juncture

by: Gary Monroe

During the past decade Antiques and Art Around Florida has been a leader in introducing the Highwaymen to the public. Jim Fitch and I have written articles for this magazine that have complemented each other's ideas in the establishment of the history of these most unlikely artists. Jim's main concern was with the group's entrepreneurship, while my focus was, and still is, on interpreting the artwork itself.

The Highwaymen are now recognized as part of Florida's cultural heritage. This fact was strongly verified by their induction into the State Department's Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004 after I had the honor of nominating them. The Highwaymen now share this distinction with Jimmy Buffett, Robert Rauschenberg, Tennessee Williams, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and other notables.

Today there is not a lot to add to the Highwaymen's story. With all due respect to the individual painters, I believe that this group is more than the sum of their biographies. We all are awed by a reflection on how young African Americans were able to advance themselves financially during a time in our history when this was most difficult. They broke down barriers that society had erected against them and their ancestors for generations. Now, however, is the time to begin to champion their art critically.

I have looked long and hard at the Highwaymen's paintings to understand their aesthetic and allure. I’m convinced that it is not only the social history of the times and the wonderful stories about the origins of their art that attract people to the paintings and keep a loyal following coming back for more. Rather, it is their art. I believe that the Highwaymen tapped into something primal that resonates with viewers by the way they painted.  


A quintessential Highwaymen painting by Willie Daniels with his signature gnarled oak tree. Collection of Geoff Cood


A Harold Newton painting that epitomizes his controlled brushwork and ability to render Florida's light astutely. Collection of the author.

Their pure, spirited, and unadulterated painterly style valued suggestiveness over explication. Images as transitory and uncertain as life itself were the result. Veracity gave these paintings a place in people's homes then. But a proper recognition of them is just now beginning, as they hang on gallery walls. I occasionally hear detractors disparaging Highwaymen art, and when I do two thoughts come to mind: Such skeptics in all likelihood have never witnessed a Florida sunset, where those unearthly colors occur for a very few seconds; it is also likely that these naysayers have never lived with or spent much time under the glow and spell of one of these paintings. Their own negativity cripples any possible appreciation.

Some resort to the term “regionalism” as a pejorative when evaluating landscape paintings, and this is ridiculous. These artworks, by their very nature, are regional. Calling the Highwaymen paintings "motel art," however, may not be as mean-spirited as it seems. After all, these motor hotels, along with swaying palm trees and neon signs, were the very symbols of Florida for many years. The Highwaymen entered the cultural scene at that same time. Their art, sans oranges, alligators, pelicans, and beach balls, has endured, while most of the old single-story motels have long since disappeared, as have many of the old markers and tourist attractions. 

That was Florida then and that was when the Highwaymen began their journey. Art is time-coded, an often-prophetic response in retrospect to the time and place in which it was made. The Highwaymen codified our state without reserve. As America basked in the Eisenhower years, the complacent time was ripe for new and different interpretations of our land. That the Highwaymen paintings were unabashedly Floridian gave them their very strength. These paintings of our tropical light and color were then, and are today, supreme metaphors for the Sunshine State. Florida as the last frontier represented the American Dream at that time. The Highwaymen’s suggestive imagery shakes the foundation of conventional artist representation.

 


Painting by Harold Newton, High-end art collectors seek images with people because such scenes were rarely painted.  Collection of Scott Schlesinger

Admittedly, Highwaymen art flies in the face of professional and academic aesthetics, and that is a primary virtue. These artists painted with abandon, with nothing to lose. Unencumbered by history and tradition, they freely wielded their palette knives and paintbrushes any way they wanted. They painted fast because time meant money. Unbeknownst to them, their "fast painting" corrupted the cherished concerns of the old school to yield imagery perfectly suited to the people who were flocking to Florida during the post-World War II boom. The paintings were modern because the artists introduced a fresh approach to landscape art. They remain relevant today because of this authenticity.

Appreciating art requires not only a visceral response but also a learned understanding to enhance one’s sophistication. To this end, collector Scott Schlesinger introduced Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale director Irvin Lippman and me to one another, and he asked me to explore what so powerfully engages people with Highwaymen art. To view the art without sentiment and to see how it fares without emphasizing the story behind the paintings’ production, this major art museum subsequently exhibited Highwaymen Newton & Hair: The American Dream in the Sunshine State, which ran its very successful course from June to November of 2006. The milestone exhibition examined Highwaymen paintings through the looking glass of connoisseurship, with interpretations by chief curator Annegreth Nill and myself.

The Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale also published an exhibition catalog that is the most significant book since the release of The Highwaymen, because it offers new information and ideas. Dr. Nill’s thoughtful essay explores the art in context of the times it was created, in aesthetic terms. My contribution further establishes the social history that led to the art, with an emphasis on discerning the differences between Newton and Hair. Given our curatorial motif, the essays shed needed light on the entire spectrum of Highwaymen art. It is also the most beautiful Highwaymen publication to date. Forty-four of the best Newton and Hair paintings were culled from 10 major collections and presented with world-class reproductions in a large, remarkably designed volume. Highwaymen Newton & Hair was printed in a limited edition of 2,000 copies. It can be purchased only from the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale.

This exhibition is a first, as it takes the Highwaymen beyond the comfort of their east central Florida home turf and approaches them with a critical eye. We saw how their paintings fared as they hung on the walls of a fine South Florida art museum. Those walls are like a tabula rasa, waiting for new meanings to be ascribed by viewers and critics without sentiment and prejudice. I see the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale exhibition as the beginning of the end of the incubation phase. The past decade has witnessed a cultural discovery and social phenomenon, helping the Highwaymen find their rightful place in regional and national art circles, with critical discussions that locate, order, and measure their contribution.


Roy McLendon's signature image. Collection of the author


About the author:
Gary Monroe is the author of The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters, the defining book that launched the Highwaymen phenomenon. Monroe’s newest book, Harold Newton: The Original Highwayman, will be published in April 2007. Both books are available from your favorite bookseller, antique dealer, or direct from the University Press of Florida by calling 1-800-226-3822.

To obtain Highwaymen Newton & Hair: The American Dream in the Sunshine State, call the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale at 954-525-5500, ext. 252.

Mr. Monroe can be reached through www.garymonroe.net, where there are pages of information about the Highwaymen (click on Folk Art).

Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale’s Highwaymen Newton & Hair examines these two leading artists’ paintings to shed light on the spectrum of Highwaymen art.


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