A few weeks ago in this space, the Harlem Renaissance painter Archibald Motley was featured. One of his colleagues during this dynamic artistic phase was Eldzier Cortor, who expressed a similar style, particularly in the use of an array of bright colors and beautiful Black women. Cortor came to mind again this week when it was reported that he had died Thursday, Nov. 26 at his son’s home in Seaford, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 99.
Born in Richmond, Va., Jan. 10, 1916, Cortor moved with his family to Chicago when he was very young. In fact, their first home in the city was near the Motley residence on the west side, but because of the Great Depression and other pressing economic conditions, they soon settled on the South Side.
Like Motley, he attended Englewood High School, where other notable artists Charles Sebree, Charles White and Margaret Burroughs were classmates. Motley was born in 1891, so they were separated by a quarter of a century in age. Even so, Cortor continued on a similar artistic path blazed by Motley by attending the Art Institute of Chicago in 1936. There, he was able to improve on some of the earlier lessons inspired by the comic strips in the Chicago Defender. But it was during a class trip to the Field Museum that Cortor encountered African sculpture that would play a major role in his style and visual sensibilities.
The contours and elegant shapes of the sculpture impressed him deeply, though it would take several years before he truly gained command of the form and integrated it into his creations. At the Institute of Design and under the tutelage of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Cortor continued to refine his artistic conception, forging his own perspective while working in a variety of formats. Along with his studies, he found work, like so many artists of the day, with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. By 1941, with funds from the WPA, he co-founded the South Side Community Art Center on South Michigan Avenue.
Besides his immersion in painting, Cortor was also a printmaker—a vocation he began while studying the form at Columbia University in 1942.
In 1945, he was the recipient of a Rosenwald Foundation grant, which allowed him to pursue studies among the Gullah people in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas. Life among the Gullah, who had retained many of their African cultural traits and traditions, including the handicrafts, was a valuable extension of the art he had seen in the museums. Most engaging were the women, and his depiction of them was soon a dominant part of this production.
One of his pieces, a semi-nude painting of a Black female, caught the eye of an editor at Life magazine, and it was published in 1946. Three years later, Cortor was off on another jaunt, this time to the Caribbean, underwritten by a Guggenheim Fellowship. Trips to Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti were particularly fruitful, and he also taught for a while at Haiti’s Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. There were opportunities to expand the African heritage that had begun among the Gullah. The retention of African material and artifacts was even more abundant, and Cortor used many of these images to embellish his always vivid imagination.
Cortor’s works exuded elegance, usually developed in a classical mode, especially in his portraits and landscapes. A painting of a woman resembling a Siamese twin is exemplary of his precision and grace. Sometimes the forms of paintings possessed a surrealistic quality but never without a lively prospect and resembling in many respects the joie de vivre that resonated from many of Motley’s scenes.
There is one painting of his that depicts a woman, perhaps a Gullah, at the forefront of landscape that slopes off in the distance. Her large presence gives the painting an even deeper dimension, a country setting from which the woman may have plucked the flower in her hand.
When asked why Black women appeared so often in his paintings, Cortor said, “The Black woman represents the Black race. She is the Black spirit. She conveys a feeling of eternity and a continuance of life.”
Throughout his enormously productive career, Cortor said “classical composition” was the best approximation of the style that governed his paintings, drawings and prints. However, according to several art critics, his work became more biographical and more concerned with depicting his past experiences.
Among a number of memorable exhibitions featuring his work was a retrospective at New York’s Kenkeleba House in 1988, where his work was displayed alongside paintings by Motley and Hughie Lee-Smith.
Although often recreating his personal odyssey through his work, he rarely resorted to popular trends. And this continuity of theme and attitude can be seen in most of his major pieces—many of which are among collections at the Art Institute of Chicago, Howard University and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His work, along with several paintings by Motely, was featured in the inaugural show at the new Whitney Museum of American Art, “America Is Hard to See.”
Not hard to see is his “Dance Composition,” created in 1976 and selected by the Schomburg Center in its “Black New York Artists of the 20th Century” brochure.
Cortor’s deep commitment to preserving images of the African Diaspora never ceased, though by the 1950s he moved to the Lower East Side of New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life, according to brochures from the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, his primary dealer.
Even into his 90s, Cortor continued to create, and his mission in art to get spectators or viewers to spend more than a passing glance at his work was something done again and again.