The Underground Railroad
The arts have been a strong suit of NYU from its beginning. Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and early version of the telegraphic alphabet that would come to bear his name, was appointed a professor of painting and sculpture at NYU – one of the first faculty appointments at NYU.
Now the work of another arts professor—Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), an African-American painter and muralist who was a faculty member at NYU from 1946 to 1968 at the school that evolved into the present day Steinhardt and who was a major figure in New York City’s artistic community in the years after World War II—is being exhibited at NYU’s 80WSE Galleries on the east side of Washington Square Park. The exhibition is sponsored by the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and NYU’s Faculty Resource Network.
Prior to coming to New York, Woodruff was commissioned by Talladega College, a small black college in Alabama, to paint a series of murals illustrating important moments in black American history.
Woodruff painted six murals: huge, colorful, and bold, they dramatically depict the story of the Amistad (the slave ship Africans mutinied to gain their freedom), the underground railroad, and the founding of Talladega College by freed slaves.
The Mutiny on the Amistad
Woodruff was at heart an educator, and he viewed the murals as an effort to teach students at Talladega—and anyone else who viewed them—not only about important episodes in American history, but also that black men and women could be strong and heroic figures. Living and working in the segregated South, Woodruff painted the Africans on the Amistad and the freed slaves who built Talladega College as strong, confident, and intelligent men and women.
Several years after completing the Talladega murals, Woodruff moved to New York to begin teaching at NYU. In 1967, the year before he retired, he was honored with NYU’s Great Teacher Award, and the University sponsored a retrospective of his artwork.
He also immersed himself in the city’s artistic world. He joined a short-lived salon, called “Studio 35,” with artists that included Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning (Woodruff was the only black artist in the group). Later, he created an artists’ collective called “Spiral” that sponsored discussions about African-American art and the civil rights movement.
Opening Day at Talladega College
So it was only fitting that when Talladega College (which is also a participant in NYU’s Faculty Resource Network) decided to restore the Woodruff murals and send them on a national tour, they would be exhibited at NYU.
“Hale Woodruff played a leading role in one of the most important undertakings in African-American, and by extension, American art in the 20th century,” said Debra Spencer, an NYU art consultant on the exhibit. “Through his murals, he introduced powerful narratives from black history that empowered generations of black Americans and challenged white Americans about how they understood the history of the United States.”
The Woodruff exhibition runs through Oct. 13, 2013. The 80 WSE Galleries, located at 80 Washington Square East, are open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.