July 29 Art Minute: Elizabeth Catlett, ‘Head of a Young Woman’

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Elizabeth Catlett (American, 1915-2012), Head of a Young Woman. Grit-tempered clay, about 1947. 10 ½ in. Gift of Florence Scott Libbey, by exchange, 2006.145. Gallery 8

Elizabeth Catlett (American, 1915-2012), Head of a Young Woman. Grit-tempered clay, about 1947. 10 ½ in. Gift of Florence Scott Libbey, by exchange, 2006.145. Gallery 8

Created the year Elizabeth Catlett moved to Mexico City, where she spent most of her career, Head of a Young Woman elegantly expresses Catlett’s abiding interest in representing the figure in a straightforward, powerful manner.

In 1940 Catlett, who studied to be an artist with sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967) and painter Grant Wood (1892-1942), earned the first Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture ever given by the University of Iowa. After arriving in Mexico City, she joined the politically and socially active artists’ collective Taller de Grafíca Popular (The People’s Graphic Arts Workshop), where she worked with prominent Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and Francisco Mora (1922-2002), whom she married in 1947. In the late 1950s, she became the first woman professor of sculpture at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Throughout her long career, Catlett’s work has celebrated both famous forebears in African American history and unsung people of color—her family and friends, Mexican and African-American laborers, the poor, and the politically oppressed. It is in these ordinary people and their struggles and dreams that she finds the most beauty and inspiration, as revealed in this striking portrait that is, at once personal, poignant, and universal.


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