Floyd Newsum's art is full of color, form and optimism. And so is the artist's outlook.
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on Friday will open a four-month, 50-year retrospective of works by Newsum, a Houston-based painter,sculptor, printmaker and educator. Most of the pieces in "Floyd Newsum: Evolution of Sight" are abstract yet grounded in a foundation of realism, and explore such themes as grace, family and wonder.
The approachable Newsum, who grew up in 1950s Memphis, will give an artist's talk at the exhibition opening Friday. The show is guest co-curated by Mark Cervenka, who along with Newsum teaches at the University of Houston-Downtown, and former fellow Texan Lauren Cross. Both Cervenka and Cross will talk about Newsum's work in a curators' panel Saturday.
Newsum also promises to return to Madison over the next half-year to participate in community events, such as Madison School and Community Recreation's Art Cart program, in which a portable art workshop travels to neighborhood parks throughout the city.
People are also reading…
"My job is to be engaged with you," he said. "That's me."
MMoCA director Christina Brun gardt said she has long been interested in Newsum's work.
"So when we had the opportunity, I wanted to bring it here," she said. "It needed to be seen."
Newsum's work will fill the entire second-floor gallery at the free-admission museum, located at 227 State St. His large, extended family will likely show up for the opening on Friday, he said.
A culmination of a half-century of work, "Evolution of Sight" is arranged in the gallery not chronologically, but thematically. One of the first works visitors encounter is the realistic watercolor "Reverend," a dignified portrait Newsum painted in 1972 of a janitor at his art school whom Newsum thought deserved more respect than he received on the job.
Over the years, Newsum's style became more abstract, still incorporating realist images but also layers of color, photo collage and other elements.
"You'll read stories in my work," Newsum said. "The first glimpse of it is color and form. And then you keep looking at it and you'll find things."
Newsum pays homage to his family, his faith, his love of play and nature, too. A primary image — found in many if not most of his works — is the ladder, a tribute to his father, a longtime Memphis firefighter who until just days before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assigned to a fire station located "50 feet from the Lorraine Motel" where King was shot, Newsum said. (Newsum also tells that story, and others from his youth, in an in depth interview on the My Brother Podcast.)
Hope and rescue
But the ladder motif in Newsum's work recalls not only the selfless acts and brotherhood of his father's firefighting career, he explained during an interview at MMoCA.
"The ladder is hope," he said. "Rescue. Second chance. Ascension. All those things. When you hear the siren, help is on the way. There's hope."
In a section of the exhibition themed "Family and Ancestors," curators Cervenka and Cross included works by Newsum that often reference his great-grandmother Janie, whom he always portrays wearing an apron.
"She was a cook," Newsum said. "She couldn't read or write, but she was very good with money" and would leave a large inheritance to her family. A work by Newsum with Janie's image is titled "Assume," because many people might assume that a woman of her time who could not read or write would not evolve into the highly successful businesswoman that she became.
Even works exploring "Social Justice and Community," one of six themes of Newsum's work in the show, are grounded in optimism and vivacious color. Newsum weaves in symbols from other cultures, such as the blue snake, a sign of good luck in the farm fields of southern Mexico. In works themed "Angels and Souls," he incorporates images from Christianity, touching on his deep faith as a deacon at Houston's Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church.
Though the works in "Evolution of Sight" span a half-century, "There's such a continuity," Cervenka said.
"Some of the works share themes. With the idea of the ladder being ascension, either in your way of thinking about what this world is or in a spiritual sense, you're allowed to feel this sort of balance and movement — without feeling, I think, any sense of angst."
'Grace and Mercy'
A spry 72, Newsum likes to paint on paper, preferring its strength on a flat surface to the give of canvas. Also among the works in "Evolution of Sight" is a model of his large-scale Plexiglas sculpture "Grace and Mercy." Newsum is likewise the creator of "Planter and Stems," a set of towering, whimsical sculptures at the center of Downtown Houston.
The sense of play is strong: He also inserts tic-tac-toe images into his work. Checkerboards and kites, too.
"Kites are like my ladders — they ascend," the artist explained. "They are free. Now, a storm can come and can take them down, but you can build other kites. They're a symbol of resilience, of soaring above, of going higher and higher and higher."
If you go
What: "Floyd Newsum: Evolution of Sight"
Where: Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St.
Opening: Friday, 5-8 p.m., with artist talk from 6-7 p.m., plus music and cash bar.
Curators' panel: Discussion with guest curators Lauren Cross and Mark Cervenka, 2 p.m. Saturday, MMOCA lecture hall.
Exhibition: Runs May 20-Oct. 8. Regular gallery hours are noon to 6 p.m. Thursday-Sunday.