James Lesesne Wells (1902-1993) is best known for the prints he created during the 1920s and 1930s while living and working in Harlem. Both “Builders” and “Looking Upward” fall into this category. “Builders” appeared in the 1939 exhibition Contemporary Negro Art, while “Looking Upward” is one of five Wells prints currently owned by the BMA. It came into the collection in 1992 as a gift of Ruth and Jacob Kainen.
Wells engaged with many different themes throughout his long career, but these two prints represent the kind of subject matter that early critics, both White and Black, wanted African-American artists to tackle. They depict the Black urban life that Wells saw in New York and present a Black identity based in community and work. Stylistically, they seem to draw on African art traditions. Afrocentric theorists such as Alain Locke proposed that African objects should ground the creation of a recognizably Black visual language in the United States. Other critics have seen in Wells’ works a relationship to German Expressionism. Either reading oversimplifies Wells’ artistic inspirations, which included not only African and modern European art, but also Japanese prints and Renaissance painting.
While “Builders” and “Looking Upward” cannot attest to Wells’ great versatility as an artist, the prevalence of such early works in art museums attest to his successful navigation of the many conflicting demands placed on Black artists in the 1930s. For the same reason, “Builders” and “Looking Upward” answered museums’ need to build more multicultural collections in the 1990s, which often manifested in the acquisition of artworks thought to telegraph their Blackness.