Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry. By Ian Stewart. Basic Books. $26.95.
Charles Alston. By Alvia J. Wardlaw. Pomegranate. $35.
“Mathematics rests on numbers but is not limited to them.” This is one of the deceptively simple statements that
The beauty in Charles Alston is decidedly non-mathematical, although many will find it every bit as varied as mathematics, if only occasionally as symmetrical. Alston (1907-1997) was a skilled and influential African-American artist; this book is the sixth volume in The David C. Driskell Series of African American Art. Frequently in art books, there is a brief introductory essay, after which the art is left to speak for itself. Not so here: Alvia J. Wardlaw, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, writes quite extensively about Alston, his influences and those he influenced, and illustrates her chapters with a very wide-ranging selection of Alston’s work. “Wide-ranging” is, in fact, a fine adjective for Alston, who did strictly representational art; semi-representational works, such as a series of murals for Harlem Hospital and their excellent graphite-on-paper studies reproduced here; semi-abstract art, using elements of cubism and other styles; and entirely non-representational works, including quite a few called “Untitled.” Alston worked in a wide range of media: pen and ink on paper or rice paper, oil on canvas, oil on Masonite, and watercolor and gouache on paper. And he mixed media intriguingly, using, for example, ink and watercolor on rice paper to create some haunting abstracts. Alston was also a sculptor: a photo of his fine bust of Martin Luther King Jr. is included in this book. Alston was clearly proud of being an African-American, as shown in his mural, “The Negro in California History: Exploration and Colonization,” created in 1948 for the Golden State Mutual Life insurance Company, and also in scenes such as “Midnight Vigil” and portraits of individuals. But his best work transcends skin color, showing a fine sense of line, scale and shape, and the ability to communicate emotion even in such a work as an untitled 1960 abstract whose color scheme ranges from grey to black. Charles Alston is not a book for everyone – Alston’s art will not be to all tastes – but it offers a welcome chance to explore a contemporary artist whose skill is impressive in an unusually large variety of forms.