Berry Horton (1917-1987) was an African-American artist who lived and worked in Chicago. He was closely involved with the South Side Community Art Center, a WPA-sponsored project launched in 1940 to serve the largely African-American neighborhood of Bronzeville on Chicago’s south side. A hive of cultural activity, which is still going strong today, the South Side Community Center exhibited artist such as Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and Archibald Motley, Jr., and attracted many Chicago writers, including Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright. For Horton, the SSCAC provided a community of artists and mentors, as well as artistic inspiration from the glamour of its annual Artists and Models Ball. For a time, Horton supported himself as a nude model at the Art Institute of Chicago, while also doing some illustration work, but he exhibited little during his lifetime, and never showed any of the drawings presented here.
A gifted draftsman, Horton worked in a number of different styles. One mode, which relies on finely drawn contour lines, suggests the influence of Mayan codices, African sculpture, and Pacific Northwest Native American art, as well as a familiarity with Jungian psychology. These drawings depart dramatically from conventional anatomy; their figures might have animal-like masked heads perched atop many-breasted torsos or comprise only legs and pelvises; sexual organs appear in unexpected places. When Horton does show us an entire figure from head to foot, he frequently rotates the upper or lower half in anatomically impossible ways. In a second mode of drawing, involving cross-hatching and sketchier lines, Horton made the racial identity of his subjects as explicit as the sexual nature of their actions. In many drawings he made allusions to Bronzeville’s flourishing gay and lesbian scenes. The private, explicit nature of many of these drawings, which frequently depict intersex and transsexual figures, made them impossible to exhibit during the artist’s lifetime.
After Horton’s death, a portfolio of his drawings was preserved by Susan Cayton Woodson (1918–2013), the prominent African-American art collector and dealer in Chicago. Later, the drawings were acquired from Woodson by Eugene Foney (1950-2020), an influential art dealer, curator and promotor of African-American art. In 2016, a selection of Horton’s drawings was shown at Redbud Gallery in Houston.
Berry Horton in Art in America, October 2016