Joseph Fitzpatrick Was Our Teacher, 1991Raymond Jennings Saunders (American, born 1934)
Raymond Saunders is best known for his large-scale, mixed media compositions. Rooted in the urban experience, his creations are improvisational encounters between collage and painting. References to jazz musicians often appear in his paintings, in this instance “Bird.” Also common to his juxtapositions are the signs and sounds of American cities united on the chalkboard illusion he favors.
This painting is rich in iconography and addresses many topics at once. It is autobiographical, especially as a remembrance of a personal icon in the artist’s life, Joseph Fitzpatrick, the high school art instructor who inspired Saunders to express himself. Fitzpatrick was also Andy Warhol’s teacher, a relationship highlighted by the pulp reproductions of Warhol’s Marilyn and Flowers pasted into the composition. More personal yet is the name Marie, the artist’s mother, a recurring motif in Saunders’s work.
Saunders’s anti-war sentiments and references to the universal struggle for human rights loom largest of all. Written in “chalk” are “Malcolm X, King, Harlem, pax,” and “peace.” Among many signs of the American Civil Rights movement appears photographer Gordon Parks’s famous American Gothic.(1) Images of Vietnam War protests and the boldly stenciled “1991,” the date of the painting, allude to American involvement in international conflicts broadly, and specifically to the end of the Persian Gulf War. Overarching the entire composition is Saunders’s grappling with Sino-American relations, seen in clippings of Tiananmen Square, Mao’s portrait, the Republic of China emblem, and other newsworthy references.
(1) Full title: American Gothic: Mrs. Ella Watson, Washington, DC, 1942.