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How African American Artists Responded to European Modernism

  • Hank Willis Thomas - Icaru
  • Martin Puryear - Face Down
February 29, 2020
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

Modernism was a grandiose phenomenon that encompassed different art disciplines and lasted for almost one hundred years. It practically emerged in Europe, and then sprawled around the world affecting numerous environments, as well as different social groups which found it suitable for their self-presentation. Modernism empowered women, queers and people of color to express themselves regardless of the socially accepted strategies that were based on exclusion.

To unravel a rich production made by the Black artists who embraced such tendencies from the Old Continent, The Phillips Collection is hosting an exciting survey titled Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition.

Hale Woodruff - The Card Players
Hale Woodruff – The Card Players, 1930. Oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 29 3/8 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, George A. Hearn Fund, 2015

Penetrating The Art History Canon

The upcoming exhibition is a valuable reconsideration of the American art history canon that was for a long time conservative and unwilling to analyze the propelling power and emancipatory nature of modernity and the way it was articulated by African-American artists. Alongside the practitioners active during the first and the second half of the 20th century, this survey will include a group of contemporary artists who responded to the European Modernism, so that the full chronological overview could be established.

In regards to that, the curator Dr. Adrienne L. Childs, who organized Riffs and Relations, said:

This exhibition shows the ways in which many African American artists draw on the substance of European art history to tell their own stories. By exploring this terrain, we hope to enhance the narrative of modern and contemporary art in America by presenting the compelling works born of these riffs and relations.

William H. Johnson - Nude
William H. Johnson – Nude, 1939. Oil on burlap, 29 3/4 x 38 1/4 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, Gift of the Harmon Foundation

The Artists

The installment will include a total of seventy-two works in different media ranging from paintings to photographs, gathered from private and public collections in the US and Europe. The artifacts will be arranged accordingly to the dominating themes concerning representations of the female body, cubism, primitivism, landscape, and abstraction.

The visitors will have a unique chance to experience the works of artists like Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Hale Woodruff who felt inspired by European traditions and iconography while articulating the representations of African American life and history, as well as other such as Robert Colescott and Romare Bearden who used to approach Modernist imagery with criticism.

On display will be the works by Faith Ringgold and Emma Amos who dealt with the depiction of the female form as a consequence of the male gaze in the history of art (most often expressed by Matisse and Picasso), along with the ones by Martin Puryear, Felrath Hines, Norman Lewis, and Alma Thomas who explored the domains of abstraction.

The three recent works that resonate with the legacy of European Modernism will add a flavor to the apparent continuity in the articulation of the art history performed by African American artists. Picasso’s pivotal Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) will be considered through a piece by a Baltimore painter Mequitta Ahuja, while Los Angeles collage artist Janet Taylor Pickett takes into consideration Matisse’s Interior with Egyptian Curtain (1948), and photographer Ayana V. Jackson reenacts Edouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1863) by presenting three Black women instead of the all-white cast present on the iconic artwork. These pieces will be accompanied by the ones made by other contemporary artists such as Mickalene Thomas, Titus Kaphar, Hank Willis Thomas and John Edmonds.

Elizabeth Catlett - Ife
Elizabeth Catlett – Ife, 2002. Mahogany, 19 1/2 x 18 x 38 in. Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA, Gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., by exchange, in honor of Andrew S. Fine in recognition of his outstanding service as a Museum Trustee and as Board Chairman, 1999–2002 © 2019 Catlett Mora Family Trust / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Riffs and Relations at The Phillips Collection

An extensive illustrated catalog edited by the curator including essays by Renée Maurer (Associate Curator, The Phillips Collection) and Valerie Cassel Oliver (Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) will accompany the exhibition.

Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition will be on view at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. from 29 February until 24 May 2020.

Featured images: Hank Willis Thomas – Icarus, 2016. Quilt, 56 1/2 x 85 1/4 in. Collection of Debbie and Mitchell Rechler; Martin Puryear – Face Down, 2008. White bronze, 14 x 28 x 11 in. © Martin Puryear, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery. All images courtesy The Phillips Collection.