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Elson Lecture Series

The Elson Lecture Series features distinguished contemporary artists whose work is represented in the Gallery's permanent collection. The Honorable and Mrs. Edward E. Elson generously endowed this series in 1992.

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Allan McCollum, artist. Born in Los Angeles in 1944, Allan McCollum briefly considered a career in theater before attending trade school to study restaurant management and industrial kitchen work. In the late 1960s, he began to educate himself as an artist. Applying strategies of mass production to handmade objects, McCollum has spent nearly fifty years exploring how works of art achieve personal and public meaning in a world largely constituted within the manners of industrial production. McCollum has given attention to the “drama of quantities” in his pursuit of the dynamic relationship between work and viewer. His installations—large fields of related small-scale works, each usually unique and categorically arranged—are the products of various systems. By engaging a cast of assistants, scientists, and local craftspeople in his processes, McCollum has often embraced a collaborative and democratic artistic practice.  His approach to art cuts across its hierarchies—by medium, audience, context, and preconception. In honor of the National Gallery of Art’s acquisition of his Collection of Four Hundred and Eighty Plaster Surrogates (1982/1989) last year, McCollum presented the 21st annual Elson Lecture on March 27, 2014.

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Glenn Ligon’s intertextual works examine cultural and social identity—often through found sources such as literature, Afro-centric coloring books, and photographs—to reveal the ways in which slavery, the civil rights movement, and identity politics inform our understanding of American society. In 2012, the Gallery acquired its first painting by Ligon, Untitled (I Am a Man) (1988). In honor of this acquisition, Ligon presented the 20th annual Elson Lecture on March 14, 2013, in conversation with associate curators of modern art Molly Donovan and James Meyer. Untitled (I Am a Man) is a reinterpretation of the signs carried by 1,300 striking African American sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 and made famous in Ernest Withers' photographs of the march. Proclaiming "I Am a Man," the signs evoke Ralph Ellison's famous line—"I am an invisible man." Approximating the size of these signs, Ligon’s roughly made painting combines layers of history, meaning, and physical material in a dense, resonant object. As the first painting in which the artist appropriated text, it is a breakthrough. In subsequent works he would transform texts into fields of semilegible and masked meanings. The Gallery owns sixteen works by Ligon, including a suite of etchings and a print portfolio.

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Glenn Ligon, artist, with Molly Donovan and James Meyer, associate curators of modern art, National Gallery of Art. Glenn Ligon’s intertextual works examine cultural and social identity—often through found sources such as literature, Afro-centric coloring books, and photographs—to reveal the ways in which slavery, the civil rights movement, and identity politics inform our understanding of American society. In 2012, the Gallery acquired its first painting by Ligon, Untitled (I Am a Man) (1988). In honor of this acquisition, Ligon presented the 20th annual Elson Lecture on March 14, 2013. Untitled (I Am a Man) is a reinterpretation of the signs carried by 1,300 striking African American sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968 and made famous in Ernest Withers' photographs of the march. Proclaiming "I Am a Man," the signs evoke Ralph Ellison's famous line—"I am an invisible man." Approximating the size of these signs, Ligon’s roughly made painting combines layers of history, meaning, and physical material in a dense, resonant object. As the first painting in which the artist appropriated text, itis a breakthrough. In subsequent works he would transform texts into fields of semilegible and masked meanings. The Gallery owns sixteen works by Ligon, including a suite of etchings and a print portfolio.

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Kerry James Marshall, artist. Kerry James Marshall is a master of the human figure. His imposing, radiant paintings and installations draw equally upon African American history and the history of Western art. Born in 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama, he moved with his family to the town of Watts in 1963, shortly before the race riots began. At Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles he studied with social realist painter Charles White. Marshall's mature career can be dated to 1980, when, inspired by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, he developed his signature motif of a dark, near-silhouetted figure. This figure of "extreme blackness," as he puts it, has been important for younger artists including Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker. In honor of the Gallery's acquisition of its first painting, Great America (1994), by the artist last year, Marshall presented the 19th annual Elson Lecture, titled The Importance of Being Figurative, on March 22, 2012.

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Jim Dine, artist, in conversation with Judith Brodie, curator of modern prints and drawings, National Gallery of Art. In the first of two appearances at the National Gallery of Art to celebrate the Drawings of Jim Dine exhibition, Jim Dine participated in the annual Elson Lecture Series with Judith Brodie on March 16, 2004. Dine begins by discussing his life as an artist, the formative events in his career, and the emotional and romantic qualities entailed in the act of drawing. A consummate draftsman, Dine explains that "drawing is not an exercise. Exercise is sitting on a stationary bicycle and going nowhere. Drawing is being on a bicycle and taking a journey. For me to succeed in drawing, I must go fast and arrive somewhere. The quest is to keep the thing alive..."
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Sam Gilliam, artist, in conversation with Ruth Fine, curator of special projects in modern art, National Gallery of Art. For the 10th annual Elson Lecture, recorded on April 28, 2003, at the National Gallery of Art, Sam Gilliam discussed his artistic training at the University of Louisville (BFA 1955, MFA 1961) and his DC-based career since 1962. In conversation with Ruth Fine, Gilliam explained his transition from an expressionistic figurative style to the abstract painting associated with the Washington Color School. His painting took on several three-dimensional formats, starting with his draped canvases that eschewed the use of stretchers to take their own forms in space. By 2003, Gilliam's work had been the subject of more than 30 solo exhibitions internationally and was represented in dozens of museum collections and public installations. His painting titled Relative (1969) was acquired by the Gallery in 1994.
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Andy Goldsworthy, artist. Two weeks after finishing his site-specific installation, Roof, on the Ground Level of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, British artist Andy Goldsworthy returned to the Gallery to present the Elson Lecture on March 17, 2005. His lecture describes the working process involved for his concurrent exhibitions The Andy Goldsworthy Project and Andy Goldsworthy: Roof, which first showed the permanent sculpture of nine stacked slate domes, completed over the course of nine weeks in the winter of 2004-2005. Goldsworthy notes that the installation required him to stay in one place longer than he had in nearly 20 years. As an artist who uses natural materials to create both ephemeral work in landscapes and permanent sculptures, Goldsworthy explains his interest in change and the value of returning to the same place to get deeper and deeper into it.
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Christo and Jeanne-Claude, artists. Artists Christo (b. 1935) and Jeanne-Claude (1935-2009) redefined the artistic practice by taking their art out of a museum setting and into urban and natural environments. In this podcast recorded on March 13, 2002, the pair makes their second appearance at the Gallery while the exhibition Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the Vogel Collection was on view. By examining their past and future projects, Christo and Jeanne-Claude explain how the communal construction efforts and the temporary status of their installations have contributed to their impressive qualities.
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Wayne Thiebaud, artist. American artist and teacher Wayne Thiebaud discusses the important differences between "painting" and "art" in this podcast recorded on March 1, 2000, at the National Gallery of Art. This lecture was held in conjunction with the exhibition Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, on view at the Gallery from March 5 through June 11, 2000, which featured Thiebaud's Bakery Counter (1962). Emblematic of his signature commentary on mass culture, Bakery Counter compliments the Gallery's own Cakes (1963), purchased as a gift to commemorate the Gallery's 50th anniversary in 1991.
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Ellsworth Kelly, artist, in conversation with Marla Prather, curator and head of the department of 20th-century art, National Gallery of Art. Contemporary artist Ellsworth Kelly joins curator Marla Prather in this podcast recorded on April 21, 1999, at the National Gallery of Art. Spanning more than 60 years, Kelly's career has shown commitment to abstraction and humanism. His intuitive ability to merge space, color, and shape has positioned him as one of the leading post-war American artists working today. The Gallery has more than 200 works by Kelly in its collection including paintings, prints, and sculptures. Kelly's Stele II was one of the 17 major works to be included in the Gallery's Sculpture Garden when it first opened a month after this Elson Lecture program.
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Terry Winters, artist. A prodigious painter, draftsman, and printmaker, Terry Winters has pushed the boundaries of modern art while he has maintained a keen sense of its history and craft. In this podcast recorded on April 14, 2011, for the Elson Lecture Series at the National Gallery of Art, Winters explains his use of the "low-tech, shape-shifting capabilities" of paint, as he puts it, to engage the complex experience of a high-tech world. The Gallery owns two important paintings by Winters: Bitumen (1986) and Composition (1991).

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I. M. Pei, architect, in conversation with Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art Legendary architect I. M. Pei appears in conversation with Gallery director Earl A. Powell III to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the opening of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. In this podcast recorded on March 26, 1998, Pei discusses the evolution of the East Building's design and construction from the time Pei was awarded the commission until the building was dedicated by President Jimmy Carter on June 1, 1978.
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Elizabeth Murray, artist, in conversation with Marla Prather, curator and head of the department of 20th century art, National Gallery of Art. Elizabeth Murray (1940-2007) is one of the few artists to be credited with both rehabilitating the abstract movement and bringing new energy to figuration. Her sculpted canvases blur the line between the painting as an object and the painting as a space for depicting objects. In this podcast recorded on October 9, 1996, at the National Gallery of Art, Murray discusses her personal connection to painting with curator Marla Prather and how being a woman in a field generally dominated by men has influenced her work.
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Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, artists. Working in collaboration since 1976, husband and wife artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen (1942-2009) redefined the nature of outdoor sculpture in public spaces. In this podcast recorded on October 12, 1995, at the National Gallery of Art, Oldenburg and Van Bruggen discuss the design and installation of their larger-than-life sculptures. These works have been installed all over the world and have become iconic images of large-scale public art. This program was presented in conjunction with the traveling exhibition Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology, which was on view at the Gallery from February 12 to May 7, 1995.

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Roy Lichtenstein, artist, in conversation with Robert Rosenblum, professor of art history, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and the Stephen and Nan Swid Curator of 20th-Century Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York American artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) appears in conversation with art historian and curator Robert Rosenblum in this podcast recorded on October 26, 1994, at the National Gallery of Art. Lichtenstein discusses his career and life as an artist, and the impact that his art has had on popular culture. Rosenblum notes that Lichtenstein turned the popular into the elite and that the popular, in turn, turned Lichtenstein into the popular. This program coincided with the traveling exhibition The Prints of Roy Lichtenstein, the first comprehensive survey of the artist's prints in more than two decades, which was on view at the Gallery from October 30, 1994, to January 8, 1995.
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Frank Stella, artist. In this podcast recorded on October 27, 1993, at the National Gallery of Art, leading contemporary artist Frank Stella delivers the first annual Elson Lecture. Regarded as one of the foremost postwar American artists, Stella has pursued his career over five decades, creating prints, sculpture, and works on canvas. Stella discusses the current state of painting and how his own creative process is influenced by inspirational lessons from art of the past. The Gallery owns more than 140 works by Stella, including eight major paintings.
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Robert Gober, artist, in conversation with Harry Cooper, curator and head of modern and contemporary art, National Gallery of Art. For 25 years the sculptural and pictorial installations of American artist Robert Gober have proved difficult to ignore, assimilate, or forget. In this podcast, recorded on March 27, 2008, at the National Gallery of Art, Gober speaks with Harry Cooper. They discuss Gober's life as an artist and the consistently unpredictable and affecting nature of his oeuvre, which has had singular importance for contemporary art.

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Harry Cooper, curator and head of modern and contemporary art, National Gallery of Art, in conversation with Susan Rothenberg, artist. Over the past 30 years, Susan Rothenberg has done more than any other living artist to expand the poetic and painterly possibilities of her craft. In this podcast recorded on March 25, 2010, for the Elson Lecture Series at the National Gallery of Art, Rothenberg and curator Harry Cooper discuss her life and career in painting. The Gallery has two important paintings by Rothenberg in its collection: Butterfly (1976), currently on loan to the White House, and Head within Head (1978).
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Photographer Robert Frank and Sarah Greenough, senior curator and head of the department of photographs, National Gallery of Art. Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, an exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art, is the most comprehensive and in-depth exploration of the single most important book of photographs published since World War II. In this podcast of the annual Elson Lecture, recorded on March 26, 2009, Greenough speaks with the renowned photographer about his career before, during, and after The Americans.