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2012 Acquisition Highlights

Robert Adams, Kerstin enjoying the wind. East of Keota, Colorado

Robert Adams, Kerstin enjoying the wind, East of Keota, Colorado, 1969, printed c. 19771969, printed c. 1977

Robert Adams, Kerstin enjoying the wind, East of Keota, Colorado, 1969, printed c. 1977, gelatin silver print, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund and Gift of Robert and Kerstin Adams, 2012.70.163

For more than 40 years, the distinguished photographer Robert Adams has recorded the changing American landscape, revealing both its sublime beauty and its wanton destruction. Like his 19th-century predecessors, such as Timothy O'Sullivan, he has chronicled the ongoing settlement of the American West, especially Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington. Yet unlike those earlier photographers, he has recorded the freeways, strip malls, parking lots, billboards, and tract houses that have utterly transformed the landscape in the last 50 years, as well as the abandoned orange groves of Southern California and the despoiled forests of the Northwest. In addition, he has turned his camera on the citizens of this New West, photographing young children who grew up in the shadow of nuclear weapons plants, as well as parents and grandparents who were often isolated from one another and nature itself by the very modern conveniences they coveted.

Yet Adams' work is no diatribe and often records the beauty that remains—indeed, refuses to die—in the magnificent light of the high plains, for example, or the graceful form of the earth itself. He is convinced, as he wrote in 1974, that "all land, no matter what has happened to it, has over it a grace, an absolutely persistent beauty." Combining hope and despair, joy and grief, his lucid but passionate photographs are profound and provocative records of this time and place.

Born in New Jersey, raised in Wisconsin and Colorado, Adams received a PhD in English literature and turned to photography in 1963, at the age of 26. With encouragement from the renowned curator John Szarkowski, Adams abandoned his career as an English professor in 1970 and devoted himself to photography. A gifted writer with a deep fascination for books of photographs, Adams first achieved acclaim in 1974 with the publication of The New West: Landscapes along the Colorado Front Range, one of the first books of photographs to present a more critical view of the American West. This book was soon followed by 15 more, most recently Questions for an Overcast Day (2009). In addition to numerous exhibitions at major museums around the world, Adams has been honored with many awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Hasselblad Award for Distinguished Photographer, and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.

Recently, the Gallery acquired 169 photographs by Adams. This collection is truly exceptional and unique, for the artist himself carefully selected it to complement the 25 works by him already in the Gallery's collection. Together they represent what he considers to be his most important accomplishments. The new acquisition includes key photographs from each of his 16 books, as well as 16 other photographs from throughout his career. A modest man with deeply held convictions, Adams believes "these photographs can tell Americans something they might want to know about their country."

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Am a Man)

The words “I AM A MAN” are painted in all capital, bold black letters against a white ground in this vertical painting. The words are spaced so they take up most of the composition, with “I AM” on the top line, “A” at the center of the composition, and “A MAN” at the bottom. “AM” is underlined. The white paint is thickly applied and brushstrokes, drips, and cracks are visible on the surface. A sliver of raw, off-white canvas is visible at the top right corner.

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Am a Man), 1988, oil and enamel on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund and Gift of the Artist, 2012.109.1

Glenn Ligon was born in the Bronx in 1960, attended the Walden School in New York on a scholarship, and graduated from Wesleyan University in 1982. He participated in the Whitney Museum's Independent Study Program in 1985, known at that time for its language-based approach. Ligon is best known for intertextual works that re-present American history and literature, in particular narratives of slavery and civil rights, for contemporary audiences. His work engages a powerful mix of racial and gender-oriented struggles for the self, leading viewers to reconsider problems inherent in representation.

Untitled (I Am a Man) is just such a representation—a signifier—of the actual signs carried by 1,300 striking African American sanitation workers in Memphis, made famous in Ernest Withers' 1968 photographs. Prompted by the wrongful deaths of two coworkers from faulty equipment, the strikers marched to protest low wages and unsafe working conditions. They took up the slogan "I Am a Man" as a variant on the first line of Ralph Ellison's prologue to Invisible Man, "I am an invisible man." By deleting the word "invisible," the Memphis strikers asserted their presence, making themselves visible in standing up for their rights. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis to address the striking workers; the next day, he was assassinated.

This painting is Ligon's most important and iconic work. As the first object in which he used a selected text, Untitled (I Am a Man) is his breakthrough. He took pains to differentiate the painting from the original signs, avoiding a one-to-one relationship by reorganizing the line breaks. And while he preserved the original black-on-white of the sign, his choice to paint the black letters in eye-catching enamel calls attention to a black figure ("Man") as a text that replaces the human form in figurative painting. Throughout his career, Ligon has used "blackness" as a trope for both personal and collective experience. As Ligon has said (paraphrasing Muhammed Ali), "It's not about me. It's about we." The deliberately rough surface of the painting, which Ligon later documented by having a condition report made as an ancillary work of art, seems to index the scars and struggles of the work's great subject.

Untitled (I Am a Man) is the Gallery's first painting by Ligon and complements a suite of etchings and a print portfolio.