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Collection Highlights: African American Artists


The Gallery's collection of American art includes nearly 400 works by African-American artists. This online tour offers commentary on a selection of twenty-three paintings, works on paper, and sculpture ranging from a still-life painting by Robert Seldon Duncanson to modern and contemporary pieces by Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, Barkley Hendricks, Willie Cole, Kara Walker, and Lorna Simpson.

Robert Seldon Duncanson, American, 1821 - 1872, Still Life with Fruit and Nuts, 1848, oil on board, Gift of Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation and the Avalon Fund, 2011.98.1

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At the center of this image is John, the oldest son of the prominent Westwood family from Baltimore, extending his arm behind and across two younger children. The smaller boys stand close together, hands clasped. All three are dressed in high-waisted trouser suits, fashionable for male children at the time, and hold a branch or flowers as if they've just returned from the outdoors. The family pet featured in the bottom right holds a bird in its mouth, clearly having found it outside as well.

Joshua Johnson's sympathetic pose of the three boys makes their brotherly relationship the subject of this portrait. A free black artist who worked in Baltimore, Maryland, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Johnson is known for his skillful use of design and balanced composition, as seen in The Westwood Children. His portrait style is distinguished by the oval faces, thin lips, and only slightly modeled figures of his subjects. While the stiffness of his formula often impeded character penetration, in this portrait it suggests the discomfort the children might have felt posing for the artist. Johnson's method of applying thin layers of color makes the boys' features particularly sweet and delicate.

The son of a white father and a black mother, Johnson was born into slavery around 1763 and freed in 1782. Having received minimal training in art, perhaps from one of the artists in the extended Peale family, he practiced as a portrait painter, advertising his service in Baltimore's city directories from 1796 to 1824. Roughly eighty portraits are now attributed to him.

Joshua Johnson, American, born c. 1763, active 1796 - 1824, The Westwood Children, c. 1807, oil on canvas, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1959.11.1

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African American artist Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821–1872) was widely recognized during his lifetime for pastoral landscapes of American, Canadian, and European scenery. Recent scholarship, however, has begun to focus on a small group of still-life paintings (fewer than a dozen are known) that Duncanson produced during the late 1840s. Spare, elegant, and meticulously painted, these works reflect the tradition of American still-life painting initiated by Charles Willson Peale and his gifted children—particularly Raphaelle and Rembrandt Peale. Still-life paintings by Duncanson are extremely rare and highly coveted. Signed and dated 1848, Still Life with Fruit and Nuts is a particularly fine example and the first work by Duncanson to enter the Gallery's collection. Classically composed with fruit arranged in a tabletop pyramid, the painting includes remarkable passages juxtaposing the smooth surfaces of beautifully rendered apples with the textured shells of scattered nuts.


Self-taught and living in Cincinnati when he created his still-life paintings, Duncanson exhibited several of these works at the annual Michigan State Fair. During one such exhibition, a critic for the Detroit Free Press wrote, "the paintings of fruit, etc. by Duncanson are beautiful, and as they deserve, have elicited universal admiration." The artist's turn from still-life subjects to landscapes conveying religious and moral messages may have been inspired by the exhibition in Cincinnati of Thomas Cole's celebrated series The Voyage of Life. Cole's allegorical paintings were purchased by a private collector in Cincinnati and remained in that city until acquired by the National Gallery of Art in 1971. Exposure to Cole's paintings marked a turning point in Duncanson's career. Soon he began creating landscapes that incorporated signature elements from Cole and often carried moral messages.


Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Duncanson traveled to Canada, where he remained until departing for Europe in 1865. Often described as the first African American artist to achieve an international reputation, Duncanson enjoyed considerable success exhibiting his landscapes abroad. His achievement as a still-life painter has only recently become apparent. The exceptional quality of Still Life with Fruit and Nuts suggests that much remains to be learned about this little-known aspect of his career.

Robert Seldon Duncanson, American, 1821 - 1872, Still Life with Fruit and Nuts, 1848, oil on board, Gift of Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation and the Avalon Fund, 2011.98.1

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Light seems to emanate from this painting of the river Seine, which runs through Paris. The setting sun, though not visible, blankets the sky in peach hues. The sky's soft, warm tones are reflected in the river so that were it not for the city in the distance, air and water might be indistinguishable from each other. The old Trocadéro Palace, built for the 1878 World's Fair but later demolished and replaced, can be seen in the distance. Like many artists and photographers, Tanner chose the Seine as the subject of his painting for its natural beauty and picturesque position in the heart of Paris. The dreamlike quality of the painting reflects the artist's attachment to the city.

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he took a drawing class taught by American painter Thomas Eakins. Although Tanner found some success as a painter in the United States, he left for Europe as a young man to escape racial prejudice and spent most of his professional career in France. Tanner thrived there, exhibiting paintings at the Paris Salon and other expositions.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, American, 1859 - 1937, The Seine, c. 1902, oil on canvas, Gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1971.57.1

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Into Bondage is a powerful depiction of enslaved Africans bound for the Americas. Shackled figures with their heads hung low walk solemnly toward slave ships on the horizon. In a gesture of despair, a lone woman at left raises her bound hands, guiding the viewer's eye to the ships. Yet even in this grave image of oppression, there is hope. Concentric circles—a motif frequently employed by Douglas to suggest sound, in particular African and African American song—radiate from a point on the horizon. The male figure in the center pauses on the slave block, his face turned toward a beam of light emanating from a lone star in the softly colored sky, possibly suggesting the North Star. The man's strong silhouette breaches the horizon line in a sign of strength and hope.

In 1936, Aaron Douglas was commissioned to create a series of murals for the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas. Installed in the elegant entrance lobby of the Hall of Negro Life, his four completed paintings charted the journey of African Americans from slavery to the present. Considered a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural phenomenon that promoted African and African American culture as a source of pride and inspiration, Douglas was an inspiring choice for the project.

The Hall of Negro Life, which opened on Juneteenth (June 19), a holiday celebrating the end of slavery, was visited by more than 400,000 fairgoers over the course of the five months that the Exposition was open to the public. This commemoration of abolition, and the mural cycle in particular, served as a critical acknowledgment of African American contribution to state and federal progress. Unfortunately, of the four original paintings only two, Into Bondage and Aspiration (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), remain.

Aaron Douglas, American, 1899 - 1979, Into Bondage, 1936, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase and partial gift from Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr., The Evans-Tibbs Collection), 2014.79.17

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In 1927 James Weldon Johnson, a key figure in what would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, published his masterwork, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Inspired by African American preachers whose eloquent orations he viewed as an art form, Johnson sought to translate into verse not only the biblical parables that served as the subjects of the sermons, but also the passion with which they were delivered — the cadence and rhythm of the inspirational language. Identifying black preachers as God's instruments on earth, or "God's trombones," Johnson celebrated a key element of traditional black culture. Years before the publication of his poems, while traveling through the Midwest as a field organizer for the NAACP, Johnson witnessed a gifted black preacher rouse a congregation drifting toward sleep. Summoning his oratorical powers, the preacher abandoned his prepared text, stepped down from the pulpit and delivered — indeed performed — an impassioned sermon. Impressed by what he had seen, Johnson made notes on the spot, but he did not translate the experience into sermon-poems until several years later. Upon publication, God's Trombones attracted considerable attention — not only for Johnson's uniquely original verse, but also for the astonishing illustrations that accompanied the poems. Created by Aaron Douglas (1899 – 1979), a young African American artist who had recently settled in Harlem, the images were an early manifestation of a compositional style that would later become synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance. Drawn by the cultural excitement stirring in Harlem during the mid- 1920s, Douglas arrived in New York in 1925. He soon became a student of Winold Reiss, a German-born artist/ illustrator and early proponent of European modernism in America. It was Reiss who encouraged Douglas to study African art as well as the compositional and tonal innovations of the European modernists. Before long, illustrations by Douglas began appearing in The Crisis, the NAACP publication edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, and Opportunity: The Journal of Negro Life published by the National Urban League. Impressed by these illustrations, James Weldon Johnson asked Douglas to illustrate his forthcoming book of poems, God's Trombones. On short deadline, Douglas created eight images that clearly reflect the influence of Reiss as well as the artist's close study of African art. Bold and unmistakably modern, Douglas'  images were immediately recognized as the visual equivalent of equally important breakthroughs in African American literature, music, and theater.

Several years after the publication of God's Trombones, Douglas began translating the eight illustrations he had created to accompany Johnson's poems into large oil paintings. The Judgment Day, the final painting in the series of eight, is the first work by Douglas to enter the collection. At the center of the composition a powerful black Gabriel stands astride earth and sea. With trumpet call, the archangel summons the nations of the earth to judgment. Recasting both the biblical narrative and the visual vocabulary of art deco and synthetic cubism, Douglas created an image as racially impassioned as the sermons of the black preachers celebrated in God's Trombones.

Aaron Douglas, American, 1899 - 1979, The Judgment Day, 1939, oil on tempered hardboard, Patrons' Permanent Fund, The Avalon Fund, 2014.135.1

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Interior depicts a woman and two children in a spacious, orderly room. Although there is no interaction between the inhabitants, the mood is warm and comfortable. Such a straightforward execution is typical of Pippin's best works. Pippin was born just twenty-five years after the abolition of slavery. His earliest recollection of drawing was in school, when he illustrated his spelling words. This usually caused trouble for the young artist at school and at home. His family's poverty presented some obstacles to obtaining art materials, but at age ten, after winning a magazine drawing contest, he won a box of crayons, waterpaints, and brushes. His career as an artist began late in life after Pippin had served as a soldier in World War I and worked as a porter, furniture packer, and iron molder.

Horace Pippin, American, 1888 - 1946, Interior, 1944, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meyer P. Potamkin, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1991.42.1

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This work is known by two titles: Mother and Awaiting His Return. The woman who dominates the composition stares into space, her strongly modeled figure a study in patience. Given the date (1945), the framed star in the background (a symbol of the U.S. military), and the word "mother" inscribed in the lithograph's lower left corner, the two titles make equal sense. The woman's face is easily that of a mother waiting for a loved one to return from service in World War II. Artist Charles White has chiseled her facial features with determination while infusing her expression with a sad insomnia. The cubist faceting of her figure imparts a feeling of solidity and strength in her that is reinforced by her imposing size and foreground placement. Her hands and face are nearly architectural with their sharp edges and straight-line markings of light and shadow. Yet her tired eyes, her chin set into the palm of her hand, and the merest hint of doubt in her expression signal concern.

White, primarily known as a painter of historical murals, in 1942 shifted his focus to portraits of everyday African-Americans on the advice of Harry Sternberg, an instructor at the Art Students League, New York. White's portraits, like Mother, depict anonymous people dealing with situations common to the black experience. The meticulous draughtsman used his skill to render human emotion and endurance in the face of such obstacles as discrimination. His works from the 1950s, the decade when the civil rights struggle exploded in the United States, show the cost of such perseverance in images of black men and women fighting for social justice.

Charles Wilbert White, American, 1918 - 1979, Mother, 1945, lithograph in black on wove paper, Gift of Jacob Kainen, 2002.98.72

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Bob Thompson's Tree is based on the fantastical, morally charged work of Francisco de Goya, the Spanish master known for his scathing commentary on the Spanish royalty and religious persecution in the late eighteenth century. Thompson's painting combines two consecutive plates from Goya's 1799 collection of etchings: Los caprichos: Volaverunt (They Have Flown) on the left and Quien lo creyera! (Who Would Have Thought It!) on the right. Instead of merely re-creating Goya's etchings, however, Thompson produced a different narrative by modifying the characters and adding new elements. Goya's adulteress becomes a redheaded, winged angel holding an uprooted tree. Her human form watches over several bestial figures, suggesting that human reason presides over primal instincts. To unify Goya's two images, Thompson incorporated the color red throughout the work and positioned the tree on a diagonal.

Thompson attended the University of Louisville in Kentucky before moving to New York City in 1959. In New York he studied the old masters at the city's museums and became friends with luminaries such as jazz musician Ornette Coleman and multimedia artist Red Grooms. Thompson traveled to Europe on a fellowship, painting Tree in Paris. Like Tree, many of his paintings are renditions of old master compositions. Sadly, Thompson died in Rome of complications after gallbladder surgery at the age of twenty-nine, cutting short his promising career.

Bob Thompson, American, 1937 - 1966, Tree, 1962, oil on canvas, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2000.39.3

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In Street to Mbari, Jacob Lawrence captures the flurry of a busy outdoor market in Nigeria. Shops line either side of the street while a maze of vendors awaiting discovery fills the distance. The viewer becomes part of the scene amidst a crowd of people, young and old, buying and selling. One can almost hear babies crying, chickens squawking, and people chattering as they discuss fabrics and produce. A cacophony of primary colors heightens the sense of commotion. Rolls of fabric show off different patterns and color combinations. Strips of corrugated iron in varying sizes and colors form the shops' roofs and create a visual rhythm across the top of the painting.

Lawrence first studied African art as a young man in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. In 1962 he traveled to Nigeria on an invitation to exhibit his work. In describing the trip, he said, "I became so excited then by all the new visual forms I found in Nigeria—unusual color combinations, textures, shapes, and the dramatic effect of light—that I felt an overwhelming desire to come back as soon as possible to steep myself in Nigerian culture so that my paintings, if I'm fortunate, might show the influence of the great African artistic tradition." It was during a second trip there that Lawrence completed Street to Mbari.

Jacob Lawrence, American, 1917 - 2000, Street to Mbari, 1964, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James T. Dyke, 1993.18.1

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Daybreak—A Time to Rest is one in a series of panel paintings that tell the story of Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913), the famed African-American woman who freed slaves using a fragile network of safe houses called the Underground Railroad. This abstracted image emphasizes Tubman's bravery in the face of constant danger. Lying on the hard ground beside a couple and their baby, she holds a rifle. Her face, pointing upward to the sky, occupies the near center of the canvas, her "body" surrounded by purple. Tubman's enormous feet, grossly out of proportion, become the focal point of the work. The lines delineating her toes and muscles look like carvings in a rock, as if to emphasize the arduous journeys she has made. Reeds in the foreground frame the prone runaways. Three insects (walking stick, beetle, and ant) are signs of activity at daybreak.

Jacob Lawrence is renowned for his narrative painting series that chronicles the experiences of African-Americans, which he created during a career of more than six decades. Using geometric shapes and bold colors on flattened picture planes to express his emotions, he fleshed out the lives of Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and African-Americans migrating north from the rural south during and after slavery. Lawrence was twelve in 1929 when his family settled in Harlem, New York, at a time when African-American intellectual and artistic life was flourishing there. As a teen, he took classes at the Harlem Art Workshop and Harlem Community Art Center, where he studied works of art by African-American artists and learned about African art and history. Lawrence went on to create images that are major expressions of the history and experience of African-Americans.

Jacob Lawrence, American, 1917 - 2000, Daybreak - A Time to Rest, 1967, tempera on hardboard, Anonymous Gift, 1973.8.1

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The title of this collage could refer to several of its details. In the top right quadrant a nearly camouflaged passing train with billowing smoke travels to an unknown location. The central figure, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, appears lost in thought. A woman stares at the viewer with a disproportionately large eye, her hand on the windowsill. In the "background" (at right), blue birds fly. These elements and others recall Romare Bearden's childhood in rural North Carolina and personify journeying, a central theme in African-American history. The train suggests the Underground Railroad—the network of abolitionist-run safe houses that secretly transported slaves—and the post-slavery migration of African-Americans, primarily northward, to seek better lives.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and raised primarily in the surrounding Mecklenburg County, Bearden eventually settled in New York City to finish college at New York University. He was a social worker there for several decades, during which time he spent nights and weekends on his art. Originally an abstract painter, Bearden began creating collages in the early 1960s using images from photo-magazines such as Life and Ebony. He came up with the idea after suggesting it to the other members of Spiral, a group of New York artists formed to create art based on African-American issues. In addition to his unflinching, faceted images of black life, Bearden is remembered for his published books on art and aesthetics and for his political energy on behalf of black culture.

Romare Bearden, American, 1911 - 1988, Tomorrow I May Be Far Away, 1967, collage of various papers with charcoal and graphite on canvas, Paul Mellon Fund, © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. 2001.72.1

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Sam Gilliam's draped paintings such as Relative pushed the notion of what painting was and could be. By moving his canvases off their stretcher bars, Gilliam allowed them to shift and flow as fabric is meant to do. The folds in the canvases, however, were not created at random but instead reflect Gilliam's specific idea about how he wanted his paintings to be installed. Relative, while still hung on a wall, becomes a part of its setting and interacts with and within that space. Lighting in the room affects the way shadows from the canvas fall on the wall. Physical movement around the painting can cause the fabric to stir, altering our perception of it. The ample folds demonstrate the painting's flexible properties, highlighting nuances of stained colors and hinting at what the creases conceal. Viewers can indulge in the continuous play between action and stillness, bright color and dark shadow.

Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. Like Alma Thomas, he settled in Washington, DC, and taught art in the public schools. Also like Thomas, he was a member of the Washington Color School and the larger color field movement. Gilliam's experimentations with color and abstraction resulted from an interest in moving away from figurative imagery to adopt color as the main subject of his paintings.

Sam Gilliam, American, born 1933, Relative, 1969, acrylic on canvas, Anonymous Gift, 1994.39.1

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Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris offers a tripled image, its single subject captured as if in a time-lapse. Whether with eyes closed meditatively (on the left) or gazing into space (on the right), Sir Charles is alternately thoughtful and vigilant. More than life-size, this imposing figure clearly signals 1970s fashion, pop culture, and the assertion of black identity in the generation following the civil rights era. Barkley Hendricks casts his friends, lovers, family members, and men and women he meets on the street as portrait subjects. Stark and monumental against a monochromatic ground, his portraits fix acutely on the individuality and self-expression of his subjects.

Hendricks has said that a painting he saw in 1966 while visiting the National Gallery of Art in London—a portrait by Flemish master Anthony van Dyck featuring a red velvet coat—was a point of departure for this work. Intending to make a replica of the Van Dyck image, Hendricks received permission to paint as a copyist in the museum. But once in the process, he realized he could not copy another artist's work, "no matter how much I like it," he said. Years later he painted Sir Charles with Van Dyck's red coat in mind. Other writers have likened Sir Charles to the iconic three graces—artistic muses (usually female) as portrayed by European old masters such as Botticelli and Rubens in three different attitudes, one usually with her back toward the viewer. It might be said that Hendrick's artistic muses relate to classical Western art history as well as sources personal to the artist.

Hendricks, who was born in Philadelphia, studied there at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and earned BFA and MFA degrees from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Since 1972 he has taught at Connecticut College in New London. The recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, he has exhibited his work at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum at Connecticut College; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University organized a career retrospective of Hendricks' work, Barkley Hendricks: Birth of the Cool, to travel from 2008 through 2010 to the Studio Museum, Harlem; the Santa Monica Museum of Art; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; and the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston.

Barkley Leonnard Hendricks, American, 1945 - 2017, Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris, 1972, oil on canvas, William C. Whitney Foundation, 1973.19.1

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The unevenly spaced, staccato brushstrokes on the white canvas form a visual rhythm, as if the artist had painted a cantata, a type of musical composition. Tremendous delicacy is shown in the play of space and color, with the white "background" as important to the overall effect as the red bursts of color. The harmonic color field is no accident: the compositional and color structure of Red Rose Cantata derives from Alma Thomas' interest in nature and music in its linear organization with organic variations.

Thomas came into the professional art world late in life, after teaching art for thirty-five years in the Washington, DC, public schools. Her age, however, did not prevent her from gaining recognition as an artist. In 1972, one year before she painted Red Rose Cantata, Thomas had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York—the museum's first solo exhibition for an African-American woman. Thomas and Sam Gilliam were the only two African-American members of the Washington Color School. She and other artists, Gilliam among them, are associated with the larger color field movement, which probed the use of solid color in abstract paintings. Thomas continued painting in her signature style, drawing on nature and music for inspiration, until her death in 1978 at age eighty-seven.

Alma Thomas, American, 1891 - 1978, Red Rose Cantata, 1973, acrylic on canvas, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976.6.1

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Untitled, #20 is a collage both intricate and seemingly precarious in its construction. Hundreds of small circular pieces, remnants from a hole-puncher, cover the surface of the paper. Some lie flat while others cluster in piles or hang off the edges. A grid created by monofilament provides a substructure for the outwardly haphazard composition, and a light coating of powder imparts an iridescent quality. Although numbered, each piece is randomly placed. The use of numbers and a grid suggests a mathematical and perhaps methodical approach to balancing randomness and premeditation.

Howardena Pindell was born in Philadelphia in 1943. She received her BFA from Boston University and her MFA from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Throughout her career, Pindell has used a variety of techniques and materials in her art, including fabric and video. Like Untitled, #20, her other work explores structure and texture in the process of making art.

Howardena Pindell, American, born 1943, Untitled, #20, 1974, collage with hole-punched paper dots, pen and black ink, monofilament, and talcum powder on oak tag paper, Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection, 2007.6.303

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The woman in African Nude, wearing only a large necklace, reclines on an overstuffed settee. Her alluring position is similar to the pose found in classic images of odalisques—female slaves in the Ottoman Empire whose identities became sexualized and popularized during the nineteenth century. Yet unlike the seductive odalisque seen in Western art, whose gaze challenges by staring directly at the viewer, the nude in Wells' work, with eyes downcast, appears unhappily submissive and ill at ease amidst the oversize lush plants and gala colors of the background. The viewer is thus left unsettled, as if unwelcome despite the outwardly inviting scene.

James Lesesne Wells was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1902 and received BS and MS degrees from Columbia University, New York. He had a long career in printmaking, first participating in the Federal Arts Project, which encouraged the development of the art in the United States during the Great Depression, and then teaching at Howard University in Washington, DC, for almost four decades. Wells was active in the civil rights movement and often depicted the struggles of African-Americans in his work. African Nude, which Wells created late in life, reflects his printmaking skill, interest in traditional African aesthetics, and commitment to representing African-American history and experiences.

James Lesesne Wells, American, 1902 - 1993, African Nude, 1980, color linocut on Japan paper, Gift of Jacob Kainen, 2002.98.246

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In the sweeping silhouette of Lever No. 3, a viewer might see either a long-necked animal or a mechanical arm, as suggested by the work's title. While Martin Puryear's sculptures often recall familiar forms, they encourage individual interpretations. This work explores a delicate balance between the heavy, solid-looking "body" and the elegant weightless reach of the giraffe-like "neck." The play between opposing values—heavy and light, animal and mechanical, space and form, movement and stasis—imbues the sculpture with a sense of animation, vitality, and changeability.

While the central form of Lever No. 3 appears to be sculpted from a heavy block of wood, it is actually a hollow shell, carefully constructed of thin, bent planks of wood. The sculpture is stained light gray, which unifies its appearance but also creates a somewhat uneven patina that emphasizes its hand-crafted quality. Like Lever No. 3, Puryear's sculptural objects often blend qualities of fine art and finely crafted utilitarian objects.

Puryear was born in Washington, DC, in 1941. After earning his BA there from Catholic University, he joined the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, Africa, where he had the chance to study woodworking techniques such as basketry and carpentry. Puryear then attended the Swedish Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm and independently continued his studies in woodworking. He received an MFA in sculpture from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. In 2007 the Museum of Modern Art, New York, organized a thirty-year retrospective exhibition of his work. Puryear lives and works outside New York City.

Martin Puryear, American, born 1941, Lever No. 3, 1989, carved and painted wood, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 1989.71.1

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In Untitled (Two Necklines), identical photographs of an unidentified African-American woman, shown from mouth to breastbone, hang in circular frames, between them a list of words engraved on plaques. The double image suggests tranquility and composure: the woman's white shift is clean and simple, her mouth at ease, the curve of her breastbone elegantly arced. But the plaques feature words describing circularity and enclosure that are ominously electrified by text on the final plaque, which reads "feel the ground sliding from under you."

Such meticulous alignments of words and image fuel the subtle yet startling power of Lorna Simpson's work, which for more than two decades has probed the spectral issues of race, sex, and class. Like this one, her images are often truncated, replicated, and annotated with words that force the viewer to interpret. Here, the framed photographs and words inscribed on plaques are literally and metaphorically black and white, the background of the final plaque a haunting blood red. One is hard pressed to deny the implications of this personal yet dehumanized image and its attendant language of racial pathology.

Simpson's interest in the relationship between text and images began during her career as a documentary photographer. She received her BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York and her MFA from the University of California at San Diego. She is recognized as one of America's ranking masters of potent, poetic work in photography and film. Remarkable in her originality is the way her works signal what is most personal about identity while simultaneously touching upon clichés and assumptions that can disfigure or destroy it.

Lorna Simpson, American, born 1960, Untitled (Two Necklines), 1989, 2 gelatin silver prints and 11 engraved plastic plaques, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2005.44.1

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The densely layered image of Slum Gardens No. 3 signals claustrophobia. A large tree with a thick, spiked vine winding its way up the trunk defines the right side of the work. Weeds and flowers blanket the bottom half of the image, almost obscuring the wooden shack (left) and the staircase. Plants invade a picket fence and piece of railing in the lower foreground. We sense that the vegetation will soon overtake the entire area, turning the "garden" into a neighborhood menace. The muscularity of the work, emboldened by thick, heavy lines of black charcoal, contributes to the intimidating quality of the plant life.

Joseph Norman frequently uses landscape imagery to convey meaning. For this work he drew on his experiences growing up in the ghettos of Chicago and on a trip in 1990 to Costa Rica, where he witnessed the affects of poverty on various neighborhoods. Slum Gardens No. 3 is not a view of a specific place; rather, it visualizes the concept of "slums" from regions around the world. Here the overgrowing landscape serves as a metaphor for the lack of attention paid to impoverished neighborhoods. Not only are the physical environments of such areas neglected, but, as Norman's drawing suggests, its social and economic problems are ignored as well.

Norman was born in Chicago in 1957. He received a BS is art education from the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, in 1980 and an MFA six years later from the University of Cincinnati. After teaching drawing for nine years at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, he took a professorship at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia, Athens, in 2001. He currently serves as the school's chairman of drawing and painting.

Joseph Norman, American, born 1957, Slum Gardens No. 3, 1990, charcoal on wove paper, Gift of the Sandra and Charles Gilman, Jr. Foundation in memory of Dorothea L. Leonhardt, 1992.20.1

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The imprints of six steam irons mark this work on paper. Beneath each silhouette, in large capital letters, is the name of an iron manufacturer—Casco, General Mills, Monarch, Silex, Presto, with one "unknown." What do we make of this image, framed in an old window?

For the past twenty years Willie Cole has selected and transformed particular items discarded from our vast consumer culture, such as irons, shoes, and lawn jockeys, into objects that resonate with metaphorical meaning—particularly cross-referencing African cultural history and the African Diaspora. The iron silhouettes in Domestic ID call up the slave era in America, when African women served as forced domestics, and the period after emancipation, when they took in laundry as one of the few lines of work open to them. The irons' singed imprints also evoke the rituals of scarification, practiced within certain African and other cultures, and branding, which expunged identity to mark humans as slave property—perhaps reinforced by the iron marked "unknown." Other references inhabit this powerful image—such as the similarity of the iron's shape to boats that plied the slave trade across Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and the near-whiff of heat and steam that seems to evoke the hot, backbreaking work of plantation life.

Mounting his image in a window, Cole literally reframes history in a way that summons the ready-made art of surrealist and Dada artists such as May Ray and Marcel Duchamp. Such wry yet serious correspondences of history, art, and racial politics anchor Cole's reputation in the art world. Educated at Boston University School of Fine Arts, and the School of Visual Arts (where he received a BFA) and the Art Students League, both in New York, Cole lives in northern New Jersey and has exhibited his work throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Willie Cole, American, born 1955, Domestic ID, V, 1992, steam-iron scorches with graphite on paper mounted in window frame, Gift of Werner H. and Sarah-Ann Kramarsky, 1997.92.4

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African-American artists working in the 1980s and 1990s often focused on black identity as culturally and socially constructed. Artists including Glenn Ligon moved from using the black figure to employing text as a way to explore perceptions and understandings of race. In Untitled: Four Etchings [A–D], Ligon quotes from Zora Neale Hurston's essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" (1928) and Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man (1952). Selections from both literary works are written in the first person, often repeating the word "I." In the process of deciphering the text, the viewer becomes the "I" and thus inhabits the person questioning himself/herself and his/her identity.

Untitled: Four Etchings [A] (above) and [B] repeat, over and over, sentences from Hurston's essay: "I do not always feel colored" [A] and "I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background" [B]. As the viewer reads, the texts become increasingly difficult to decipher. Smudged and broken type interferes with legibility, suggesting the viewer's literal and intellectual struggle to read the sentence and understand its implications.

Etchings [C] and [D], both black type on black paper, also make the reader work to comprehend the meaning. Their nearly identical texts taken from Ellison's monumental novel are almost indiscernible—"invisible" like the story's protagonist.

Text [C]:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus side-shows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only themselves, or figments of their imagina-

Text [D] is the same, except that it ends:
...figments of their imagination—indeed everything

Glenn Ligon, American, born 1960, Untitled: Four Etchings [A], 1992, softground etching, aquatint, spitbite, and sugarlift aquatint in black on Rives BFK paper, Gift of Werner H. and Sarah-Ann Kramarsky and the Collectors Committee Fund, 2004.65.1.a

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Artistically speaking, those with power are usually those who assign a subject's identity. And once such identity has been given, it accumulates historical authority as years, decades, and centuries ensue. Central to this phenomenon is the role of gaze—the idea that the viewer has the power to define what she/he sees. In the art of our times, however, the authority of gaze has been tested and upended. Here, Lorna Simpson weighs in.

The artist presents two binoculars and between them, a series of phrases. You might pick up one of these looking devices—perhaps to spy?—and thus see what the text haltingly, disjointedly describes. But Simpson has placed the binoculars face down, simultaneously promising and frustrating vision. Text and binoculars each furnish only partial knowledge, underscoring the inherent problem of relying on only written or visual information to understand a person or situation. Simpson has examined the relationship between text and image over many years, challenging concepts of truth, history, and identity. Here, gaze is thwarted by its instruments, knowledge is crippled by incompleteness. You may assign meaning to this image, but Simpson reminds: it is not necessarily correct.

can see the moisture of her breath while she sings—an interior wall blocks the view of the other—can see the badge #'s—full moon perfect light—undressed completely and got into the tub to his left—motionless—kept a log of observations—curvaceous—went unnoticed by the naked eye—tried to hold in view—just shadows—near sighted—gruesome—remembered everything—right in the line of vision—they moved three steps back and out of view

Lorna Simpson, American, born 1960, Graphicstudio, U.S.F. (publisher), Two Pairs, 1997, photogravure on handmade Richard de Bas paper, Gift of Graphicstudio/University of South Florida and the Artist, 1998.87.17

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Freedom, a Fable is an illustrated artist's book with text and pop-up silhouettes. At first glance it appears to be a nineteenth-century children's book, but it is decidedly not. It tells the story of a female slave whose life after emancipation veers far from her dreams of meritocracy, revealing that Freedom, a Fable is not just the title of the work but is also the lesson to be learned.

Much of Kara Walker's work engages the historical art form of the black paper silhouette to re-present African-American history. Her beautiful, laser-cut figures initially attract. But quickly one notices their demeaning postures and exaggerated features, which recall negative stereotypes of African-Americans portrayed in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century minstrel shows, novels, and art. Walker's figures depict a physically and sexually violent antebellum South, often the source of these virulent typologies. Walker's inversion of the portrait silhouette—a supposedly representative art form—reveals the corrosive power of stereotypes and prejudice. To heighten the irony and poignancy of her message, her cutouts are normally wall-size installations. In contrast, the miniaturized images in Freedom address the viewer on an intimate, personal scale.

Born in Stockton, California, in 1969, Walker moved to Atlanta, Georgia, at age thirteen. Her transition from an integrated town to the racially divided atmosphere of the South had a profound impact on her. She received her BFA from the Atlanta College of Art and her MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, having begun her exploration of the silhouette while in school. At age twenty-seven, Walker received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation award. Her first retrospective exhibition was at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in 2007.

Kara Walker, American, born 1969, Freedom, a Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times, 1997, bound volume of offset lithographs and five laser-cut, pop-up silhouettes on wove paper, Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection, 2007.6.275

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Martin Puryear is primarily a sculptor, and like his three-dimensional art, his works on paper embody a sense of monolithic form in their simple and organic shapes. Profile's swelling form particularly mimics the artist's cranial-shaped sculptures in wire, mesh, and wood. The abstract image on paper compels us to engage our imagination. While its title and outline suggest a human profile, typically distinguishing features—nose, lips, and eyes—are absent. In its minimalism, Profile evokes a smooth, flat stone, a guitar pick, or anything else a viewer imagines its central shape to be.

Puryear was born in Washington, DC, in 1941. After earning his BA there from Catholic University, he joined the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, Africa, where he had the chance to study woodworking techniques such as basketry and carpentry. Puryear then attended the Swedish Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm and independently continued his studies in woodworking. He received an MFA in sculpture from Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. In 2007 the Museum of Modern Art, New York, organized a thirty-year retrospective exhibition of his work. Puryear lives and works outside New York City.

Martin Puryear, American, born 1941, Paulson Press (publisher), Profile, 2002, softground etching with drypoint on chine collé, Gift of Bridgewater Associates, 2006.167.1

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The conversation bubbles in Exchange feature phrases spoken by black characters in works of literature as varied as Arthur Miller's The Crucible, William Shakespeare's Othello, and Norman Mailer's An American Dream. However different the language and their corresponding characters, the words are all the invention of white writers. These literary representations of blacks occupy the voices of the many spots and splashes in Exchange. The spots, symbolic of black people, speak to one another, revealing different personalities, desires, problems, and ideas. By selecting phrases that represent a notion of blackness according to the white writers, artist Fred Wilson comments on the misleading nature of our collective understanding of Africans and African-Americans.

Spitbite aquatint, the printmaking technique Wilson used in Exchange, creates physical and conceptual depth, giving the spots a three-dimensional quality. The layers of spots suggest the layers of African and African-American history, often misunderstood and misrepresented. Since the conversation bubbles give voice to only a few of the spots, Exchange also alludes to the countless others, today and in the past, who remain unheard.

Phrases inside the conversation bubbles include:


Take me home, Devil! Take me home! (Arthur Miller. The Crucible)
No, no, master will never do that... (Herman Melville. Benito Cereno)
Yeah, freedom, baby! Freedom! (Mart Crowley. The Boys in the Band)
I adore you. (Shelagh Delaney. A Taste of Honey, Boy)
O my fair warrior! (William Shakespeare. Othello)
Man, let's get cool and enjoy each other. (Norman Mailer. An American Dream)
Kiss me, sweets. (Norman Mailer. An American Dream)
Why do you run 'way from me pretty boy? (Eugene O'Neill. Moon of the Caribees)
I'm just the future, in love with myself, that's the future. (Norman Mailer. An American Dream)
Listen, baby, you don't leave me. I'll cut out your heart. (Norman Mailer. An American Dream)
I can move in slow motion, can't I? (Jean Genet. The Blacks: a clown show)
Why do you let him talk to you that way? (Mart Crowley. The Boys in the Band)
I'm too pretty to rumble, and that's a fact. (Norman Mailer. An American Dream)
You're such a fag. You take the cake. (Mart Crowley. The Boys in the Band)
Tell me about it. (Athol Fugard. A lesson from Aloes)
I think I loved him all my life, but he never knew I was alive. Besides, he's straight. (Mart Crowley. The Boys in the Band)
Ja, I could see that. (Athol Fugard. Master Harold and the Boys)
No use'n you rakin' up ole times. (Eugene O'Neill. The Emperor Jones)


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Fred Wilson, American, born 1954, Crown Point Press (publisher), Exchange, 2004, color aquatint, spitbite aquatint and direct gravure on wove Somerset paper, Gift of Kathan Brown, 2006.122.161

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