Release Date: April 3, 2009
National Gallery of Art Acquires Seminal Painting by Norman Lewis; Works by Hugonnier, Rugg, and Bochner Also Acquired
Washington, DC—At its annual meeting in March, the Collectors Committee of the National Gallery of Art made possible the acquisition of Untitled (Alabama) (1967) by African American artist Norman Lewis (1909–1979). This ambitious abstract painting references the civil rights struggle of the 1960s.
"Untitled (Alabama), Norman Lewis' first painting to enter the Gallery's collection, is a significant addition in the area of abstract expressionist art," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "We are very grateful to the Collectors Committee, which enables the Gallery to continually enhance its holdings of contemporary art."
The Collectors Committee discretionary fund for prints and drawings also supported the acquisition of Art for Modern Architecture (Homage to Ellsworth Kelly) (2005), a suite of seven collages on newspaper by Marine Hugonnier (b. 1969), and No More Dry-Runs (2008), a cut-and-rearranged newspaper by Kim Rugg (b. 1963).
The Collectors Committee discretionary fund for photographs, combined with the Richard S. Zeisler Fund, also enabled the Gallery to acquire one of Mel Bochner's most important photographs, Surface Dis/Tension (1968).
Untitled (Alabama) by Norman Lewis
Harlem-born Norman Lewis is often described as the most important African American artist in the abstract expressionist movement. His 1967 painting Untitled (Alabama) is one of the most powerful of his "black paintings" (1946–1977), which are characterized by compacted, flame-like strokes of white and black that move and twist across the canvas, suggesting the ambulatory confrontations that punctuated the civil rights movement. Although Lewis disclaimed political efficacy for his art, Untitled (Alabama), one of his greatest works, is unique in its historical ambition.
No official title is on record, but Lewis' widow reports that the artist called this work "Alabama." Its composition reflects and exaggerates the shape of that state, while also suggesting a cleaver or guillotine. The hood of a Klansman emerges from a welter of black and white strokes. The wedge-like geometric shapes within which these brushstrokes are confined reflect the geometric abstractions of the time and foreshadow the art of Richard Serra and Maya Lin, who are also concerned with the politics of human locomotion.
Untitled (Alabama) is the first painting by Lewis to enter the collection; in addition, the Gallery recently added three prints by Lewis when it acquired the Reba and Dave Williams Collection.
Works on Paper and Photographs
In a suite of seven collages, Art for Modern Architecture (Homage to Ellsworth Kelly) (2005), French-born artist Marine Hugonnier made cutouts from Ellsworth Kelly's book Line Form Color and pasted them onto front-page images of the Al Ayyam newspaper. Recalling Kelly's early found and altered objects and renewing his ambition to integrate art and modern architecture and thus position art in daily life, Hugonnier elegantly recast Kelly's thinking by appropriating fragments from his book and collaging them onto the "architecture" of the newspaper, arguably the most representative voice of everyday life.
In No More Dry-Runs (2008), Canadian-born artist Kim Rugg put an anachronistic twist on the daily newspaper, painstakingly cutting the August 8, 2008, edition of the Financial Times into minute, individual characters and rearranging them by category and in alphabetical order. With the newspaper industry facing stiff competition from the Internet, Rugg reverted to a fundamental technology invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1455, setting movable type by hand. By alphabetizing the text, Rugg also obscured and invalidated what we judge to be the news.
A pioneer of post-minimal and conceptual art, Mel Bochner turned to photography in 1966 to document his installations of serially arranged blocks. He soon realized that photography deserved exploration in its own right and made a series of photographs from 1966 to 1968 that explore the concept of perspective both as a theory of art making and a perceptually verifiable phenomenon. The most ambitious and complex of all of his photographs is Surface Dis/Tension (1968). Made by soaking a photograph of a grid in water until its top layer could be peeled from the paper support, then dried and photographed again, Surface Dis/Tension examines the workings of perspective and the distortions caused by the camera lens.
History of the Collectors Committee
The Collectors Committee has made possible the acquisition of more than 300 works of art since the committee was formed in 1975. Approximately half of these acquisitions have been works by living artists. Founding benefactor Paul Mellon asked Ruth Carter Stevenson, chair of the Gallery's board of trustees from 1993 to 1997, to be the first chair of the Collectors Committee. Roselyne C. Swig and John Pappajohn, both major collectors of 20th-century art, currently chair the Collectors Committee. Pappajohn, who resides in Des Moines, is president of Equity Dynamics, Inc., a financial consulting firm. Swig, a San Francisco resident, is active in cultural organizations and served as director of the U.S. State Department's Art in Embassies Program.
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