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September 30, 2022

Acquisition: John Wilson’s "Young Americans" Suite and Five Additional Works on Paper

John Wilson, 'Le Metro'

John Wilson
Le Metro, 1949
opaque watercolor on heavyweight wove watercolor paper
sheet: 42.2 x 33.6 cm (16 5/8 x 13 1/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Avalon Fund
2022.27.7 

John Wilson (1922–2015) worked primarily as a draftsman and sculptor. He grew up in Boston, studied at the city’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, helped establish the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, and taught art at Boston University for over 20 years. The National Gallery of Art has acquired Wilson's suite of five life-size, colored-crayon and charcoal drawings, and a compositional sketch for his unrealized mural Young Americans (c. 1972–1975), as well as one early watercolor, a monumental black-crayon study of a woman's profile, and three lithographs. Collectively, these works reveal the artist's passionate concern for the human condition and demonstrate his superb skill as a draftsman with a remarkable sensibility for creating dark tonalities and sculptural effects.

Important influences on Wilson's work include his studies with the French modernist Fernand Léger and his encounters with Asian, African, and other non-Western objects in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris in 1949. He then spent five years (1950–1955) in Mexico absorbing the lessons of the modern Mexican muralists and printmakers and their desire to create a public art that addressed communal values and experiences. As Wilson developed his style, he sought to combine the sculptural, curving figures and bold graphic compositions of the Mexican artists with the robust use of color, space, and stylized form that he admired in the work of Léger. In the early 1970s, his affinity for sculptural forms led to a shift from painting to sculpture as his primary medium, although works on paper remained a vital part of his practice.

In the early 1970s Wilson's home in Brookline, Massachusetts, was the favorite hangout for his teenage children and their friends of all races, reflecting his interracial marriage and the progressive values the family upheld. This led to an idea for a mural, Young Americans, for which Wilson created a compositional sketch and individual life-size portrait studies of his children and their friends. Although the mural was never realized, these drawings stand as testament to what Wilson described as a hopeful moment in the early 1970s when greater racial harmony seemed within reach for his children's generation. Wilson saw that hope in notable Black political and cultural achievements, such as Shirley Chisolm's campaign for president, the establishment of the Congressional Black Caucus, the election of the first African American mayors in Newark, Los Angeles, and Detroit, and the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama awarded to an African American, Charles Gordone.

Five additional works by Wilson are included in this acquisition. The watercolor, Le Métro, (made in Paris in 1949) shows the extent of Léger's influence on Wilson's early work. In The Trial (1951), Wilson visualizes the oppressive racist bias of the court system in an imagined scene from the infamous trial of the "Scottsboro Boys" in which nine young African American men were falsely accused of raping two white women. In this image, Wilson depicts members of the all-white jury with mask-like faces glaring down at a Black defendant.  

One of Wilson's finest Mexican prints, Trabajador (1951), demonstrates his use of modernist space and simplified geometric forms to glorify the Mexican laborer, emphasized by the figure's oversized hands, stoic expression, and central placement within the composition. His lithograph Campesinos (1954) reveals his increasing interest in portraying human relationships and underlying commonalities across humankind. Wilson captures the enduring fortitude of the rural workforce in the solidity of their forms, while their curved postures, echoed in the repeated archways in the background, underscore the heavy burdens they bear. Particularly moving are the protective cradling of the child and the figures turned toward one another, hinting at the intimate ties within this family unit. This lithograph also exemplifies Wilson's mastery of the range of tonal possibilities of the medium.

Roz, the young woman portrayed in Study for "Eternal Presence" (1972), was a family friend and one of Wilson's favorite models. She appears wearing a pink turban at the far right of his compositional study for the Young Americans mural. Wilson was particularly taken with her striking profile. He developed numerous studies of her that varied in degree of abstraction, linear contour, and highly modeled detail, as seen here. Roz served as a key source for Wilson's sculptural magnum opus, the grand cast bronze head, Eternal Presence, installed on the grounds of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury in 1987. Long fascinated by the human figure, and inspired by Buddhist, Olmec, and Easter Island examples, Wilson envisioned Eternal Presence, a monumental, genderless, idealized African head, to serve as a universal icon representing humankind.

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