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Richard J. Powell explores the concept of “colorstruck,” a 20th-century term addressing prejudice against people with darker complexions, in the 71st annual A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts. The six-part series examines how colors—chromatic interactions in paintings and the sociocultural dynamics of race—collide in unanticipated ways.

The Lectures

Color does more than capture the viewer’s attention; it assaults one’s equilibrium, physically and socially. Using blue, green, yellow, orange, black, red, brown, and their combinations as points of departure, Powell traces the visual and conceptual pathways of particular palettes. Through close looking at works by Nina Chanel Abney, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sam Gilliam, Jacob Lawrence, Raymond Saunders, and Alma Thomas—painters for whom hue and pigmentation carry diverse associations—Powell’s lectures reveal how color can strike a chord for freedom and reclamation in art and life.

The lectures were held over six Sundays from March 20 to May 1, 2022.

Richard J. Powell

Photo © Chester Higgins

Richard J. Powell, John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art and Art History at Duke University, is a scholar of African American art and art of the African Diaspora, ranging from primitivism to postmodernism. His most recent book is Going There: Black Visual Satire (2020), a survey of satire created by Black artists in the 20th and 21st centuries. Powell was editor-in-chief (2007­–2010) of The Art Bulletin. He has organized and cocurated numerous exhibitions, most recently Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist, which debuted in 2014 at the Nasher Museum of Art before traveling to other major institutions, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. His other books include Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson (1991), Jacob Lawrence (1992), Black Art: A Cultural History (1997, 2002, and 2021), and Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture (2008).

Powell is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Lawrence A. Fleischman Award for Scholarly Excellence in the Field of American Art History (2013) from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. In 2016, he was named the year’s Distinguished Scholar by the College Art Association. Powell was the James S. Ackerman Scholar in Residence at the American Academy in Rome in 2017, and in 2019 he was the Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professor at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts.

The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts

The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts were inaugurated in 1949. Endowed by a gift of the Old Dominion Foundation and the Avalon Foundation (creations of Paul Mellon and his sister, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, respectively), the lecture series was founded “to bring to the people of the United States the results of the best contemporary thought and scholarship bearing upon the subject of the Fine Arts.”

Learn more about the A. W. Mellon Lectures and view past presentations and subsequent publications.

Past Events with Richard J. Powell

Related Artists

Related Education Resources

Banner: Raymond Saunders, Red Star (detail), 1970, oil, metallic paint, and collage (paper, synthetic fabric, and gummed tape) on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (The Evans-Tibbs Collection, Gift of Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr.), 2014.136.158

The Lectures (in order of lectures): Jennifer Packer, Tremor of Intent (detail), 2021, oil on canvas, 22 × 28 in. (55.9 × 71.1 cm). Artwork © 2022 Jennifer Packer; Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel No. 33: Letters from Relatives in the North Told of the Better Life There (detail), between 1940 and 1941, casein tempera on hardboard, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1942. © 2022 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Alma Thomas, Resurrection (detail), 1966, acrylic and graphite, White House Collection / White House Historical Association; Sam Gilliam, Homage to the Square (detail), 2016–2017, acrylic on wood. © Sam Gilliam; Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans (detail), 1983, acrylic and oil stick on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Gift of Douglas S. Cramer. Image: © Whitney Museum of American Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource, NY. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York; Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, An Assistance of Amber (detail), 2017, oil on linen. © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York and Corvi-Mora, London