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The legacy and identity behind Corcoran's 30 Americans

Elizabeth WardBy Elizabeth Ward on Oct 05, 2011 | Add a Comment Add a Comment (289)

The legacy and identity behind Corcoran's 30 Americans

Kehinde Wiley, Sleep, 2008. Oil on canvas, 132 x 300 inches. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Kehinde Wiley, Sleep, 2008. Oil on canvas, 132 x 300 inches. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Mickalene Thomas, Baby I Am Ready Now, 2007. Acrylic, rhinestone, and enamel on wooden panel, diptych, 72 x 132 inches overall; 72 x 60 inches, left panel; 72 x 72 inches, right panel. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Mickalene Thomas, Baby I Am Ready Now, 2007. Acrylic, rhinestone, and enamel on wooden panel, diptych, 72 x 132 inches overall; 72 x 60 inches, left panel; 72 x 72 inches, right panel. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bird On Money, 1981. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 66 x 90 inches. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bird On Money, 1981. Acrylic and oil on canvas, 66 x 90 inches. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2008. Fabric, fiberglass, and metal, 102 x 36 x 28 inches. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Nick Cave, Soundsuit, 2008. Fabric, fiberglass, and metal, 102 x 36 x 28 inches. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Hank Willis Thomas, Basketball and Chain, 2003. Digital C-print, 99 x 55 inches. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Hank Willis Thomas, Basketball and Chain, 2003. Digital C-print, 99 x 55 inches. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

This weekend, The Corcoran Gallery of Art premiered its newest exhibition, 30 Americans, a bold, revelatory punch-in-the-face, “Say It Loud” kind of experience. 30 Americans is a wide-ranging survey of 76 works by 31 of the most important African American artists of the last three decades. Racially, sexually, and personally provocative, it is one of the strongest representations of contemporary culture and identity, and it marks an effort by the Corcoran to undertake more daring exhibitions that examine serious issues and provoke needed debate.

This is the type of art that grapples with the identity.  Whether abstract or literal manifestations of defined identity, each artist provokes, disturbs, enlightens, and/or inspires.  In this way, 30 Americans is more about the artists than the art. This makes sense, seeing as all of the works come from the collection of Don and Mera Rubell, Florida-based collectors, who have been collecting artist-based and artist-focused work since the 1960s. 

But why '30 Americans?’

"We decided to title the show 'Americans,' rather than 'African-Americans' or 'Black-Americans' because nationality is a statement of fact, while racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her own way, or not at all," the Rubells said in a statement. The number 30 because the Corcoran wanted to acknowledge that the show does not include everyone who could be in it.  In fact, there are actually 31 artists in 30 Americans.

It showcases seminal artistic figures from the Rubell’s earlier collections, such as Jean-Michel Basquit, Robert Colescott, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and David Hammons, along with younger and emerging artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Shinique Smith that the Rubells began collecting a little over three years ago.  

Together, however, no matter the length or direction of life path, each artist represented in 30 Americans has contributed his or her notions of black identity in America to the message of the show.  Naturally, themes such as the struggle for civil rights, the presence of pop culture, and the powerful imagery of mainstream media come to the forefront. 

While divergent in aesthetic, generation, and medium, each piece seems to live out the motto of this exhibition, “Say It Loud.” Whether harsh images capturing lynchings or glossy depictions of the popular media and the commercialization of public images, these pieces speak conceptual and literal truth, challenging the viewer to be a part of the debate – to really pay attention to the story of American identity. At the same time, however, the layout of the exhibition has managed to highlight artistic legacy and influence, tracing subjects and themes across many generations.

Lifted straight from the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, Fl, 30 Americans has been reconceived for its debut in DC.  Experienced at the Corcoran, it is organized around ideas of identity (instead of aesthetics), as well as legacy, highlighting relationships between artists and across generations.  So for instance, you will encounter artistic pioneers alongside contemporary practitioners, witnessing the ripple effect that one has on the other. 

Cases in point: Robert Colescott’s investigations of the narratives of art and history in relation to African-American culture echo through the prominent, spiritually giant portraits by Kehinde Wiley and the cut-paper silhouettes of Kara Walker.  Further along, Mark Bradford and Shinique Smith’s works find their contemporary strength next to the Jean-Michel Basquiat’s powerhouse graffiti-based paintings of the urban environment. Finally, David Hammon’s wry investigations of language, meaning, and race provide the starting point for the conceptualism of Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson.

These inherent parallels cultivated by topic and curatorial choices bring the Corcoran to the forefront of a new and exciting era, writing the book on American art history.  30 Americans is a new chapter in art history still being written by black artists.  Fortunately, the museum has planned a series of events around the exhibition to allow for dialogue and explanation from the artists from themselves.

Among the many film screenings and lectures are the following upcoming events this month that will only serve to augment the narrative power and totality of 30 Americans.

30 Americans Visiting Artist Series
With Nina Chanel Abney

Thursday, October 6, 2011; 7pm
Frances and Armand Hammer Auditorium – FREE!

Join 30 Americans artist Nina Chanel Abney for the first FREE lecture as a part of the Corcoran’s Visiting Artist Series.  Abney’s will discuss her work inside the 30 Americans exhibition and the role that her work plays in contemporary society.

Downtown 81
Sunday, October 9, 2011; 4pm
Frances and Armand Hammer Auditorium – FREE

Filmed in 1980-1981, Downtown 81 stars the legendary American artist Jean Michel Basquiat portraying a young painter in New York.  The film captures an exciting moment in American culture, with the emergence of new wave music, new painting, hip hop, and graffiti.  Following the screening, Maripol and Michael Holman will discuss the film, Basquiat, and the explosive art and music scene in New York during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

NOW at Night 2011
October 21; 8pm – midnight
Guests at Corcoran’s second annual cocktail fundraiser NOW at Night will enjoy an exclusive view of 30 Americans, as well as the show’s two companion exhibits, Hank Willis Thomas: Strange Fruit andGordon Parks: Photographs from the Collection.Tickets are $150.

Admission to 30 Americans is $10 for adults, and $8 for seniors and students. Children 12 and under, military, and Corcoran Members enter for free. 30 Americans is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from September 26, 2011 – February 12, 2012.

30 Americans features the work of the following artists: Nina Chanel Abney, John Bankston, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Bradford, iona rozeal brown, Nick Cave, Robert Colescott, Noah Davis, Leonardo Drew, Renee Green, David Hammons, Barkley L. Hendricks, Rashid Johnson, Glenn Ligon, Kalup Linzy, Kerry James Marshall, Rodney McMillian, Wangechi Mutu, William Pope.L, Gary Simmons, Xaviera Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Shinique Smith, Jeff Sonhouse, Henry Taylor, Hank Willis Thomas, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, and Purvis Young.

To learn more about each artist, check out John Murph's "30 Day Countdown" blog, where each day throughout the month of September he introduced readers to a new 30 Americans artist - delving into their inspirations and intentions and finding out what makes each of the 31 artists truly unique.

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