MoAD is the first stop for the traveling exhibition with works dating from the 19th-century to the present.
The Studio Museum in Harlem opened its doors in 1968, a time when political unrest and social upheaval was roiling the country. The museum sought to create a space exclusively devoted to artists of African descent along with work influenced and inspired by black culture. Over the past 50 years, this community institution has amassed a permanent collection of more than 2,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, watercolors, prints and mixed-media pieces dating from the 19th century to the present. While the museum awaits completion of its new expanded facility, artworks from its collection have been culled into the largest traveling exhibition in its history; “Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem” features 64 diverse artworks by 52 artists from the 1920s onward. The first stop on the cross-country tour is San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD).
“We saw this as a chance to showcase the collection at its best and expose different audiences to artists who’ve contributed so much to the narrative of black artistic production both in the U.S. and internationally,” says Studio Museum Associate Curator Connie H. Choi.
The show includes a wide range of makers, from the self-taught to the academically trained, with works that span the decades since The Studio Museum’s founding; among them are the abstract, time-based, mixed-media sculptures of the late Tom Lloyd. Exhibited in the institution’s inaugural show, they were considered radical at a time when black artists were expected to embrace figurative art that addressed socially relevant, race-related issues. Lloyd’s “Moussako” (1968), is on view, a quartet of aluminum hexagons made of industrial headlamps scavenged from old Buicks and colored light bulbs programmed to flash like traffic signals, is on view.
Integral to The Studio Museum’s mission of supporting and mentoring emerging artists was the establishment of a thriving, on-site artist-in-residence program. Many of the program’s more than 100 distinguished alumni have gone on to develop high-profile careers; the show offers early examples of their work. During her 2002-2003 residency, Mickalene Thomas, for instance, was just beginning her signature practice of studding her intricate, vividly colored collaged pieces with rhinestones. She’s represented by “Panthera” (2002), a jewel-encrusted acrylic depicting a sleek panther in the woods, a symbol of the graceful, self-assured, often glamorous black women who became frequent subjects of her later work. “Using rhinestones confronts ideas of artifice and masking and ties into my investigation of beauty,” Thomas told BOMB magazine in 2011. Kehinde Wiley, who achieved international fame for his unconventional portraits, was walking down the street in Harlem when he found an image of an African American man on a discarded “Wanted” flyer. That discovery prompted his inquiry into the position of brown and black people within the hierarchy of traditional portraiture. One of his earliest explorations of this idea, “Conspicuous Fraud Series #1 (Eminence),” was painted on a simple blue background during Wiley’s 2001 residency. It shows a well-dressed man whose hair extends upward into swaths of black swirling above his head. Over the years, as Wiley’s stature grew—in 2017 he painted President Obama’s official portrait that hangs in the Smithsonian—his compositions became more elaborate.
Several artists investigate the perception of black bodies and their absence from visual culture. Alabama-born, Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall, who was inspired by Ralph Ellison’s novel “The Invisible Man,” used a distinctive, exaggerated shade of black in “Silence is Golden” (1986), an intimately sized painting of a black figure who, in a conspiratorial gesture, brings two fingers to his lips. The surface of the work is completely black except for the subject’s teeth and the whites of his eyes. With the lack of contrast, which makes the figure virtually indistinguishable from the background, Marshall calls attention to the invisibility of black subjects throughout art history.
While searching online for his father’s prison records, Titus Kaphar uncovered 99 other men who shared his father's first and last name and were incarcerated for similar crimes. The research prompted a series examining the broader issue of men exiled by society and hidden from sight. For “Jerome IV” and “Jerome XXIX,” shown here, small wood panels coated in gold leaf were overlaid with painted portraits of the men based on their mug shots. In a final step, the artist applied a curtain of tar that obscures the lower portion of their faces. Through this process, Kaphar achieved an effect reminiscent of Byzantine icons.
The Studio Museum’s exhibitions have been deeply influenced by its location in Harlem as has its collection, shown and stored in a neighborhood whose residents see themselves reflected in the artworks. The cocky kid in sunglasses and bright white sneakers, leaning against a sawhorse in photographer/filmmaker Dawoud Bey’s black and white image “A Boy in Front of the Loew’s 125th Street Movie Theater” (1976), from the series “Harlem U.S.A.,” faces the camera head-on, while the older, bow-tied gent in “Man in a Bowler Hat” strikes a regal, dignified pose. Recently, Jordan Casteel’s exuberant painting “Kevin the Kiteman” (2016) immortalized a familiar, colorful character who regularly rode his bike on the plaza across the street from the Museum. But no one embodies the history of Harlem, especially the spirit and memory of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s, better than James VanDerZee. His sepia-toned photographs, three of which are included in the exhibition, epitomize a moment when African Americans dressed up in their finest clothes and went to portrait studios to have their pictures taken. “It was a way of inviting themselves into history and making sure that people saw them as part of the larger culture, during their lifetime and beyond,” notes Choi.
If The Studio Museum has a signature piece, it may be Glenn Ligon’s “Give Us a Poem” (2007). The work’s six-foot-high, white neon and black polyurethane letters, spelling out the words “ME” and “WE,” hung in the entryway of the building where it could be seen from the street for over a decade, until it was packed up for the traveling show. Harlem’s loss is San Francisco’s gain when this vibrant exhibition comes to town.
Jan. 16 → April 14
Museum of the African Diaspora
685 Mission St. San Francisco 94105