From the rise of America as a world superpower after WWII—and with it, a distinctly individual and identifiably “American” approach to artmaking—to the proliferation of technologies that homogenize American culture today, artists have always been at the forefront of social response. Complex Uncertainties is an evolving exhibition grounded by works in Telfair’s modern and contemporary collection that sheds light on these responses and reveals some of the ways in which historic events challenge artists to explore unknowns, construct narratives, and react to power.
Telfair’s holdings of modern and contemporary art comprise paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, sculptures, and works in new media, representing American artistic achievement from 1945 to the present day. This distinct collection offers a rich and singular institutional story, highlighting artmaking at its most ambitious through strong representative works. It features experimental works that provide clues to artistic transitions, and it boasts uncommon works that enrich our understanding of the history and current complex state of American art.
Complex Uncertainties acknowledges the ever-evolving social, political, and cultural conditions that contemporary artists react to and create within. Through this ongoing installation, visitors can explore the impact of artistic responses to specific historical events, as well as palpably empathize with the growing sense of uncertainty that artists address throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Faith Ringgold (American, B. 1930), Under the Blood Red Sky #9, 2007, Offset lithograph on Somerset paper, Museum purchase, 2021.7.8
Faith Ringgold is an internationally recognized artist and activist best known for her painted narrative quilts that deal with African American life and culture, civil rights, and gender equality. Although Ringgold has worked in a variety of mediums, her art is generally united by a blend of semi-autobiographical, fictional, and historical storytelling.
This print of two figures journeying to a white house under a “blood red sky” is part of a larger body of work known as the Coming to Jones Road series—a group of prints, quilts, children’s books, and paintings chronicling the escape of 28 enslaved people to Aunt Emmy’s farmhouse on Jones Road in the Palisades in New Jersey. The artist created this vibrant group of works in response to her relocation from New York to New Jersey, where she felt unwelcome. By exploring and depicting the area’s history as a hub of the Underground Railroad, Ringgold sought to forge a meaningful connection to her new home and community.
Louise Nevelson (American, b. Ukraine, 1899-1988), Mirror Shadow XXIII, 1986, Mixed media, On loan from the Melaver Estate
Louise Nevelson moved to New York City in 1920, where she later studied at the Art Students League (1929–30). During the mid-1950s she produced her first series of black wooden sculptures, for which she became most known: monumental in scale, totemic and dark—challenging the notion of what type of art women in midcentury America could and should be making. She collected scrap wood—including moldings, dowels, spindles, chair parts, architectural ornaments, scroll-sawed fragments, pieces of furniture, and even wheels—which she then stacked, assembled, and bolted into carefully framed compositions.
At a time when “sculpture” was a convention meaning an artwork either carved or molded, Nevelson’s process of sculptural “constructions” was groundbreaking. Nevelson formally unified her work by painting her assemblages monochromatically (usually black, white, or gold) to obscure the identity of the original objects. For Nevelson, black had a mystical sense of wholeness: It “is the total color. It means totality. It means: contains all.” The social archaeology suggested by the objects’ individual histories and functions, then, is not erased but allowed to form new meanings while also inviting viewers to perceive complex tonalities of light and shadow.
Nevelson’s series of Mirror-Shadows from the 1980s were unlike the more ordered and geometric wall reliefs of prior decades—these create dynamic diagonal movements that activate surrounding space. Self-titled the “Architect of Shadows,” she completed this work at 87, just two years before her death.
James Rosenquist (American, 1933–2017), Fire Fountain, 2005, Lithograph on paper, Kirk Varnedoe Collection, Telfair Museums, Gift of the Artist, 2006.20
After a formal arts education, James Rosenquist initially found work as a commercial artist, painting billboards and signs around Manhattan. The commercial imagery in which Rosenquist was immersed during these early years certainly came to bear on his mature work as a preeminent artist of the Pop Art movement. Around 1960, Rosenquist became known in the fine arts world for juxtaposing unusual and disparate commercial images, often employing unexpected materials and working on an exceptionally large scale. His painting F-111 (1964–65) measured 86 feet long and was specifically designed to wrap around the room in which it was exhibited.
Fire Mountain is an example of Rosenquist’s lithography work, a medium he adopted in 1964. The artist selected this piece for Telfair’s Varnedoe Collection because the fire and vigor in its composition reminded him of the indefatigable energy with which Kirk Varnedoe championed the arts.
John Folsom (American, B. 1967), Salt Marsh Refuge, 2016, Archival pigment print on board with oil and wax medium, Gift of John Folsom, 2019.13
Salt Marsh Refuge shows an area of the National Wildlife Refuge near Savannah, a protected environment that boasts 31,551 acres of freshwater marshes, rivers, creeks, and low-lying land, and an active habitat for wildlife. John Folsom complicates the atmospheric beauty of the Lowcountry landscape by incorporating a grid structure within the image. Created by digitally altering a photograph he has taken, cutting it into a grid, reassembling the work and painting on top with oils and wax, Folsom ultimately calls attention to the manmade constructions and interventions within the natural world.
Marcus Kenney (American, b. 1972), Strictly Personal, 2003, Mixed media, Gift of the Ronald J. Strahan Estate, 2009.11.7
This scroll uses text from an October 23, 1961 issue of The Augusta Courier newspaper. Although only a small section of the scroll is unrolled, the legible red and black words reveal the politically and racially-motivated narrative featured in the pages of the paper. The article titled “Strictly Personal” argued for the segregation of the school system. By appropriating those words, Kenney forces a confrontation with the racist propaganda of the past. In its use of materials, the work also speaks to Kenney’s interest in discarded items. Having lost all his own belongings in a fire as a teenager, Kenney became “obsessed with rescuing others, albeit from through the dump or the side of the road.” The desire to rescue and collect and expose and uncover is a recurring thread throughout his work.
Kenney holds an M.F.A. in photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design and lives in Savannah. He works in many mediums including sculpture, painting, and photography. His large-scale survey exhibition Topics in American History, Volume I was organized by Telfair Museums in 2007.
Bertha Husband (Scottish, 1948-2017), Book, from The Ruse of Law series, n.d., Gouache, paper, metal, and binder’s board, Proposed gift of Mary Jo Marchnight
Using a Georgia state law book as her source material, Bertha Husband married text and painted narrative to raise questions over the alleged equal distribution of justice. Playing off the phrase of the “the rule of law,” the series The Ruse of Law considers the often deceptive nature of justice. The series was a collective project between internationally-born but Savannah-based artists Bertha Husband, Asa Chibas, and Milutin Pavlovic. After rescuing the law books from a dumpster, each artist used the books to interpret their opinion and understanding of the law.
Husband made visually compelling works that addressed broader issues of political and social concern. Born in Scotland, Husband traveled extensively and exhibited internationally and was part of several artist collectives in her ongoing effort to show that art has the power to subvert and liberate.
Nick Cave (American, b. 1959), Soundsuit, 2012, Mixed media sculptural suit including beaded and sequined garments, fabric, and metal with a display mannequin armature, Museum purchase with funds provided by Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Levy, Susan Willetts and Alan K. Pritz, Cathy and Philip Solomons, Diane and Ed Schmults, Pamela L. and Peter S. Voss, Jan and Lawrence Dorman, Friends of African American Arts, Dr. William Goldiner, Dr. David M. Hillenbrand, Rosaleen Roxburgh, Ted and Linda Ruby, Marti and Austin Sullivan, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Young, and the Jack W. Lindsay Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2017.6.a-b
Nick Cave is an artist, dancer, and “messenger” known for his sculptural soundsuits—wearable constructions that are fabricated to the scale of his own body. Cave’s soundsuits can operate as a second skin, meant to conceal race, gender, and class. His first soundsuit was created in response to the Rodney King beating by LA police in 1991. Cave’s work reflects on his own identity as an African American man and questions how to navigate public and private domains. The soundsuits protect and transform one’s identity, disguising race and gender in an attempt to eliminate prejudicial prejudgment.
Michael Kolster (American, B. 1963), Tidal Marsh, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina, 2014, printed 2020, Archival pigment prints, Gift of Karen Wells and Andrew Canning, 2019.32.10.a-c
As part of his Rivers series (2011–14), photographer Michael Kolster created contemporary wet-plate ambrotypes and subsequent digital prints of four American rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean—the Androscoggin, Schuylkill, James, and Savannah. His photographs emphasize the centuries worth of industrial use and neglect inflicted on these bodies of water.
Tidal Marsh, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, South Carolina is a triptych of the brackish water and natural vegetation at the National Wildlife Refuge located outside of Savannah. Kolster first made glass-plate ambrotypes, a historic and complex photographic process that required him to set up his large-format camera and a portable darkroom to chemically fix the images onsite. Later he scanned the plates into his computer to produce digital files. Kolster’s photographs suggest that as the boundaries continue to dissolve between humankind and nature, we should embrace and cherish places once degraded by industry and discover beauty in their ongoing ecological evolution.
Betsy Cain (American, B. 1949), Saturation Totem 3, 2012, Oil on board, Gift of Mr. Joseph V. Ryan Jr. in honor of Captain and Mrs. Joseph V. Ryan Sr. and Ms. Kathleen C. Ryan., 2020.18.10
Betsy Cain has maintained an active studio practice in Savannah for 38 years. Her work is influenced by the salt marshes, tidal creeks, and barrier islands surrounding her home. The natural elements that enliven the marsh—flowing grasses, viscous pluff mud, reflective water, shifting light—all find expression in Cain’s paintings and cutouts. The artist describes her paintings as “a primordial soup” infiltrated by water, mud, and light. Her work also effectively distills less tangible aspects of the coastal environment, such as texture, density, light, and humidity.
Her bold, sweeping strokes and unfettered swirls are evidence of a body in motion, finding artistic precedent in mid-century action painting. Cain identifies a “liquidity or dance” in the gestures she records on canvas and rarely works larger than her own reach, ensuring that her works relate to the scale of the human body. She seeks to create a dialogue between the internal and external that expresses physical energy and mental states.
Ulysses Davis (American, 1914–1990), Top: Scorpio, c. 1970s–80s, Bottom: Libra, c. 1970s–80s, Wood and glass, Museum purchase with Telfair Museums’ acquisitions endowment funds, 2020.2.1 and 2020.2.2
Ulysses Davis is Savannah’s best-known self-taught artist. He began “whittling” as a young boy, a passion for carving that lasted his lifetime. In his spare hours between clients at his barbershop, Davis worked on his art, which ranged from portraits of historical and biblical figures to depictions of flora and fauna.
Using shipyard lumbar as his source material, Davis reduced the wood into smaller pieces with a hatchet or band saw and further refined the work with knives and chisels. He was even known to add details with hair clippers. The works on view here, Scorpio and Libra, were gifted to Raymond and Mina Smith, owners of the Savannah Barber Supply store that Davis frequented.
Davis was lauded in his time, notably through his inclusion in the exhibition “Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1982. Uninterested in wider recognition, Davis refused to sell many of his works. “They are part of me.… If I sold these, I’d be really poor,” he insisted. Today, most of Davis’ works are in the collection of the Beach Institute in Savannah.
Larry Connatser (American, 1938–1996), Untitled [#2048], 1976, Acrylic and black marker on canvas board and wood, Gift of Mr. Joseph V. Ryan Jr. in honor of Captain and Mrs. Joseph V. Ryan Sr. and Ms. Kathleen C. Ryan, 2020.18.14
Raised in Atlanta, Connatser attended Vanderbilt University and began a career in publishing before establishing his true passion as a self-taught painter at the age of 24. Returning to the South in 1971, he lived between Atlanta and Savannah and established his career through mural commissions, private collectors, and museum exhibitions. A prolific artist, Connatser is credited with around 2,500 paintings. He layered dots of pure color over flat areas of paint to create a rich texture on the surface of his brightly-colored paintings. His work was the subject of a posthumous retrospective at Telfair Museums in 2002 called Southern Melodies.
John Mitchell (American, B. 1942), Home Sweet Home, n.d., Wood, glass, leather, string, fabric, porcelain, and paper, Gift of Brenda Thompson, 2021.3
Savannah-based artist John Mitchell believes that a home is more than a simple edifice. Rather, he argues that the sociological, psychological, architectural, and historical associations embedded in the structure “tell us about our culture, our lives. It tells us about where we come from.”
Mitchell grew up in a shotgun house in North Carolina, a style of vernacular architecture that is particularly prevalent in the South. Mitchell fills his sculptural homes with objects of metaphorical and symbolic importance. In Home Sweet Home he includes the American flag, a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and a china plate depicting The Last Supper, among other items that convey a personal and historical narrative. He notes that making art acts “as a ‘record’ of experiences. My bittersweet past, growing up in the segregated South, inspires the content, focus, and narrative of my work.”
John Mitchell (American, B. 1942), Shotgun Shanty, 1999, Wood, copper, and nails, Gift of Arthur Bennett Kouwenhoven, Jr., 2000.4
“I just think the house shape, it tells us about our culture, our lives. It tells us about where we come from.”
– John Mitchell
This sculpture depicts a shotgun house, a narrow rectangular home, which was popular in the South after the end of the Civil War through the 20th century. Influenced by West African and Haitian housing forms, shotgun houses were often inhabited by economically-depressed families.
Vernon Edwards (American, 1940-1999), Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), 1982, Mahogany, Museum purchase, 1997.22.2
Vernon Edwards was one of a small number of accomplished African American woodcarvers working in the Savannah area in the late 20th century. He followed in the footsteps of self-taught artist Ulysses Davis and, like him, made valuable contributions to folk art in the region. By the 1980s, Edwards was pursuing his carving to a greater extent, and his freestanding and relief portrait sculptures of important figures in black history are reminiscent of work he had seen and admired in Davis’ Savannah barbershop. Though less refined, Edwards’ works have an undeniable emotional power that rises from a fierce pride in his heritage.
In this sculpture, Edwards pays homage to Frederick Douglass in his signature blocky woodworking style. Douglass, a central figure in 19th-century America, was an escaped slave turned noted abolitionist, statesman, and editor.
Thornton Dial Sr. (American, 1928–2016), Going Along with the Tiger (The Struggling White Man), 1997, Mixed media on BFK Rives paper, Gift of The Judith Alexander Foundation, 2011.20.3
The son of a sharecropper from Emelle, Alabama, Thornton Dial Sr. has been nationally recognized as one of the most important self-taught artists of the Southeast. Dial recalled that he learned to draw by studying designs for steel machines when he worked for the Pullman Standard Company, a railroad car factory, from 1952 to 1980.
In the early stages of his career, the artist frequently represented tigers to convey what he called “the Struggle”—a term that oftentimes signified to him the plight of African Americans in the United States. Art historians have argued that Dial’s depictions of tigers pointedly resemble panthers, a reference to the Black Panther Party (the 20th-century African American political activist organization). In this work, Dial has depicted a tiger and a man locked in altercation, their limbs dynamically contorted and sprawled across the drawing. The animal, with its striking red hue, serenely gazes at the viewer; in contrast, the man appears startled, his helpless expression suggesting that he has been overpowered by the tiger.
Maya M. Farber (American, B. 1936), Red Yellow and Blue, 1966, Oil on linen and linen collage, Gift of Dr. John Farber, 1967.6
Although Maya Farber has experimented with various subjects and mediums throughout her lengthy career, for many years she relied on a limited number of materials: fabric, oil paint, and glue. Through works like Red Yellow and Blue, which blends painting and collage, the artist experimented with the properties of textiles. The viewer is encouraged to notice how the pieces of cloth effectively catch the light and enhance the appearance of textures and colors. The eye is drawn to the deliberate intersections of shapes on the canvas: these colorful juxtapositions create various shades—from red, yellow, and blue to brown, green, and gray.
Gertrude Glass Greene (American, 1904–1956), Guide to the Wildflowers, 1949, Oil on linen, Gift of Mr. Balcomb Greene, 1975.1
While working in Paris, Gertrude Glass Greene was exposed to Russian and European-based abstract art movements—such as Constructivism and Neo-plasticism—that would forever influence her art practice in the United States. She was one of the first Americans to experiment with mixed-media abstract constructions, objects that combined elements of painting and sculpture. Moreover, she was one of the founding members, alongside her husband, the artist Balcombe Greene, of the American Abstract Artists organization in 1936, which promoted this novel style.
Guide to the Wildflowers, a medley of shapes and colors, recalls Greene’s lifelong investment in abstract forms. Made in the final stages of her career, these looser shapes and sections of visible brushstrokes are perhaps indicative of the artist’s evolution from pure geometric abstraction toward an expressionistic and painterly approach.
Willie L. Tarver (American, 1932-2010), Cap Lee #3, 1990, Painted cement, Gift of Basil Hamblin, 1997.13
Willie Tarver’s unique sculptures and paintings are reactions to life in the South including themes such as religion, slavery, farm life, and the struggles of the working man infused with a personal sense of humor. In this work, Cap Lee #3, Tarver has taken his own physical features to create a hybrid-identity in bust form with American Civil War general Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate Army and surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in 1865.
Tarver is a Georgia-born, self-taught artist whose art career started in the 1960s after serving in the Korean War and working 25 years as a refrigerator repairman. A retired welder, Tarver’s work includes whimsical welded metal pieces and concrete sculpture. With his wife, Mae Tarver, also a sculptor, he created a sculptural environment including a castle outside their Wadley, Georgia home. Tarver is also known for his Folk Art Park in Atlanta, commissioned for the 1996 Olympics.
Betty Parsons (American, 1900-1982), Untitled, c. 1971, Wood, acrylic and gouache, canvas, and metal (nails and staples), Gift of William McPherrin and Keith Robinson in honor of Craig Duff, 2017.13.a-e
Betty Parsons was the founder and driving force behind the Betty Parsons Gallery, which played a pivotal role in the history of Modernism through her championing of Abstract Expressionism. With her gallery and the artists she represented there, Parsons helped New York supplant Paris as the center of the art world—American abstraction would become synonymous with democracy and post-war American values. The Betty Parsons Gallery was also ahead of its time in representing artists of color, Latin American artists, and women abstract expressionists including Ethel Schwabacher and Elaine de Kooning, represented in Telfair Museums’ permanent collection and on view in this gallery.
Parsons’ artistic work has been treated as a footnote to her successful and influential career as an art professional, but being an artist was deeply rooted in her identity. Parsons developed a working method that relied heavily upon spontaneity and a desire to convey “sheer energy” and “the new spirit.” She spent her weekends in her studio in the hamlet of Southold, Long Island, designed for her by the artist Tony Smith. Her sculptural works comprised pieces of detritus (drift wood, signage, pieces of furniture) gathered from the beach near her home—wood that had a “beautiful weathered quality from the sand and the water and the sun”—which she then painted. This untitled assemblage is possibly a model or maquette of an interior architectural space such as her studio, and comprises five individual elements assembled together. The miniature canvas painting would have been hung on a nail on the wall, and the God’s eye symbol was employed by Parsons frequently during the 1970s and is indicative of her interest in Native American motifs.
Jill Nathanson (American, B. 1955), Tan Transpose, 2020, Acrylic and polymers with oil on panel, Gift of the artist and Berry Campbell Gallery, 2021.11
As a student studying at Bennington College in Vermont, Jill Nathanson was introduced to Color Field Abstraction—a movement born in the 1950s characterized by broad expanses of color, large canvases, and a rejection of the so-called impulsive and gestural application of paint favored by the Abstract Expressionists. Like her predecessors Helen Frankenthaler and Sam Gilliam, Nathanson’s work encourages a contemplative and immersive experience of color. She stated: “I want the viewer to get into feeling the whole of the painting: how chords of color-as-light join together to orchestrate an experience. I pour paint, achieving color transparencies and use a fluid drawing approach to arrive at a painting composed of energies in dynamic relation with the rectangle.”
Nathanson’s process typically starts with digitally produced sheets of translucent color, which she superimposes, cuts, and combines until achieving the desired hues and arrangements. Using these studies, she embarks on a multiday process of mixing, pouring, and layering paint, as well as lifting and methodically titling the panel to regulate its spread. This laborious technique allows the artist to control saturation, transparency, and opacity—elements that play a key role in building her works’ various fields of color and in generating harmonious compositions.
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Syd Solomon (American, 1917–2004), Solarule, 1985, Oil and acrylic on canvas, Gift of Ann F. Solomon, 2006.31
Born in Pennsylvania, Syd Solomon studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before serving in the Army during World War II as a camouflage specialist. After the war, he and his wife settled in Sarasota, Florida. He would eventually divide his time between his studio in Sarasota and a studio in East Hampton, New York. Considered part of the second generation of abstract expressionists, Solomon was instrumental in bringing people and ideas from the New York art world to Sarasota, helping transform the small Florida city into a vibrant artist colony. Solomon’s circle of friends included the artists James Brooks, Conrad Marca-Relli, Larry Rivers, and Jim Dine, as well as the great filmmaker Elia Kazan and eminent author Kurt Vonnegut.
Solomon was consistently inspired by nature and often worked in a triptych format, as seen here. The bright colors of the shoreline and skies of Florida as well as the darker, atmospheric landscape and coast of Long Island are featured in his gestural, engaging work. The darker palette of Solarule would suggest that this piece was created in the artist’s East Hampton studio.
Mildred Thompson (American, 1936–2003), Quaver III, 1989, Lithograph on paper, Museum purchase, 1994.7.30
Mildred Thompson achieved early recognition in New York City after receiving her B.A. from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and studying for three years at the Art Academy of Hamburg, Germany. Although the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum acquired her works, commercial success proved elusive due to the gender and racial discrimination she experienced. As a result, Thompson moved to Europe in the 1960s and joined a circle of experimental German Expressionists. After living abroad for most of her adult life, Thompson returned to the United States in 1975 hoping to find a less racially-charged and more accepting environment. In 1986, Thompson made Atlanta her home, where she taught and exhibited until her death in 2003.
Never one to shy away from challenging mediums or experimentation, Thompson explored abstraction in drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and printmaking. She used abstraction to visualize elements that are invisible to the naked eye, such as space and sound.
Tim Rollins (American, 1955–2017), K.O.S. (American, founded 1981), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2005–6, Watercolor, India ink, abaca paper collage, mustard seed, and music score pages on canvas, Purchased with funds provided by the City of Savannah Youth Art Workshops., 2012.12.10
Tim Rollins was a conceptual artist who began his career as a teacher in the South Bronx. He established the Art of Knowledge Workshops for students with learning disabilities. For an initial project, Rollins asked his students to draw at their desks while he read aloud from George Orwell’s 1984. One student misunderstood the instructions and drew directly on the pages of the book. The creative possibilities of placing images over text excited the class, so they applied the pages to a canvas and began working in concert on a large-scale composition. The collaborative process has since become a trademark style for the group, who call themselves Kids of Survival (K.O.S.) in recognition of the skills acquired through participation in the workshop.
To create the work on view, Rollins collaborated with local Savannah teenagers on an image based on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The imagery refers to a passage in which Oberon, king of the fairies, orders the magical Puck to obtain a flower from Cupid that causes one to fall in love with the first thing one sees. While reading excerpts from the play, workshop participants also listened to Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this painting, the magical flowers described in the play are painted over pages of Mendelssohn’s sheet music.
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Howard William Mehring (American, 1931–1978), Cadmium Thrust, 1965, Oil on canvas, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jerome W. Canter, 2005.25
A native of Washington, D.C., Howard Mehring was a leading figure among the artists of the Washington Color School. He studied at Wilson Teachers College in Washington, where he was an art major, and earned his M.F.A. from The Catholic University of America. Unlike other Washington Color School artists, Mehring preferred to use geometric forms in his work and to apply thick layers of paint. He exhibited extensively in Washington during his lifetime and was also included in exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum and the Guggenheim Museum. The Corcoran Gallery of Art mounted a major retrospective of his paintings in 1977, shortly before the artist’s death.
Sam Gilliam Jr. (American, B. 1933), Electric, 1997, Acrylic on wood, Gift of Rebecca Klemm, 2005.24
Upon Sam Gilliam’s arrival in Washington, D.C., in 1961, the recent graduate discovered a new world of ideas and aesthetic possibilities, among them the Washington color school. The group was experiencing its heyday, and Gilliam, having mastered the signature color-school technique of staining raw, unprimed canvas with acrylic paints, became the only African American among its associates.
Gilliam’s work quickly grew past the flat solid-color designs of his Washington colleagues, and in 1969 the museum-going public first saw the now legendary draped, or suspended, three-dimensional paintings that hang and swing through space like bunting. Gilliam was able to exploit the pliant properties of the canvas and reveal the sculptural qualities of one of painting’s fundamental materials. His practice submits the thought-provoking idea that there may not be a measurable theoretical difference between a painting and an object such as a sculpture. In more recent years Gilliam’s work has continued to evolve stylistically but persists in defying the traditional divisions between painting and sculpture. Electric might be described as a wall-mounted sculpture, yet its surface bears colorful streaks that link it to the act of painting.
Sam Gilliam Jr. (American, b. 1933), #8, To Repin, To Repin, 1980, Acrylic on canvas, Gift of Alfred and Lillian Hertel, 2000.9.1
Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Sam Gilliam is internationally recognized as one of America’s foremost African American artists. Carrying the legacy of Abstract Expressionism, and associated with the Washington Color School, his work became known in the 1960s when, inspired by the sight of women hanging laundry on clotheslines, Gilliam began exploring the capacities of the canvas outside of its traditional form, developing a spontaneous technique of saturating canvases with paint and then suspending them from ceilings and walls without traditional stretcher supports, a process he described as “renewal without repetition.”
This painting-sculpture hybrid work offers new ways of understanding color, form, and structure. #8 To Repin, To Repin is part of his 17-canvas series called Chasers. Each “Chaser” has an element at the upper right that is balanced by the rest of the composition, and each one has been stretched on a nine-sided, beveled-edge support. This work pays homage to Ilya Repin (1844–1930), one of Russia’s foremost national artists.
During the 1980s, Gilliam’s work was characterized by multiple layers of acrylic paint on the canvas, creating dramatic textural effects. This work gets its “quilted” appearance from the rearranged, cut geometric shapes in the canvas.
James Rosati (American, 1912-1988), Drake, Small Version, 1970, Painted zinc, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Dwight H. Emanuelson, 1980.18.1
Drake, Small Version is more likely to be a model or a maquette for a large-scale sculpture that James Rosati had in mind. This sculpture, comprising three geometric forms, creates a movement through space as each angle is different from the other, and can be seen from several viewpoints. The way the sculpture interacts with its surroundings, providing passages and planes for light to move, offers a conversation between positive and negative space.
Rosati was an American abstract sculptor born in Washington, Pennsylvania. After moving to New York in 1944, he became part of the Eighth Street Club, a group of Abstract Expressionists including Conrad Marca-Relli. Rosati’s work is characterized by monumental geometric sculptures that bare a great influence from Cubist imagery.