by merle ginsberg | November 10, 2011 | Lifestyle
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Bird on Money, 1981
|Nick Cave’s Soundsuit (2008), made with fiberglass, metal, and human hair|
Of all the diverse cities across this country, few have less in common than Washington and Miami. One appears utterly serious about government, history, and diplomacy, the other about hedonism, partying, sex, and bright colors. One is all about hard work, the other is a vacation kickback. Those, of course, are stereotypes. In reality, DC and Miami have two major elements in common: the exhibition 30 Americans, opening at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on October 1, which is all about stereotypes (and shattering them); and the Rubell family, which started a hotel empire in Miami and began its national expansion here in DC with the retro-stylish Capitol Skyline Hotel, and from whose private collection the exhibit is drawn.
Running through February 12, 30 Americans will display works by 31 of the most important African- American artists of the past three decades. It pairs iconic figures like Jean-Michel Basquiat and his urban graffiti paintings and David Hammons and his sardonic investigations of racial language with cutting-edge emerging artists like Kehinde Wiley and Shinique Smith, juxtaposing Leonardo Drew’s cotton and wax sculpture and Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouettes. What we will see at the Corcoran is somewhat reconfigured from the original Miami show, culled from the Rubell Family Collection in Miami and exhibited at their Contemporary Arts Foundation, which houses work from their collection, begun in 1964 (and including pieces by Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, and Andy Warhol). Still, the basic premise of 30 Americans remains the same: how racial, sexual, and historical identities are explored in contemporary culture in very different ways.
Sarah Newman, curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran, saw 30 Americans in Miami in 2008 and admits she wasn’t necessarily thinking of it for the museum. But she was struck by the way the Rubells have handled their collection. “It’s very artist-based,” explains Newman. “They started small in 1964 and got to know the artists over time. They will collect a lot of each artist; their collection grew as their finances grew. I think their collection strategy manifests in this show. It’s a web of social connections.”
Organizing the works of 31 artists across the country presented unique challenges, even for those that are part of a single collection. It was difficult to get in touch with those artists who eschew the mainstream, and others have meanwhile emerged as bona fide stars, says Newman. “Some of these artists are more accessible than others,” he explains. “Glenn Ligon has a huge profile right now; he’s in the stratosphere. Mickalene Thomas had a show in New York and is making such interesting work. Kehinde Wiley continues to be fabulous—people are interested in whatever he’s doing. Nick Cave is also one of the stars of the show.” Other artists on the roster include Nina Chanel Abney, John Bankston, Mark Bradford, Iona Rozeal Brown, Noah Davis, Renée Green, Barkley L. Hendricks, Rashid Johnson, Kalup Linzy, Kerry James Marshall, Rodney McMillian, Wangechi Mutu, William Pope.L, Gary Simmons, Xaviera Simmons, Jeff Sonhouse, Henry Taylor, Carrie Mae Weems, and Purvis Young.
Pygmalion, by Robert Cole Scott, 1987
|The Corcoran Gallery of Art|
It would be simplistic, however, to view 30 Americans merely as a show pinned to the subject of race. “There are so many issues in this show,” says Newman. “One of the defining elements of this show is its diversity. It’s about identity, the different ways identity is conceived and filtered and crafted. Race, sexuality, gender, history, popular culture—you see these concerns coming to bear in different ways on different artists.” She points to Thomas’s “blaxploitation images” as representative of strong black women, with Kehinde Wiley figuring out the place of black men in American history. “I think the overwhelming idea these people are expressing is absence or a lack, and they’re all grasping at similar tools: music, advertising, popular culture, and sports,” says Newman. “Hank Willis Thomas deals with sports and the black man in a powerful way. He’s thinking through the way black male bodies are idealized and demonized by our culture at the same time.”
The major difference between the displays in Miami and the Corcoran, explains Newman, lies in how the works are grouped. “I wanted to create organizing strategies in the exhibition. We often hung works near other works they’ve influenced— with common ideas. Sometimes this influence is acknowledged, sometimes it’s not.” Newman cites Robert Colescott as profoundly influential in how artists perceive art history: Kara Walker is working in his wake, and Leonardo Drew, too, with his irreverent take on history. Similarly, says Newman, “Jean-Michel Basquiat transformed thoughts of the urban environment in terms of art, developed a new language, and brought street art into mainstream art. He left a massive legacy. We want to show you their common threads.”
30 Americans will consume seven of the larger galleries at the Corcoran as well as the rotunda, covering an impressive 5,000 square feet. One of the inevitable questions attached to the exhibit, naturally, is if the president and the first lady will attend. “There’s been a conversation,” Newman admits. “I’m not sure what the outcome was. The Obamas have visited the Corcoran before. It takes days of work, security has to sweep every halfhour. But even if they don’t come to the opening, they will come for a tour of the show.” 500 17th St. NW, 202-639-1700
photographs by philip beaurline (roof); denny henry (door)