Acclaimed “30 Americans” Exhibition Comes to the Nelson-Atkins
While the nation continues to endure seemingly growing differences between races and economic classes, the exhibit “30 Americans” reminds us that diversity is still, at its foundation, humanity’s most enlightening, enriching and beautifying trait.
Featuring more than 80 artworks from the Rubell Family Collection by 30 of the most influential African American artists in roughly the last 30 years, “30 Americans” is a bold and confrontational exhibition, resonating with the determinative expressionism of a postmodern blackness that refuses to be silenced.
“Since we started collecting in the 1960s, we have always collected African American artists as a part of our broader mission to collect the most interesting art of our time,” the Rubell Family states in the exhibition catalogue.
Since its debut in December 2008 at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, various presentations of “30 Americans” have been shown in 14 different cities. On June 1, it arrives for a three-month stop at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“The contemporary masterpieces in “30 Americans” invite us to discover a variety of perspectives on the human experience,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, Nelson-Atkins director & CEO.
“It’s diverse and spectacular and evolving and hard to contain,” Rosemary Ponnekanti wrote in “The News Tribune” of Tacoma during the exhibit’s fall 2016 stop at the Tacoma Art Museum.
Black America clearly is varied and inventive in its contributions to American culture and lifestyle and so is this exhibition. From the relatively emerging to the well-established to deceased legends, from a mixed-media tribute to Charlie Parker by neo-expressionist Jean- Michel Basquiat to haunting photographs by conceptual artist Xaviera Simmons, “30 Americans” presents a stunningly diverse display of artistic and cultural individualism bound together by the collective consciousness of the Black experience.
The featured works are strong in purpose and intention, as reinforced by remarks from the artists in the exhibition catalogue.
“I am interested in fusing multiple issues,” says painter Nina Chanel Abney speaking about her 10 x 15-foot diptych, “Class of 2007,” “so I set out to address the disproportionate number of white students in M.F.A. programs and the disproportionate number of African American males in prison.”
Created for her senior thesis show, “Class of 2007” portrays Abney as blonde and holding a gun on the smaller panel, while her classmates are depicted as African American and wearing orange prison uniforms on the larger panel. Except for a single African American woman looking at her classmates, all eyes are fixed on the viewer. Some of the subjects are handcuffed; others make gang signs. Some are smiling, some are stoic, and still others peer distrustfully from the canvas.
Glenn Ligon, an artist renowned for works exploring race, language, desire, sexuality and identity, shared a painful memory in the catalogue: “James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud’ was released in 1968,” he related. “When it came on the radio, I could sing the ‘Say-It-Loud’ part, but I could only whisper, ‘I’m black and I’m proud.’”
One of Ligon’s inclusions in the exhibition is “America,” a stunningly simple artwork composed of a neon sign and paint. He presents “America” in stark black and soft white, consistent with most of his other works. The one-word, simple font monochromatism of “America” stands in contrast to the bold, colorful, stylized, wordy neon signs that we daily see adorning restaurants, bars and clubs.
Mixed-media artist Mickalene Thomas’ “Baby I Am Ready Now” is a two-panel work; the right panel features a deep-brown-skinned woman staring directly at the viewer while sitting low on a couch in an ocean of intricate patterns and plush colors.
At first glance, it appears the left panel is a continuation of the right panel, but it becomes quickly evident that while it contains some of the same patterns and colors as the first panel, there are marked differences, and thus the illusion of continuity quickly evaporates.
“As a diptych, the piece sets up two opposing but complementary fields,” Thomas explained. “On one side is a figure in an interior space, absorbed in her thoughts. On the other side the space breaks down into abstract pattern without the centering presence of the figure.”
The Rubell Family collection includes four Soundsuits by mixed-media conceptual artist Nick Cave. The forms are based on the scale of his body, the artist says, and create “a camouflage, masking and forming a second skin that conceals race, gender and class, forcing one to look without judgment.”
Ranging from 98 to 102 inches in height, the Soundsuits vary in terms of materials. One is composed of an armature of flowers. Another one is created with long, colorful waves of synthetic hair. A Soundsuit resembling a bishop’s mitre is composed of fabric, sequins, fiberglass and metal.
The 30 artists in this exhibit include bold portraitist Barkley Hendricks, satirist Robert Colescott, celebrated painter Kehinde Wiley, contemporary conceptualist Kara Walker, the self-taught outsider artist Purvis Young, multimedia artist/painter Lorna Simpson, abstractionist Shinique Smith and many others.
To advise on programming in conjunction with the exhibit, the Nelson-Atkins convened a community advisory board composed of artists, academicians, community activists and clergy. The diversity of age, race, professions and experiences contributed to the rich spectrum of events to be held during the show’s run, including Michelle Tyrene Johnson’s play “Coloring within the Lines,” a presentation of “Priceless: The Power of Art and Community” with Hank Willis Thomas at the Macedonia Baptist Church, a Juneteenth Celebration and a Third Thursday event entitled “Living in America,” among others.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” “30 Americans” is a glimpse into a hopeful future through the prism of the bittersweet past and the filter of the conflicted and complicated present. When this exhibition is experienced through the heart and mind as well as the eyes and ears, “30 Americans” will undeniably impact the future of those who behold it.
“30 Americans” opens June 1 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., and continues through Aug. 25. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; closed Monday and Tuesday. Tickets to the exhibit cost $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, $10 for students with ID and free to children age 12 and under. Corporate support from Bank of America will allow the exhibition to be free to the public on June 8 and 9, when the Nelson-Atkins joins the community’s Juneteenth celebration. For more information, 816.751.1271 or www.nelson-atkins.org.