nancy elizabeth prophet - whitney museem - photo by victoria l. valentine

FOR GENERATIONS, IT HAS BEEN HARD to visit American museums and genuinely appreciate the experience when rarely is the depth and breadth of American art represented in exhibitions and collections. Far rarer, has been the inclusion of works by African American artists in retrospectives intended to capture the broad sweep of American art history. In some quarters, change is slowly afoot.

In the spring of this year, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York made a grand gesture when it opened its new Renzo Piano-designed building in the Meatpacking District with “America is Hard to See,” an exhibition of works drawn from the museum’s collection that remains on view through today (May 1 – Sept. 27, 2015).

The Whitney took, “the inauguration of the Museum’s new building as an opportunity to reexamine the history of art in the United States from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present.” The exhibition features works by more than 40 African American artists dating from the early 20th century (Richmond Barthé, Horace Pippin, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, Bill Traylor) to contemporary works produced in recent years (Glenn Ligon, Gordon Parks, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker).

Drawn from the title of a Robert Frost poem and a political documentary film by Emile de Antonio, the museum states that the exhibition “seeks to celebrate the ever-changing perspectives of artists and their capacity to develop visual forms that respond to the culture of the United States. It also underscores the difficulty of neatly defining the country’s ethos and inhabitants, a challenge that lies at the heart of the [Whitney’s] commitment to and continually evolving understanding of American art.”

alma thmas - mars dust - whitney museum
ALMA THOMAS, “Mars Dust,” 1972 (acrylic on canvas). | Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase 1972.58. © artist or artist’s estate via Whitney Museum

Organized chronologically across four floors and the museum’s lobby level, the exhibition is curated in 23 sections that examine eras, tropes, movements and moments. Works by African American artists Jean Michel Baquiat, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Eldzier Cortor, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Charles Gaines, Richard Hunt, Rashid Johnson, Norman Lewis, Adrian Piper, Noah Purifoy, Faith Ringgold, Betye Saar, and Charles White, among many others, appear throughout the exhibition in various categories alongside their aesthetic, theoretical and generational counterparts.

Representing the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and 30s, “Congolais,” a 1931 cherry wood bust by Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (top of page) was purchased 1932 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and is apparently “among the earliest works acquired for the Museum’s permanent collection.”

Sixteen works in Jacob Lawrence‘s “War Series” created between 1942 and 1947, are on view along an entire wall of a gallery. Similar to Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” the narrative tempera on composition board works convey an important story in spare scenes—the painter’s first-hand experiences serving in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II.

A section of the exhibition considers experimental approaches to painting that came about in the late 1960s and 70s. Here Alma Thomas‘s 1972 acrylic on canvas painting “Mars Dust” hangs in the same space as “Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a 1974 acrylic on canvas with string, by Jack Whitten. In 1972, Thomas was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum.

In 1972, Thomas was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum.

One of the contemporary sections is titled after Fred Wilson‘s “Guarded View,” which was on display in “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art,” the Whitney’s groundbreaking exhibition curated by Thelma Golden in 1994. Wilson’s installation features four headless black male figures dressed in the security guard uniforms of major museums including the Whitney.

Wilson himself worked as a museum guard when he was in art school. His 1991 work draws attention to the fact that while few museum patrons are black, there is an ever present cadre of black security guards manning the galleries of the most prestigious museums in the country and, historically, visitors, regardless of their background, have ignored them as though they not real people, but rather inanimate mannequins.

fred wilson - guarded view - photo by victoria l. valentine
FRED WILSON, “Guarded View,” 1991 (wood, paint, steel and fabric). | Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of the Peter Norton Family Foundation. Purchased 1997.84a-d. Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

Works by David Hammons and Kara Walker are on view in the same gallery as Wilson’s work. It’s the first presentation viewers see when they enter the fifth floor where the contemporary works in “America is Hard to See” are exhibited. Works by Mark Bradford and Glenn Ligon, among others, are installed in the adjacent spaces.

The exhibition includes more than 600 works. While those by African American artists represent less than 10 percent, they have a real presence overall and within particular segments.

Whereas the Madison Avenue building felt box-like with little light, the new structure is open and expansive with mesmerizing views of the Hudson River and the neighborhood skyline surrounding The High Line. But some elements are familiar. The elevators seem exactly the same and one of the most memorable experiences from the Upper East Side has been replicated at the new site.

In 2011, during “Glenn Ligon: America,” the artist’s mid-career retrospective at the Whitney, “Warm Broad Glow,” his 2005 neon installation featuring the phrase “negro sunshine” was on view in the museum’s front window facing Madison Avenue.

The Whitney final1 .
View from Gansevoort Street (Glenn Ligon’s “Warm Broad Glow” can be seen in the museum window, just above the trees). Photographed by Ed Lederman, 2015. Courtesy Whitney Museum.

Harvested from “Melanctha,” a 1909 novella by Gertrude Stein, the ambiguous, thought-provoking phrase now hangs above one of the museum’s glass-walled seating spaces situated at either end of each gallery floor. Ligon’s “negro sunshine” is illuminated brightly and shines through the museum’s window near the entrance to The High Line.

“America is Hard to See” includes works by the following African American artists:
Malcolm Bailey
Richmond Barthé
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Romare Bearden
Mark Bradford
Elizabeth Catlett
Eldzier Cortor
Roy DeCarava
Kevin Jerome Everson
LaToya Ruby Frazier
Charles Gaines
David Hammons
David Hartt
Richard Hunt
Ulysses Jenkins
Rashid Johnson
William H. Johnson
Jacob Lawrence
Norman Lewis??
Glenn Ligon
Kalup Linzy
Alvin Loving
Akosua Adoma Owusu
Gordon Parks
Howardena Pindell
Adrian Piper
Horace Pippin
Nancy Elizabeth Prophet
Noah Purifoy
Faith Ringgold
Betye Saar
Jacolby Satterwhite
Dread Scott
Lorna Simpson
Alma Thomas
Bill Traylor
Kara Walker
Charles White
Jack Whitten
Fred Wilson
Hale Aspacio Woodruff

With the closure of “America is Hard to See,” the Whitney is preparing to open “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist,” a retrospective of works by one of the most important and under-appreciated African American artists of the 20th century, which will be on view at the Whitney from Oct. 2, 2015 – Jan. 17, 2016. CT

TOP IMAGE: NANCY ELIZABETH PROPHET, “Congolais,” 1931 (cherry wood). | Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchased 1932.83. Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

glen ligion - whitney museum - photo by victoria l. valentine
GLENN LIGON, “Warm Broad Glow,” 2011 (meon, paint, and powder-coated aluminum ). | Whitney Museum of American Art, Purchased 2011.114a-b. Photo by Victoria L. Valentine

malcolm bailey -untitled 1969 - whitney museum
MALCOLM BAILEY, “Untitled, 1969,” 1969 (acrylic on composition board). | Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase 1969.77. © artist’s estate via Whitney Musueum

david hammons - untitled - photo by victoria l. valentine
DAVID HAMMONS, Detail of “Untitled,” 1992 (human hair, wire, metallic mylar, sledge hammer, plastic beads, string, metal food tin, panty hose, leather, tea bags, and feathers ). | Whitney Museum of American Art, Purchased 1992.128a-z. Photo by Victoria L. Valentine