THIS WEEK IN CHICAGO, the College Art Association (CAA) is holding its annual conference (Feb. 12-15). Amanda Williams, a Chicago-based artist who trained as an architect, is serving as keynote speaker. Kellie Jones will be honored during the Distinguished Scholar Session. And Huey Copeland, a professor of art history at Northwestern University and recipient of the 2019 David C. Driskell Prize, is interviewing Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist Arnold J. Kemp.

CAA is also celebrating recipients of its 2020 Awards for Distinction. Denise Murell and Darby English are among those being honored with book awards. Both of their award-winning volumes were published by Yale University Press.


“Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” by Denise Murrell (Yale University Press, 224 pages). | Published Nov. 13, 2018


Murrell is receiving CAA’s Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award for Smaller Museums, Libraries, Collections, and Exhibitions for her catalog “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today.” Published in 2018, the volume accompanied the highly praised exhibition she curated at Columbia University’s Wallach Gallery, where she served as a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Research Scholar.

“Posing Modernity” received international recognition and traveled to the Musée D’Orsay in Paris where it was presented under the title “Black models: from Géricault to Matisse.”

In New York, the exhibition focused on the black female figure. It began by bringing attention to Edouard Manet’s 1860s portrayals of Laure, the black model who posed prominently as the maid in his “Olympia” (1863) painting, but remained virtually unseen by critics and observers for more than 150 years.

(A detail of the painting, focusing in on the image of Laure, is featured on the cover of the catalog.)

The show goes on to explore Manet’s peers, including Frédéric Bazille, Edgar Degas, and Charles Henri Joseph Cordier; surface connections between Matisse, who visited Harlem in the 1930s, and portraits by African American artists active during the Harlem Renaissance, such as Laura Wheeler Waring, Charles Alston, and William H. Johnson; and further trace the lineage in Romare Bearden’s depictions to the contemporary moment where generations of influence are represented in images by Aimé Mpane and Mickalene Thomas, among others.

Now coveted and out-of-print, the catalog features 175 illustrations and “illuminates long-obscured figures and proposes that a history of modernism cannot be complete until it examines the vital role of the black female muse within it.” Last May, “Black Models” was also recognized by the Dedalus Foundation with the 2019 Exhibition Catalogue Award.

Murrell earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1980 and worked in finance before transitioning over the past decade to a career in art history. She earned a Ph.D., from Columbia’s department of art history and archaeology. Her 2013 dissertation was the basis for the black models catalog and exhibitions. In November 2019, Murrell was hired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as associate curator for 19th and 20th century art.


“To Describe a Life: Notes from the Intersection of Art and Race Terror,” by Darby English (Yale University Press, 148 pages). | Published March 12, 2019


THE CAA FRANK JEWETT MATHER AWARD for Art Criticism is going to English for his book “To Describe a Life: Notes From the Intersection of Art and Race Terror.”

The book grew out of an invitation from Henry Louis Gates Jr., to give the Richard D. Cohen Lectures on African and African American Art at Harvard University. English conducted research for the lectures in 2015 and 2016 and delivered his remarks on Nov. 1-3, 2016, days before the presidential election.

That undertaking provided the treatise and most of the material for the book, parts of which were delivered in his lectures. The book includes a substantial introduction and trio of essays. As the volume’s description notes, English “attends to a cluster of artworks created in or for our tumultuous present that address themes of racial violence and representation idiosyncratically, neither offering solutions nor accommodating shallow narrative about difference.”

English considers Zoe Leonard‘s “Tipping Point” (2016), a tower of first edition copies of “The Fire Next Time” (1963) by James Baldwin, which graces the cover of “To Describe a Life.” He also looks at Pope.L‘s ongoing series of “Skin Set Drawings” and from the design firm Boym Partners, a 1998 replica of the Lorraine Motel, the Memphis site where Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated in 1968. Introducing this last work, English invokes the wisdom of Ralph Ellison. He also presents his thoughts on Kerry James Marshall‘s untitled 2015 portrait of a black police officer. The essay was excerpted on artnet News. English writes in part:

    The painting as such looks without judgment at a subject whom we may find it hard not to judge. It’s not enough, though, to suggest that the picture looks neutrally at this stereotypical figure of masculine strength and security; on its own, such a putative neutrality might seem an ill guest in today’s climate. In making the work, Marshall took matters further by devising a compositional scheme that locates the viewer’s eye level at roughly four feet in relation to the officer. Upon noting this scale, a mature viewer’s first thoughts might turn to a Tamir Rice or an Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who, at the respective ages of 12 and 7, may have stood at around that height when their lives were ended. Marshall’s scale game acknowledges a differently empathetic possibility: by giving us an image of the police officer as he appears in a child’s-eye view, it may take us back to a point in our personal experience when reflexive distrust of such people was unthinkable—when we might have looked up to them, as it were, in precisely the way that Untitled asks us to do again, only now of all times.

English is a professor of art history at the University of Chicago, where he is director of the Scherer Center for the Study of American Culture. Since 2014, he has also served as a consulting curator in the painting and sculpture department of the Museum of Modern Art. He was tapped by MoMA for his expertise in African American art history. CT


IMAGES: Portrait of Denise Murrell. | Photo by John Pinderhughes, Courtesy Columbia University; Darby English. | Courtesy MoMA


“Le modèle noir: De Géricault à Matisse (Art),” a French edition of the Black Models catalog was published to accompany the exhibition at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. Darby English is also the author of “1971: A Year in the Life of Color,” which was featured on Culture Type’s 2016 list of Best Black Art Books. He contributed to the exhibition catalog “Black Is, Black Ain’t” and the recently published “Martin Puryear: Liberty/Libertà” documenting Martin Puryear’s solo presentation in the American Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. In addition, English co-authored with Charlotte Barat, “Among Others: Blackness at MoMA.” The volume appears on Culture Type’s Best Black Art Books of 2019 list. As cited in the book’s foreword by MoMA Director Glenn D. Lowry, the project addresses “the museum’s historical engagement with black artists, the black community, and art about blackness…”


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