BLACK ARTISTS representing multiple generations and disciplines died in 2021, including Virgil Abloh, Winfred Rembert, Donald P. Ryder, Chi Modu, and Peter Williams. Figures such as Judson Powell of Los Angeles, Eugene Wade of Chicago, Charles McGee of Detroit, and Denzil Hurley of Seattle, Wash., who were well-known locally and deserve wider attention, also ended their journeys. Culture Type is looking back at their lives and work. The following highlights notable Black artists, illustrators, photographers, architects, and designers—all men it turns out—who died in 2021. (The list is ordered according to the date they passed away):


Charles McGee talks about his life and work on the occasion of receiving the Legacy Award from Michigan Legacy Art Park in 2019. | Video by Michigan Legacy Art Park

Charles McGee, 96, Detroit, Mich.
Influential Detroit artist, teacher, gallery owner, and arts advocate

FEB. 4: Charles McGee (1924-2021) died in Detroit at age 96. Known for his large-scale indoor and outdoor, mixed-media commissions, McGee was “the prodigious dean of Detroit’s visual arts scene whose works can be seen everywhere from the Detroit Institute of Arts to the Broadway Station of the People Mover and who made invaluable contributions as an influential teacher, gallery owner and arts advocate dating back to the 1960s.” | Detroit Free Press


FIND MORE In October, Library Street Collective in Detroit announced its representation of the Estate of Charles McGee


Howard Smith speaks about the “magic paper can do with ink” and says he loves ceramics. “I don’t know if it’s the sense that you’re passing on a touch. Something has already been touched or felt. You are rally clinging onto humanity.” | via

Howard Smith, 92, Fiskars, Raseborg, Finland
American artist/designer visited Finland in 1960s and decided to stay

FEB. 4: Born in Moorestown, N.J., artist, designer, and collector Howard Smith (1928-2021) died at home in Fiskars, Finland. He was 92. Smith was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, when a friend asked him to co-organize an international youth exhibition of American artists in Finland. He welcomed the invitation, eager to distance himself from the racism he was experiencing in the United States. Smith traveled to Finland in 1962 and ended up settling down. He only returned to the United States, from 1976 to 1984, to teach at Scripps College at Claremont, Calif., at the suggestion of Samella Lewis. Smith worked with a variety of materials—paper, pigments, wood, clay, and metal—producing mixed-media works, wood reliefs, and sculpture. He also designed textiles and ceramic tableware. | LACMA Unframed blog


FIND MORE about Howard Smith on his website and Instagram


Judson Powell at “66 Signs of Neon” exhibition, in front of “Barrel and Plow” (1966), a collaboration between Powell and Noah Purifoy. | Photo: Noah Purifoy Foundation

Judson Powell, 87, Los Angeles, Calif.
Assemblage artist and friend of Noah Purifoy who taught at Watts Towers

FEB. 8: The Noah Purifoy Foundation announced the passing of Judson Powell (1933-2021). He was 87. An established musician, Powell met Noah Purifoy in 1964 and the two became great friends and collaborators. Powell transformed himself into an assemblage artist, taught at the Watts Towers Art Center, and co-organized the traveling exhibition “66 Signs of Neon” with Purifoy. In 1969, Powell founded Communicative Arts Academy in Compton and hired artist John Outterbridge (1933-2020) as director. | Noah Purifoy Foundation


FIND MORE about “66 Signs of Neon” in exhibition brochure


MILFORD GRAVES, “Yara in the dojo,” circa 1970s. (The artist is shown at center). | © Milford Graves, Courtesy the Estate of Milford Graves

Milford Graves, 79, Queens, N.Y.
Revolutionary artist pursued jazz, botany, and metaphysics

FEB. 12: Artist, educator, and jazz drummer Milford Graves (1941-2021), whose areas of interest spanned music, botany, martial arts, and metaphysics, died at his home in Queens, N.Y. The cause was congestive heart failure. He was 79. A professor emeritus, Graves was on faculty from 1973-2021 at Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught the power and aesthetic of Black music. In October, Artists Space in New York, presented “Milford Graves: Fundamental Frequency,” an expansive exhibition and event series that described the artist as an “innovative and revolutionary force in radical music making.” The retrospective included photographic and film documentation of his live performances, hand-painted album covers, multimedia sculptures, ephemera, and more, building upon the exhibition “Milford Graves: A Mind-Body Deal,” which was on view in 2020 at ICA Philadelphia. | National Public Radio


FIND MORE about Milford Graves on his website


From left, Architects J. Max Bond, Donald P. Ryder (center), and Nathan Smith (circa 1969). | Photo via Davis Brody Bond

Donald P. Ryder, FAIA, 94, New York, N.Y.
Architect who designed prominent Black cultural institutions

FEB. 17: Donald P. Ryder, FAIA (1926-2021), who designed prominent Black cultural institutions, died at home in New Rochelle, N.Y. He was 94. In the late 1960s, Ryder formed the influential architecture firm, Bond Ryder & Associates, with J. Max Bond Jr. The Manhattan firm designed a number of landmark institutions, including the the Studio Museum in Harlem, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. After 1990, Ryder left the firm. He had been lecturing at the Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York since 1972, and became a professor and later chair, teaching at the school until he retired in 2001. | The New York Times


Artist Winfred Rembert in an undated photo. | Photo by Renan Ozturk

Winfred Rembert, 75, New Haven, Conn.
Artist carved and painted on leather his memories of Jim Crow South

MARCH 31: Winfred Rembert (1945-2021) lived and worked in New Haven, Conn. He suffered from diabetes, kidney disease, and hypertension, according to the New York Times, and died at home after a long illness. He was 75. Rembert painted on carved and tooled leather. His vivid scenes of the Jim Crow South—cotton fields, chain gangs dressed in stripes, pool halls, and church services—reflect his memories of growing up in rural Cuthbert, Ga. His experiences took a consequential turn when he was arrested during a civil rights protest in 1967. After being thrown in jail, he escaped, was caught, nearly lynched, and ended up serving on a chain gang until 1974. While he was incarcerated, Rembert learned to carve wallets from leather, a craft that decades later he developed into an artistic practice. Two documentaries explore his story: “Surviving a Lynching: Ashes to Ashes,” an award-winning, short documentary from The New Yorker (2019), and “All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert” (2012). Fort Gansevoort announced its representation of the artist’s estate in May. “Winfred Rembert: 1945-2021,” his first exhibition with the New York gallery is currently on view. | New York Times


FIND MORE about Winfred Rembert on his website and Instagram


Michelangelo Lovelace Sr., explains the roots of his practice and meaning behind his images. | Video by MOCA Cleveland

Michelangelo Lovelace Sr., 60, Cleveland, Ohio
Painter documented challenges of life in urban Cleveland

APRIL 26: A visual storyteller, Michelangelo Lovelace Sr. (1960-2021), died after battling pancreatic cancer for more than a year. He was 60. Lovelace addressed issues of racial injustice, crime, poverty, and unemployment in his paintings, shining a light on his Cleveland community. He also documented people coming together for parties, parades, and political rallies. Lovelace often said art saved his life. After a scrape with the law at 19, he earned his GED and spent the next four decades painting and drawing. He attended the Cleveland Institute of Art briefly, then continued to work on his art, mostly in the evenings. During the day, he made a living as a nursing home aide. A well-known local artist, Lovelace gained wider attention in recent years. In 2018, he staged his first solo exhibition in New York at Fort Gansevoort. “Michelangelo Lovelace: The Land, Paintings from 1994-2016,” featured 16 paintings. | Culture Type


FIND MORE Charity Coleman wrote about Michelangelo Lovelace Sr.’s exhibition at Fort Gansevoort for Artforum


A selection of the steel fire doors painted by Eugene “Edaw” Wade was exhibited at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2017, part of the City of Chicago’s Year of Public Art. | Courtesy Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events

Eugene “Edaw” Wade, 81, Baton Rouge, La.
Chicago-based artist and professor active in Black Arts Movement

APRIL 15: Eugene “Edaw” Wade (1939-2021) died at 81 in Baton Rouge, La., the city where he was born. Wade lived and worked in Chicago for most of his career. Active in the Black Arts Movement, he was one of the principal artists who worked on the Wall of Respect. His most recognized solo work was an ambitious project produced on the front and back of 32 steel fire doors at the original Malcolm X College in Chicago. Working from 1971-72, Wade embellished the 64 canvases with powerful and prideful, vividly colored images celebrating Black history and culture and referencing West African and Egyptian designs. A selection of the doors was exhibited at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2017, part of the City of Chicago’s Year of Public Art. Wade earned an MFA from Howard University and taught art at Kennedy King College in Chicago, from 1979 until 2005. After he retired, he moved back to Louisiana and returned to the classroom part-time at Southern University and Baton Rouge Community College. | Chicago Sun-Times


FIND MORE about Eugene “Edaw” Wade on his website


Chi Modu at his Smile Gallery exhibition opening. (March 29, 2012, New York, N.Y.). | Photo: Jerritt Clark, Wire Image

Chi Modu, 54, Summit, N.J.
Photographer captured defining portraits of key hip-hop figures

MAY 19: Nigerian American photographer Chi Modu (1966-2021) died in Summit, N.J. The cause was cancer. He was 54. Modu started taking pictures in college, while earning a degree in agribusiness economics. Realizing he wasn’t suited for a desk job, he studied photojournalism and documentary photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. His first photo assignments were with the Amsterdam News, the Black-owned newspaper in Harlem. Through connections with Kevin Powell and dream hampton, Modu learned about opportunities at The Source when it was just starting up. He eventually served as director of photography at the Source, where he photographed more than 30 covers. He also shot covers for Rolling Stone and Jazz Times magazines, as well as album covers. Over the years, Modu captured numerous rap and hip hop figures, including Q-Tip, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Snoop Dogg, Easy E, Ice Cube, Nas, Mary J. Blige, Sean Combs, Mobb Deep, and Wu-Tang Clan. “My focus coming up was to make sure someone from the hip-hop community was the one responsible for documenting hip-hop artists,” he told BBC Africa. Jonathan Mannion, a friend and fellow photographer said, Modu “played a crucial role in bringing sophisticated photography to hip-hop.” | New York Times


FIND MORE about Chi Modu on his website and Instagram


Peter Williams in his studio in 2018. A professor of fine arts at the University of Delaware in Newark, from 2004 until his retirement in 2020, Williams recently won the 2020 Artist’s Legacy Foundation Award, received a Guggenheim Fellowship (2021), and was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2021). | Courtesy Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

Peter Williams, 69, Wilmington, Del.
Artist and educator poignantly painted truths of contemporary society

AUG. 19: A fantastic painter and storyteller, Peter Williams (1952-2021) died at his home in Wilmington, Del. The cause was a heart attack, according to the New York Times. He was 69. Williams’s use of bold and intense color was equally matched by his candid and thoughtful insights about his own experiences and the realities of the wider world around him. He explored an array of issues, including racial oppression and violence, migration and displacement, and mass incarceration and police brutality. Over half a century, he produced a vast body of work employing humor, art history, allegorical tales, blunt images, and a cast of fictional characters to explore the complexity of Black life, always with currency. | Culture Type


FIND MORE about Peter Williams at Luis De Jesus and Instagram


Denzil Hurley taught at a handful of schools, including Yale University, Scripps College, and the University of Washington, where artist Jonas Wood was among his graduate students. Shown, JONAS WOOD, “Denzil Smoking In His Studio,” 2006 (colored pencil on paper, 22 1/2 x 19 inches). | via Instagram

Denzil Hurley, 72, Seattle, Wash.
Minimalist painter and professor who influenced many students

JUNE 22: Barbados-born, Seattle, Wash.-based artist and educator Denzil Hurley (1949-2021) died at 72. Hurley earned an MFA at Yale (1979) and was a professor emeritus in the School of Art + Art History + Design at the University of Washington, where he taught from 1994 to 2017. On a visit to Barbados, Hurley became intrigued by discarded tree branches and began introducing them to his work, sometimes attaching them to minimalist and modular paintings. For “Within, Without and About,” a 2018 exhibition at Canada in New York, the gallery explained, “The panel/stick combination allows the work to transit between painting and utilitarian object. The sticks suggest a talisman or tool from everyday life; attached to the monochrome paintings they can resemble muted protest placards.” | University of Washington


FIND MORE Robert Storr wrote about Denzil Hurley in a Passages column for Artforum


Reynold Ruffins, 2013. | Photo: CaptJayRuffins, Wikimedia Commons

Reynold Ruffins, 90, Sag Harbor, N.Y.
New York City design and advertising veteran, associate of Milton Glaser

JULY 11: Reynold Ruffins (1930-3021) died at his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. He was 90. Ruffins was an early member of Push Pin Studios, the design firm co-founded by Milton Glaser, and later co-founded his own design studio, Ruffins/Taback. Over the years, his clients included GQ, Fortune, Time-Life, The New York Times, Random House, Coca-Cola, IBM, and the U.S. Postal Service. According to the New York Times, Ruffins recalled “being Black made him a rarity in the advertising business—an industry that, before the civil rights era, was an all-white world of Mad Men. Since his work was his calling card, clients often did not know his race.” | New York Times


FIND MORE about Reynold Ruffins on his website


Jerry Pinkney in his studio, Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. (Oct. 27, 2015). | Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

Jerry Pinkney, 81, Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Award-winning illustrator authored countless books for young readers

OCT. 20: Acclaimed children’s book illustrator and author Jerry Pinkney (1939-2021) died in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. He was 81. Over his six-decade career, Pinkney worked on more than 100 books for children and teens, sometimes authoring the text, too. Pinkney explored a spectrum of themes, his subject were often animals, he featured racially diverse characters, and focused on African American history narratives at a time when it was rare and pioneering. Notable titles include “John Henry” and “Black Cowboy, Wild Horses” (both with Julius Lester), “The Tortoise and the Hare,” and “In Plain Sight: A Game.” Among many literary accolades, he won several honors for “The Lion and the Mouse,” including the Caldecott Medal, and has been recognized over the years with multiple Coretta Scott King Awards. The exhibition “Tenacity & Resilience: The Art of Jerry Pinkney” opens Feb. 6 at Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, N.J. | New York Times


FIND MORE about Jerry Pinkney on his website, on CBS This Morning in 2001, and a recent remembrance at the Library of Congress


Atta Kwami, 2019. | Photo: Modern Painters, New Decorators, Courtesy Serpentine Galleries

Atta Kwami, 65, Kumasi, Ghana & Loughborough, UK
Ghanaian artist, historian and curator informed by modernist geometry

OCT. 6: UK-based, Ghanaian-born artist and printmaker Atta Kwami (1956-2021) died at age 65. Kwami’s paintings, murals, and kiosk sculptures are informed by the geometry and color of West African architecture and textiles. Also an art historian and curator, Kwami is the author of “Kumasi Realism, 1951–2007: An African Modernism.” British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, who is designing the forthcoming National Cathedral of Ghana in Accra, had asked Kwami to design the stained glass windows for the project. Last fall, he won the Serpentine Galleries 2021 Maria Lassnig Prize, which includes a public art commission and accompanying monograph. The project was expected to debut in 2022. Kwami said, “The Maria Lassnig Prize 2021 is completely unexpected. I am very happy it has come at this stage of my life. I shall always be humbly grateful for all the people who have supported me … both inside and outside Ghana. I am glad for myself and for Ghana.” | Artforum


“Figures of Speech,” the museum exhibition dedicated to Virgil Abloh’s expansive portfolio, explored his many designs, products, partnerships, and creative processes over two decades. After opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2019, the show traveled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. | Photo by Katrina Wittkamp, Courtesy MCA Chicago

Virgil Abloh, 41, Chicago, Ill.
Visionary fashion designer who created across discipines

NOV. 28: Virgil Abloh (1980-2021), the trailblazing designer and inveterate collaborator who made historic strides in the fashion world and provided opportunities for the next generation of Black creatives to follow in his footsteps, died in Chicago. He was 41. For two years, Abloh battled cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. The artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton in Paris and founder of his own luxury streetwear label, Off-White, Abloh bridged the worlds of art and design. In college, he studied civil engineering and earned a master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology. He designed furniture and was an international DJ. On July 20, LVMH acquired majority stake in Off White. The deal gave Abloh, a larger creative and business role at the conglomerate, which also owns Louis Vuitton, across additional categories, including hospitality and wine and spirits. “I’m getting a seat at the table,” Abloh said. On Dec. 1, “Virgil Was Here,” Abloh’s last runway show with Louis Vuitton was presented posthumously in Miami, Fla. | New York Times

FIND MORE about Virgil Abloh on his website, archive platform, and Instagram


The exhibition catalog “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech” was designed and published in close collaboration with the artist/designer. Exploring the life of Winfred Rembert, “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South,” was published posthumously in August and includes a foreword by Equal Justice Initiative Founder Bryan Stevenson.


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