Installation view of “Black American Portraits,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

THE OBAMA PORTRAITS were such a hit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the museum launched a multi-city tour to give people throughout the country a chance to see the historic paintings.

Kehinde Wiley‘s portrait of President Barack Obama and the portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald (the first presidential and first lady portraits painted by Black artists for the museum) traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brooklyn Museum of Art before arriving at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) last fall. Anticipation of the occasion sparked an interest at LACMA in mining the museum’s collection to further explore the power of African American portraiture. The result is “Black American Portraits.”

On view through this weekend, the exhibition is drawn primarily from LACMA’s holdings—including several new acquisitions—and features nearly all Black artists. The sweeping survey dates from circa 1800 to the present, with about 140 artworks spanning the emancipation era, Harlem Renaissance, civil rights and Black Power movements, and more recent decades.

 


Portrait of a Sailor (Paul Cuffe?), circa 1800 (oil on canvas, canvas: 25 1/4 x 20 1/2 inches / 64.14 x 52.07 cm; frame: 30 x 25 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches / 76.2 x 64.77 x 8.89 cm). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Purchased with funds provided by Cecile Bartman. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 

The many subjects and sitters, real and imagined, well-known and ordinary, visualize and celebrate Blackness across generations. The portraits speak to individual identity, represent universal themes, and also provide insight into the African American experience, Black spaces, and Black style.

It’s an all-star lineup. Sherald contributed “An Ocean Away” (2020), a group portrait at the beach, and Wiley is showing two portraits, “Yachinboaz Ben Yisrael II (2021) and “Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, the Coyote” (2017), his depiction of fellow artist Mickalene Thomas, who also has a painting in the exhibition. Works by Benny Andrews, Eldzier Cortor, Beauford Delaney, David Driskell, Jacob Lawrence, and Augusta Savage are displayed gallery-style alongside contributions by living figures such as Emory Douglas, Reggie Burrows Hodges, Lorraine O’Grady, Simone Leigh, Whitfield Lovell, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, and Carrie Mae Weems. Barkley L. Hendricks and Kerry James Marshall, who inspired Wiley, Sherald, and a new generation of portrait artists, are also represented.

 


SARGENT CLAUDE JOHNSON, “Chester,” 1930 (painted terracotta, 11 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 4 3/4 inches / 29.21 x 11.43 x 12.07 cm). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. William J. Robertson in memory of her father Adolph Loewi, Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 

A spectrum of paintings is on view with sculptures, prints, photographs, and multimedia works. James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava, Kwame Brathwaite, Anthony Barboza, Ming Smith, Dawoud Bey, and Deana Lawson, are among the photographers highlighted. Rising contemporary artists such as Jordan Casteel, Jonathan Lyndon Chase, Woody De Othello, Jerrell Gibbs, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Titus Kaphar, Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, and Deborah Roberts, are featured, too.

Los Angeles artists are also well represented. The selection includes Greg Breda, Njideka Akunyili Crobsy, Karon Davis, Kenturah Davis, Genevieve Gaignard, Charles Gaines, Lauren Halsey, Arthur Jafa, Kahlil Joseph, Samella Lewis, Calida Rawles, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Martine Syms, Henry Taylor, Fulton Leroy Washington, Betye Saar, Lezlie Saar, and Alison Saar.

The many subjects and sitters, real and imagined, well-known and ordinary, visualize Blackness across generations. The portraits speak to individual identity, represent universal themes, and also provide insight into the African American experience, Black spaces, and Black style.


Installation view of “Black American Portraits,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nov. 7, 2021–April 17, 2022. Shown, Back wall, left to right, “The Inversion of Racquel” (2021) by Mickalene Thomas; “Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, the Coyote” (2017) by Kehinde Wiley; “An Ocean Away” (2020) by Amy Sherald; “Photo Bloke” (2016) by Barkley L. Hendricks. | Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 

In addition to being inspired by The Obama Portraits Tour, the exhibition pays homage to “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” the landmark exhibition presented nearly half a century ago at LACMA. Organized by David Driskell in 1976, Two Centuries is considered the first comprehensive survey of African American art. The show presented more than 200 works, produced between 1750 and 1950, by 63 African American artists, who up to that point had gone largely unrecognized by museums. The group included Charles Alston, Richmond Barthé, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Sargent Claude Johnson, Archibald Motley Jr., James Porter, Laura Wheeler Waring, and Charles White, all of whom are also represented in the current presentation of “Black American Portraits.”

Introducing the exhibition, co-curators Christine Y. Kim and Liz Andrews said the show presents artists working across “time, geography, and diverse practices” and “centers Black love, abundance, family, exuberance, self-possession, and self-expression through over two centuries of African American portraiture.” CT

 

“Black American Portraits” is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, from Nov. 7, 2021-April 17, 2022

 

FIND MORE The Obama Portraits Tour is ongoing. After LACMA, the exhibition traveled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through May 30. Next it stops at the de Young Museum in San Francisco and Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

FIND MORE “Family Album: Dannielle Bowman, Janna Ireland and Contemporary Works from LACMA” is on view at the museum’s off-site gallery at Charles White Elementary School, Saturdays, Nov. 27, 2021–June 4, 2022

 


CEDRIC ADAMS, “Just How I Feel,” 1972 (graphite on paper, 18 x 23 7/8 inches / 45.72 x 60.96 cm). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by LACMA colleagues: Liz Andrews, Stephanie Barron, Timothy Benson, Julia Burtenshaw, Giorgio Carlevaro, Claudine and Jim Dixon, Tom Duffy, Carol S. Eliel, Ilene Susan Fort, Rita Gonzalez, Hollis Goodall, Michael Govan, Christine Y. Kim, Rachel Kaplan, Wendy Kaplan, Ilona Katzew, Jennie King, Julia Latané, Leah Lehmbeck, Devi Noor, David Parker, Nancy Russell, Britt Salvesen, Lauren Bergman Siegel, Staci Steinberger, Kristin Strid, Nancy Thomas, and Kevin Goff, and those who wish to remain anonymous, © Cedric Adams, Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 


OTIS KWAME KYE QUAICO, “Lady on Blue Couch,” 2019 (sourced from an image of Velma Rosai Makhandia, Originally photographed and copyrighted by Naafia Naahemaa, Berlin, 2018). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of John Auerbach and Edward Tang, © Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe, Image of painting by Robert Wedemeyer, Courtesy the artist and Roberts Projects Los Angeles

 


Installation view of “Black American Portraits,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nov. 7, 2021–April 17, 2022. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 


DEBORAH ROBERTS, “Breaking Ranks,” 2018 (collage, acrylic paint and gold pigment, Sheet: 30 1/4 x 22 inches / 76.84 x 55.88 cm; Image: 21 1/2 x 10 7/8 inches / 54.61 x 27.62 cm; Frame: 35 3/4 x 27 3/4 x 2 inches / 90.81 x 70.49 x5.08 cm). | Purchased with funds provided by Karen R. Costine, Ralph M. Parsons Fund, George and Azita Fatheree, Nike O. Opadrian; and Demetrio and Giana Kerrison

 


CLIFFORD PRINCE KING, “Safe Space,” 2020 (inkjet print, Primary support 48 x 32 inches / 121.92 x 81.28 cm; Frame 49 3/16 x 33 5/16 2 inches / 124.94 x 84.67 x 5.080). | Purchased with funds by Graham Steele and Ulysses de Santi

 


Installation view of “Black American Portraits,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nov. 7, 2021–April 17, 2022. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 


BISA BUTLER, “Forever,” 2020 (cotton, silk, wool, velvet and sequins, appliqued and quilted, 100 x 58 7/8 inches / 254 x 149.54). | © Bisa Butler. Greg Escalante Memorial Fund

 


LEZLEY SAAR, “Of a bed of night iris shredding petals one by one, like the hours of darkness,” 2020 (acrylic on fabric over wood panel in found vintage frame, 29 x 19 x 1/2 inches). | © Lezley Saar. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Marc J. Lee. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 


Installation view of “Black American Portraits,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nov. 7, 2021–April 17, 2022. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 


KWAME BRATHWAITE, “Untitled (Carolee Prince Wearing Her Own Designs),” 1964, printed 2018 (inkjet print, pigment based, 31 x 31 x 2 inches). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, promised gift of Kim and Keith Allen-Niesen, © Kwame Brathwaite, Photo courtesy Kwame Brathwaite Archive and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

 


ALICE NEEL, “Horace R. Cayton,” 1949. | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, promised gift of Mark Gordon Family Collection, © The Estate of Alice Neel, courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner

 


Installation view of “Black American Portraits,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nov. 7, 2021–April 17, 2022. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 


CHARLES WHITE, “Mayor Thomas Bradley,” 1974. | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Cirrus Editions Archive. Purchased with funds provided by the Director’s Roundtable, and gift of Cirrus Editions, © The Charles White Archives, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 


KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self,” 1980 (egg tempera on paper, 8 x 6 1/2 inches / 20.32 x 16.51 cm). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Promised gift of Steven and Deborah Lebowitz, © Kerry James Marshall, Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 


rafa esparza, “big chillin with Patrisse,” 2021 (acrylic on adobe, 72 x 57 inches/ 182.88 x 144.78 cm). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Purchased with funds provided by Liana Krupp. © rafa esparza, Photo by Ruben Diaz, Courtesy the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

 


Installation view of “Black American Portraits,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nov. 7, 2021–April 17, 2022. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 


CARRIE MAE WEEMS, “Untitled (Eating Lobster) from the Kitchen Table Series,” 1990 (gelatin silver print, Image: 27 x 27 inches / 68.58 x 68 .58 cm; Primary support: 31 1/2 x 30 inches / 80.01 x 76.2 cm; Secondary support: 35 1/4 x 30 inches / 89.54 x 76.2 cm; Mat: 38 1/4 x 35 1/8 inches / 97.16 x 89.22 cm). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ralph M. Parsons Fund, © Carrie Mae Weems, Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, Digital image © Museum Associates/LACMA

 


ELIZABETH CATLETT, “Sharecropper,” 1952 (linocut, Sheet: 25 1/2 x 19 5/8 inches / 64.77 x 49.85 cm; Image 17 1/2 x 16 5/8 inches / 44.45 x 42.23 cm). | Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of the 2011. | American Art Acquisitions Group, © 2021 Mora-Catlett Family/licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 


DAVID C. DRISKELL, “Jazz Singer (Lady of Leisure Fox),” 1974 (oil and collage on canvas, 52 x 44 inches / 132.08 x 111.76 cm). | © Estate of David Driskell, Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, New York

 


Installation view of “Black American Portraits,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nov. 7, 2021–April 17, 2022. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 

TOP IMAGE: Installation view of “Black American Portraits,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nov. 7, 2021–April 17, 2022. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

 

BOOKSHELF
“The Obama Portraits” documents the official portraits of President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and First Lady Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. “Two Centuries of Black American Art” was published on the occasion of the 1976 exhibition organized by David Driskell at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” was published on the occasion of the artist’s 10-year survey. “Charles White: A Retrospective” and “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” accompany recent traveling retrospectives dedicated to the artists. Two new volumes, “Mickalene Thomas” and “Lorna Simpson” explore the careers of each artist.

 

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