30 Americans at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO and The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA

It’s unusual to get to see the exact same art show in two different cities, only months apart. I first saw “30 Americans” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, this past summer. Then, right after Art Basel, in December, I went to Philadelphia and saw “30 Americans” again at The Barnes Foundation. It was fun and interesting to see the same work displayed at different venues. The traveling exhibition was conceived of and put on by the Rubell family, The exhibit was first on display at the Rubell Museum in Miami, FL and has been traveling for almost ten years, with only three more locations to go. Check the schedule to see if you can see it. The Rubell family chooses to display only art that they themselves own. They devise a concept, populate it with work from their collection, and then go out and purchase whatever they need to make the exhibition complete. As the show evolved, the Rubells ended up with 31 artists in “30 Americans.” You can learn about how a traveling exhibition works here and can also purchase the exhibition book. I’m glad I did.

I enjoyed comparing how each museum hung the show, along with their own write ups of the art and artists.

“This sculpture by Leonardo Drew is made of bales of cotton, the labor-intensive cash crop harvested by enslaved African Americans or sharecroppers. Its title invites a variety of responses and interpretations. Its sheer size may spark wonder and awe. Alternatively, this massive wall may overwhelm you with its metaphorical weight – suggesting a towering monument that conjures historical trauma with ongoing impact.” (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

“A vast fibrous wall impedes progress and arrests vision in Leonardo Drew’s Untitled #25. The raw, weathered cotton and wax recalls cycles of life and decay. The painful history of plantation enslavement becomes visible, as done the continued labor exploitation that facilitates modern life.

By structuring his cotton bricks in a grid format, Drew asserts a sense of manmade order over natural chaos. Creative possibilities emerge from the processes of deterioration.” (The Barnes Foundation)

“Often made in the wake of violence against people of color, Nick Cave’s Soundsuits have the power to protect as well as transform. Here, the human form is overtaken by a colorful garden of metal flowers and foliage that the artist gathered from antique shops and flea markets. The result is a presence that is simultaneously highly visible and largely obscured.” (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

“Nick Cave began creating sound suits in the early 1990s, in response to personal experiences of racial profiling by police. The suits first served as metaphorical protection from a seemingly omnipresent racist gaze.

Over the years, these “thick skins” have morphed into magical, otherworldly costumes that performers can wear while in motion. While they typify Cave’s emphasis on the strength, individuality, and beauty of African Americans, they highlight how, in a hostile environment, many signal their worth through clothing.” (The Barnes Foundation)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Self-portrait), 1982-83
Oil on wood

“A self-taught artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat began enlivening New York City subways and the SoHo and East Village neighborhoods wit his street art in the late 1970s. He rose to fame in the 1980s alongside a generation of graffiti artists who introduced the art form to galleries and museums. Although his work frequently refers to figures and events associated with African American history, Basquiat was often ambivalent about race-based interpretations of his art, saying, “I am not a black artist. I am an artist.” ” (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

Jean -Michel Basquiat, Bird on Money, 1981
Acrylic and oil on canvas
Jean-Michel Basquiat, One Million Yen, 1982
Oil on canvas with wood and jute
Rashid Johnson, I Who Have Nothing, 2008
Wax, soap, shea butter, and mix media on fiberboard
Rodney McMillian, Untitled, 2007/2008
Vinyl, thread, wood, metal and styrofoam
Barkley L. Hendricks, Noir, 1978
Oil and acrylic on canvas
Mickalene Thomas, Baby I Am Ready Now, 2007
Acrylic, rhinestones and enamel on panel

“Beauty has always been an element of discussion for black women, whether or not we were the ones having the conversation,” says Mickalene Thomas.

“This monumental portrait, like many of her images of sexually empowered black women, revels in an urban afro-chic style, born in the 1960s, that embrace bright colors, adventurous patterns, and revealing lines.” (The Barnes Foundation)

Lorna Simpson, Wigs (Portfolio), 1994
Waterless lithograph and felt, 38 panels

“Each of the 21 lithographs in Wigs (Portfolio) features a different hairpiece – curly, wavy, braided, bundled – set agains a plain background. The finished images are pinned to the wall like scientific specimens.

The work reflects Lorna Simpson’s ongoing interest in conventions of beauty. Small bits of text, printed onto felt and placed among the extensions, toupees, and falls, speak to the construction of black felinity and the use of hair to enhance, disguise, and transform identity.” (The Barnes Foundation)

I saw this exact installation, Wigs (Portfolio) Edition 2/15, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis this past March. It is part of their permanent collection. Pretty cool to see this piece shown in three different cities. It’s even more stunning in person.

Purvis Young, Untitled, 1985-89
Paint on wood
Purvis Young, Untitled, 1985-99
Paint on wood
Kerry James Marshall, Vignette #10, 2007
Acrylic on fiberglass

“Kerry James Marshall depicts scenes from the everyday lives of African Americans, from funerals to picnics in the park. In his exuberant Vignettes series, the artist celebrates the oder of black joy and black love. Figures run toward each other, their arms outstretched. The moment is simple yet also transcendent.” (The Barnes Foundation)

Kehinde Wiley, Equestrian Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares, 2005
Oil on canvas
Kehinde Wiley, Triple Portrait of Charles I, 2007 (one part of a triptych)
Oil and enamel on canvas
Nina Chanel Abney, Class of 2007, 2007
Acrylic on canvas

Kara Walker, Compton Ladies, 1988
John Bankston, Man’s Country 1, 2004
Oil on linen

“When I was growing up, there were very few coloring books that had black characters in them. I knew I wanted them to be black; however, I wanted them to have these open faces where they might not be colored. They could be the color of the ground or the color of the paper as a way for the viewer to step in and sort of finish coloring the picture, because we sort of color our world based on our own experiences.” ( John Bankston)

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