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‘30 Americans’ at the Barnes: What you take away depends on what you know coming in

The acclaimed survey of African American artists opens in Philadelphia Sunday.

Detail from Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Bird On Money" (1981), at the Barnes Foundation
Detail from Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Bird On Money" (1981), at the Barnes FoundationRead moreCourtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami

The Barnes Foundation bills "30 Americans,” the traveling exhibition that opens there Sunday, as the 10th anniversary presentation of an acclaimed and influential exhibition.

That means, by art-exhibition standards, that it is old. Unlike touring productions of The Phantom of the Opera, art exhibitions typically have a life expectancy of a year or two.

Whether today’s museumgoers will consider the anniversary exhibit to be a prescient survey of these 30 African American artists, some of whom became art world royalty, or a decade-old time capsule, probably depends on how well the museumgoers themselves have kept up.

The exhibition is a selection of works by African American artists drawn from the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. It actually opened nearly 11 years ago, a month before the inauguration of Barack Obama. As it has been moving to Washington, Norfolk, Omaha, Tacoma, Nashville, Detroit, and many points in between, much has changed, both in art and in the society at large.

» READ MORE: ‘30 Americans’ at the Barnes Foundation brings a stellar lineup of black artists to Philadelphia

If you haven’t been paying much attention to contemporary black artists, “30 Americans” is a handy way to catch up on some who are making big news (and big sales) right now. Some of them were little known when the show first opened and have since risen to prominence, perhaps in part from the attention “30 Americans” has brought.

Kehinde Wiley’s Equestrian Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares (2005) is a decorative variation on Velasquez, but with a black man triumphant. You can see why Obama picked Wiley to paint his presidential portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. The artist’s first large equestrian sculpture, Rumors of War, went on view in Times Square at the end of September and will move after two months there to Richmond, Va., to challenge that city’s deeply divisive gaggle of Confederate generals on horseback.

Nairobi-born Wangechi Mutu is represented here by Non, je ne regrette rien (2007), a sensual, glittery painting on mylar that, as she says in the catalog, has serpents and dragons, foliage and vaginas, but is really a statement that she does not regret coming so far from home to pursue her dream. Recently, she installed four monumental bronze sculptures in the long-empty niches in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kara Walker has won attention for her silhouettes of 19th century black life and oppression, like Camptown Ladies (1998), which fills three walls in this show. This month she installed a huge reinterpretation of a Victorian imperialist monument in the main hall of London’s Tate Modern.

William Pope.L, famed for his long distance crawls on Broadway and elsewhere, is represented here by some examples of his endless series of drawings on graph paper. He has a retrospective right now at the Museum of Modern Art.

A few of the artists in the show were well-known when it opened — especially Robert Colescott, the great satirist of stereotyping. In this show, his Modern Day Miracles (1988) has it all: sex, fried fish, medicine, vivid colors, wild patterns, and an anarchic sense of humor that can make the viewer laugh and feel uncomfortable at the same time.

Jean-Michel Basquiat had been a sensation in the 1980s who was a bit overlooked at the time “30 Americans” first opened, but his gift for putting marks on canvas is highly admired now; one of his paintings sold in 2017 for more than $110 million, setting an auction record for American art. The Barnes show includes two Basquiats: Bird on Money and One Million Yen. Both deal at least in part with the power of money, an appropriate theme for a a show that spotlights a private collection.

As it travels, “30 Americans” shrinks or expands to meet the needs of each venue, and the Barnes exhibit space is not among the largest. For anyone looking for something deeper than a compact survey of contemporary black American art, this exhibition of about 80 works by the 30 artists feels too diffuse.

Most are represented by one or two works. That’s not nearly enough to help us see what the individual artists are all about.

The show, then, is not as much about individual visions as about the shared dilemma of African American artists: the unavoidable issue of race. “30 Americans,” despite its very neutral title, is focused on our nation’s long history of slavery, oppression, and discrimination.

This is signaled by the show’s first work, Klan Gate (1992) by Gary Simmons, which serves as the portal to the exhibition. It is a brick and steel gateway, with hooded white figures standing atop on either side. It leads directly to Leonardo Drew’s Untitled #25 (1992), which is essentially a wall of cotton.

In the catalog, a few of the artists observe that it is left to them to create art that deals with race, while their white counterparts, who should at least share responsibility for the problem, are free to do anything they want. Indeed, just putting a black face in an evocation of an Old Master painting, as Wiley did, makes it a work about race.

Nina Chanel Abney’s painting Class of 2007 (2007) offers one response to this dilemma. She was the only black student in her art school class, but she did a class portrait in which she depicted all her classmates as dark-skinned, while the artist herself is off to the side, white and holding a rifle.

In an essay written for the Barnes showing, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the exhibition’s curator, says that the show’s great attraction over the years has been its rarity. “Important exhibitions of challenging contemporary art that reflects or interrogates the lived realities of being non-white, queer, or working class in our society are rarely shown by mainstream museums.”

But superficial surveys like this threaten to perpetuate the curator-created ghetto. A museum can book this show or a museumgoer attend it and feel that they’ve checked the black box.

To be fair, this is an appropriate show for this institution. Albert Barnes, when he wasn’t buying boatloads of Renoirs, declared an affinity for African American art and was a patron of Horace Pippin, though the attitudes the quarrelsome collector expressed would be racist by contemporary standards.

Shows that spotlight individual artists, or a focused selection of artists with similar preoccupations, do a far better job of letting artists speak for themselves.

The good news is that some Philadelphia museums have been doing so. Many of the artists in this exhibition have had exhibitions here at the Fabric Workshop and Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art, in some cases well before they were featured in “30 Americans.”

» READ MORE: Solange’s otherworldly animator for 'When I Get Home’ has his first solo museum show. In Philly, not Brooklyn.

Woodmere Art Museum has spotlighted regional artists. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts celebrated alum Barkley Hendricks with a career retrospective in 2017. The Barnes Foundation itself has had some strong group exhibitions and a wonderful one-man show of Nari Ward.

Indeed, the video and installation artist Jacolby Satterwhite has a one-man show at the Fabric Workshop right now (through Jan. 19) that would pair well with “30 Americans” for anyone looking to see what an emerging black artist is doing in 2019.

And there are surprises in the survey at the Barnes Foundation, too. I left this show haunted by a work by Noah Davis, an artist with whom I was not familiar and whose career was cut short by cancer at the age of 32.

Painting for My Dad (2011) shows a young man holding a lantern. His back is to us as he stands among rocks, silhouetted against a dark but starry sky. But he is looking downward, as if over a cliff. It is ambiguous, foreboding, and quietly riveting. The figure is black, the feeling universal.


30 Americans

Oct. 27-Jan. 12 at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.

Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Weds.-Mon. (closed Tuesdays).

Admission: $25, adults; $23, seniors; $5, youth ages 13-18 and students with ID (children under 13 free).

Information: 215-278-7160,