Questioning the Canon

Some works by contemporary African American Artists at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Untitled (1992) by Fred WilsonThe Baltimore Museum of Art

Contemporary artists often place their work in dialogue with the art-historical canon: the selection of so-called masterpieces of Western art. The canon represents ideals of beauty and knowledge, but it also reflects a bias in favor of art created by those who have occupied the most socially, politically, and economically powerful positions in culture.

The canon has particular significance for many African American artists, as it has been, and still is, the dominant framework within which appearance, affect, and gesture are judged in Western cultures. To speak back to the canon is to interrogate historical biases and claim space for a greater range of expressions of identity.

The works assembled here address the foundations of traditional Western art: from ancient Egypt and classical Greece, to the birth of modern painting, to postwar abstraction and conceptual practice.

These artists, however, create alternate narratives. They literally upend the classical nude, critique the ostensible neutrality of abstract compositions, and challenge the ways African Americans have historically been seen.

Fred Wilson’s Untitled looks back to the very birth of the Western canon. By pairing a nose-less bronze replica of an ancient Egyptian bust with a much larger “classical” plaster nose—evoking sculptures from the Greco-Roman past as well as the Italian Renaissance—Wilson reunites important episodes of art history. At the same time, through color and scale, he conveys the ways in which African contributions have been overshadowed by those of Europe.

Salvation (2000) by Kara WalkerThe Baltimore Museum of Art

Kara Walker’s Salvation depicts a caricatured black female figure declaiming or, perhaps, choking. The swamp setting, associated with mystery and stagnation, makes for an ominous scene. For Romantic painters of the late 18th and 19th centuries, the landscape often functioned metaphorically as a site of the sublime and a territory to be tamed and colonized. Walker overturns this approach, in part, by rendering her forms in the craft tradition of cut paper silhouettes. The ambiguity of the figure’s gesture begs the question of who is being saved and from what.

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires (2010) by Mickalene ThomasThe Baltimore Museum of Art

Mickalene Thomas’ Le déjeuner sur l'herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires partly shares a title with the famous 19th-century Edouard Manet painting. However, the clothed European male figures, and unclothed female figure of the original have been replaced with three stylishly dressed African American women, all of whom coolly confront the viewer’s gaze.

Matisse's Model (The French Collection, Part I: #5) (1991) by Faith RinggoldThe Baltimore Museum of Art

In Faith Ringgold’s story quilt series The French Collection, Willa Marie Simone—a fictitious heroine who has left America to pursue a career as an artist in Paris—is seen posing for Henri Matisse before his famous painting La Danse (1910). The tense situation of an unknown African American female artist (even a fictitious one) posing for a famous European male painter underscores a racial and gender hierarchy that has largely defined art of the past.

Strange Fruit (1995) by Alison SaarThe Baltimore Museum of Art

Saar’s Strange Fruit inverts the classical pose of the central figure in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1482–85) to speak to the historical atrocities visited upon the black female body, as well as its resilience in the face of them.

The Ladder of Success (2003/2004) by Kerry James MarshallThe Baltimore Museum of Art

The luminous Plexiglas slabs that make up the main sculptural element of Kerry James Marshall’s The Ladder of Success clearly make reference to minimalist works by artists like Donald Judd. Marshall, however, has inscribed his pristine forms with the principles of Kwanzaa and 19th-century American values believed to lead to financial fortune. Nearby, an image of the Ebony-Jet building, taken at night, sits as a symbol—and perhaps a critique—of African American aspiration.

Traveling (2001/2002) by David HammonsThe Baltimore Museum of Art

The apparent abstraction of David Hammons’ shifting tonal composition becomes legible as the product of an unconventional process on closer inspection. The artist made Traveling by bouncing a basketball covered with Harlem dirt on a sheet of paper. The title refers to basketball’s “traveling” rule but takes on multiple meanings, especially when one notices the suitcase hidden behind the framed drawing (see detail).

Traveling (side view) (2001/2002) by David HammonsThe Baltimore Museum of Art

Duke (2004) by Ellen GallagherThe Baltimore Museum of Art

In Duke, Ellen Gallagher has culled images of African American football players, gridded them, and lightened their skin. Pomade has been added to the print in selected sections. ‘Duke’ refers to a once well-known hair pomade and skin lightener. Here the modernist grid is pressed into the service of a totalizing racial conformity.

Untitled (1990) by Adrian PiperThe Baltimore Museum of Art

Adrian Piper’s Untitled invites us to meditate upon representation and identity through the drawing of a face sketched over an employment application. The demographic and somewhat arbitrary designations of the form—citizenship status, military service record, references, etc.—stand in contrast to the expressiveness of the face, lips parted as though about to speak.

Soundsuit (2013) by Nick CaveThe Baltimore Museum of Art

Nick Cave’s Soundsuit removes the artist’s body from the viewer’s gaze, even as it creates a spectacular presence through the use of strong color, pattern, and fine craft. The artist and others have danced in several, though not all, of his Soundsuits, so named for the distinctive noises that many of them make when worn.

To Matter (2015) by Cy GavinThe Baltimore Museum of Art

A crudely drawn ghost and devil contrast with a more refined figure, painted in dark pigments that spill into an expressionistic background. The classical male nude has long been associated with strength, victory, and moral excellence. Here the nude’s coloration both obscures its form and dominates much of the composition. An exception lies in an area next to the figure’s feet, where a pile of police hats raises questions about the politics of race and authority.

White #17 (1994) by Glenn LigonThe Baltimore Museum of Art

Glenn Ligon’s White #17 is reminiscent of the monochrome black canvases made famous by artists such as Frank Stella. However, the canvas contains a passage from Richard Dyer’s 1997 essay White, which looked at the biased portrayal of white and black cultures in movies. Hovering at the edge of legibility, the composition oscillates between pure abstraction and an assertion of the cultural connotations of the color black.

Credits: Story

Produced by: Gamynne Guillotte, with Kristen Hileman & Ann Shafer
Project Management: Suse Cairns, Michelle Boardman
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Photography Credits
© Nick Cave, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Cy Gavin, Courtesy Nicholas Knight and Sargent's Daughters. © Glenn Ligon, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles. © Kerry James Marshall. © Adrian Piper. © Faith Ringgold. © Alison Saar. © Mickalene Thomas, Photo courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York. © Kara Walker.
Unless otherwise noted, all photography by Mitro Hood.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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