HARVARD ART MUSEUMS have acquired a monumental drawing from one of this fall’s most talked about gallery exhibitions. Kara Walker‘s “U.S.A. Idioms” was purchased from “the Most Outstanding and Important Painting Show of the Fall Viewing Season!,” an exhibition of new works on paper by Walker at Sikkema Jenkins.
The show opened Sept. 7 at the New York gallery and made news for its lengthy and provocative title and artist statement, both full of tongue-in-cheek hubris and frustration based on Walker’s commercial and critical acclaim alongside perennial rebukes and hand-wringing about her controversial images of America’s racially and sexually charged history.
Walker said she wasn’t inclined to write a statement for the show. She did so anyway and it read in part: “I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point. But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.’ Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche.”
“I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point. But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model.’ Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche.” — Kara Walker
Inspired by recent events, the watercolors, drawings, and collage works in the exhibition were made in the summer of 2017 in the wake of heightened political division and escalating racial violence across the country.
Installation view of “U.S.A. Idioms” by Kara Walker in “Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to Present The most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!,” at Sikkema Jenkins Gallery, New York. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
EXECUTED IN SUMI INK and collage on paper, “U.S.A. Idioms,” portrays a series of black and white figures—in various disturbing situations—amid a floating landscape of knotty, lifeless trees against a white ground. The images explore the vestiges of slavery and its modern day legacy. Bridging the past with the present, a Confederate flag looms over the scene.
“This is a powerhouse of a work—provocative in its subject and scale and also, as a drawing, incredibly beautiful and technically exhilarating,” Martha Tedeschi, director of the Harvard Art Museums, said in a statement. “Harvard’s president Drew Gilpin Faust, a scholar of the Civil War, slavery, and the American South, has drawn attention to the university’s institutional history and has prompted the campus community to examine painful realities of African American heritage that have until recently remained unspoken and unaddressed. Walker’s willingness to foreground ‘contentious images and objectionable ideas,’ to use the artist’s own words, challenges us to look, not look away.”
“This is a powerhouse of a work—provocative in its subject and scale and also, as a drawing, incredibly beautiful and technically exhilarating.” — Martha Tedeschi, Director, Harvard Art Museums
The Harvard museums have seven other works by Walker in their collection. The first acquisition, “Untitled (John Brown)” (1997), was made 20 years ago. The most recent, “U.S.A. Idioms,” was a result of a collaboration between Mary Schneider Enriquez, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Edouard Kopp, curator of Drawings. Plans for exhibiting the 12 x 15 foot drawing are in the works.
In a statement about why they pursued “U.S.A. Idioms,” in particular, Kopp said: “You know a great work of art when you see one. Here is a magisterial drawing that combines graphic power, expressive force, and narrative ambiguity on the grand scale of history painting. Intensely thought-provoking and sadly topical, ‘U.S.A. Idioms’ seems to both invite and defy interpretation.” CT
TOP IMAGE: KARA WALKER, “U.S.A. Idioms,” 2017 (collage of Sumi ink and graphite on cut newspaper on gessoed white wove paper, 140 1/8 x 176 5/8 inches). | Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Margaret Fisher Fund, 2017.220. © Kara Walker; image courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Harvard Art Museums curators Mary Schneider Enriquez and Edouard Kopp viewing Kara Walker’s “U.S.A. Idioms” at the museums’s Somerville Research Center. | Photo byTara Metal, © President and Fellows of Harvard College