This fall, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design will present 30 Americans, a wide-ranging survey of works by many of the most important African-American contemporary artists of the last three decades. By bringing seminal artistic figures together with younger and emerging artists, the exhibition explores artistic influence across generations and sheds light on issues of racial, sexual, and historical identity. Often provocative and challenging, 30 Americans at the Corcoran explores ideas central to the American experience.
Artists in 30 Americans include Nina Chanel Abney, John Bankston, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Bradford, Iona Rozeal Brown, Nick Cave, Robert Colescott, Noah Davis, Leonardo Drew, Renée Green, David Hammons, Barkley L.
Hendricks, Rashid Johnson, Glenn Ligon, Kalup Linzy, Kerry James Marshall, Rodney McMillian, Wangechi Mutu, William Pope.L, Gary Simmons, Xaviera Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Shinique Smith, Jeff Sonhouse, Henry Taylor, Hank Willis Thomas, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, and Purvis Young.
“30 Americans explores how each artist reckons with the notion of identity in America, navigating such concerns as the struggle for civil rights, sexuality, popular culture, and media imagery,” said Sarah Newman, curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran and curator of the presentation at the Corcoran. “By focusing on the way that individuals carve out their own place in the world, it speaks to the American experience more generally.”
First shown at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, Florida, 30 Americans have been reconceived for its presentation in Washington. At the Corcoran, the exhibition is organized around ideas of identity as well as artistic community and legacy, highlighting relationships between artists across generations. The exhibition explores the ways in which a foundational figure’s ideas and formal innovations ripple through contemporary practice: Robert Colescott’s investigations of the narratives of art and history in relation to African-American culture echo through the grand portraits of Kehinde Wiley and the cut-paper silhouettes of Kara Walker; the innovations of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti-based paintings of the urban environment find current form in the work of Mark Bradford and Shinique Smith; while David Hammons’s wry investigations of language, meaning, and race provide a starting point for the conceptualism of Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson.
“The Rubells built their collection by speaking with artists and finding out who they were looking at—it is very much an artist-based gathering of works and we wanted to give form to that,” said Newman. “The exhibition explores the various relationships—formal, thematic, political, and personal—that artists have with one another, and how those relationships emerge across distance and time.”
30 Americans consist of 76 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, and videos, and includes works of art such as Washington, D.C. native Iona Rozeal Brown’s Sacrifice #2: It Has to Last (after Yoshitoshi’s “Drowsy: the appearance of a harlot of the Meiji era”), 2007, Leonardo Drew’s massive cotton and wax sculpture Untitled #25, 1992, several of Nick Cave’s exuberant Soundsuits, (2006–2008), and Mickalene Thomas’s Baby I Am Ready Now, 2007.
The work in 30 Americans belongs to Miami-based collectors Don and Mera Rubell. “As the show evolved, we decided to call it 30 Americans. ‘Americans,’ rather than ‘African Americans’ or ‘Black Americans’ because nationality is a statement of fact, while racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her own way, or not at all. And the number 30 because we acknowledge, even as it is happening, that this show does not include everyone who could be in it. The truth is, because we do collect right up to the last minute before a show, there are actually 31 artists in 30 Americans.”
The Corcoran Gallery of Art was formed in 1869 for the purpose of “Encouraging American Genius.” Today, this principle shapes the institution—a museum and college—as a center for study and dialogue about social and political issues as raised and explored through contemporary art.
“The Corcoran stands as an institution for creating, displaying, and learning about art, which is to say to learn about our world,” said Philip Brookman, chief curator and head of research at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. “As an independent and influential arts institution, we are committed now more than ever to exhibitions that are progressive and that encourage debate and discussion.”
Washington’s largest nonfederal art museum, the Corcoran has from its beginnings been a contemporary art museum and, with the addition of the school in 1890, a center for creating, collecting, and showcasing contemporary art. Founded by William Wilson Corcoran, the Gallery’s historic collection reflects Corcoran’s early interest in collecting American art. Some of the artists in 30 Americans are today also represented in Corcoran’s collection, including Nina Chanel Abney, Robert Colescott, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, and Carrie Mae Weems.
The Corcoran demonstrates its longstanding history and support of contemporary artists by presenting 30 Americans, and by organizing its NOW at the Corcoran series, a special exhibition program dedicated to displaying work by emerging and mid-career artists, and NEXT at the Corcoran: BFA Class of 2011, an exhibition of student work from the Corcoran College of Art + Design.