Riffs and Relations
February 29, 2020 - January 3, 2021
“African American artists embraced modernism. But the art world didn’t embrace them.” by Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post
“African American Artists Created Fruitful, But Fraught, Relations with European Modernism” by Mackenzie Weigner, The Washington Diplomat
Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition presents works by African American artists of the 20th and 21st centuries together with examples by the early 20th century European artists with whom they engaged. This exhibition explores the rich, multifaceted, and sustained connections and frictions around modernism in the work of artists such as Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Renee Cox, Wassily Kandinsky, Norman Lewis, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Faith Ringgold, Hank Willis Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems, among others.
African American artists have interrogated and immersed themselves in European modernist art since its rise to prominence in the early 20th century. This period also saw a critical growth of professional African American artists, many of whom engaged modernist styles and sensibilities as they claimed the power to represent and define themselves, their histories, and their cultures. In the early part of the century, African American artists were nourished by the advances of Post-Impressionist, Cubist, and expressionist art. They contributed to modernism’s new languages of form, liberated use of color, and complex engagement with the arts of Africa. But in later years, artists began challenging master narratives. Using humor and satire, they created “riffs” to question the supposed superiority of European art, exposing its fraught association with people of color. The push and pull of these relationships became a distinct tradition in African American artistic practice.
The African American and European artists in this exhibition have engaged modernism in different time periods and varied artistic and social contexts. The cross-cultural, international, and intergenerational exchanges assembled here offer a fascinating glimpse into dialogues that have evolved over the 20th and 21st centuries. Fittingly, The Phillips Collection was founded on the idea that works from various moments could be brought together to show enduring relationships that help broaden discussions on art history. These paintings, sculptures, photographs, and works on paper enhance the story of modern and contemporary American art by presenting compelling works born of these riffs and relations.