“Will you join in the battle to give every citizen the full equality which God enjoins and the law requires, whatever his belief, or race, or the color of his skin? Will you join in the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty? . . . Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit?” These are the words of President Lyndon B. Johnson from a commencement speech given at the University of Michigan in 1964. But on the screen in the museum’s Donna and Howard Stone Gallery for Film, Video, and New Media, it is not Johnson who speaks these words, but artist Rodney McMillian in his video Untitled (The Great Society) I, bringing new meaning to the speech as a black man and raising powerful questions about the cyclical and performative nature of history and politics.
The video is one of five newly acquired works by McMillian featured in the current installation Rodney McMillian: a great society and one of many significant additions to the collection by African American artists that are now on view in the Modern Wing. Joining several earlier acquisitions of contemporary art, the works on display in the second-floor galleries show an expansive range—from abstraction to representation, from painting and sculpture to photography, video, and mixed media, from a late 1950s shaped canvas by Edward Clark to pieces made within the last decade by McMillian, Mark Bradford, and William Pope.L. Additional works by Chicago-based artist Cauleen Smith will be on view beginning in May in the museum’s prints and drawings galleries.
Pope.L’s 2015 Finnish Painting,an enigmatic amalgam of Abstract Expressionist style and viscerally rendered poetry, acknowledges a struggle in understanding and interpreting other people. The last word of the poem, and one of the few legible words, is “decode,” mirroring the viewer’s experience trying to decode the work itself. Pope.L's canvas joins the conversation of abstraction in the galleries grounded by works like Ed Clark’s 1957 Untitled.One of the first “shaped” paintings, Untitled considers and then bursts the confines of traditional frame and format. Clark himself noted that the truth seemed to lie in the physical brushstroke rather than the actual depiction of a subject. Jack Whitten’s abstract paintings make layers of pigment and process visible, with each layer of his 1978 Khee II capturing a step of the formation of the total work. The result is a densely textured surface, created by pressing or dragging shaped objects directly beneath and over the canvas.
Mark Bradford also explores surface and residue in A Siren beside a Ship. This 2014 work is composed of pieces of commercial paper and related detritus scavenged from the artist’s Los Angeles neighborhood, which were then sanded down and re-layered to create the work's intense texture. The effect might recall a wave—as the title indicates—and a fingerprint, pulling together the notions of the sea's expanse and anonymity with those of the individual self and identity.
Identity plays a role in the representational works of Benny Andrews and Lorna Simpson, both of which came into the collection in the 1990s. Andrews’s 1966 Flag Day interprets the American flag as “bars” imprisoning the figure underneath. His work often had him labeled as a “protest artist” as he pushed for black artists to be represented in major museums in New York City. Simpson’s 1992 Suit pieces together three sections of a photograph, showing the back of a woman dressed in conventionally masculine clothing. The accompanying text panel reads “An average size woman in an average size suit with ill-suited thought,” indicating various readings of “fit” and all its implications.
This wide assortment of contemporary artworks builds upon the museum’s historical collection of pieces by African American artists: from Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1906 Two Disciples at the Tomb through the rich holdings of mid-20th century works—Walter Ellison’s Train Station, Charles White’s This, My Brother, Archibald John Motley, Jr.’s Nightlife, Beauford Delaney’s Self-Portrait, Jacob Lawrence’s The Wedding, and Eldzier Cortor’s The Room, No. VI—to name a few. Each of these works, indeed every work in the collection by an American artist, strengthens the museum's ability to tell the stories of the country and its art.
Rodney McMillian. Still from Untitled (the Great Society) I, 2006. Contemporary Discretionary Fund.