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Abstract painting with a soft, pulsating background of red, dark brown, yellow, and orange, covered with tight, rapid calligraphy in white. Abstract painting with a soft, pulsating background of red, dark brown, yellow, and orange, covered with tight, rapid calligraphy in white.

Highlights

Black Artists

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The Art Institute acquired its first work by a black artist—Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Two Disciples at the Tomb—in 1906, the same year it was made.

Since then, the museum has supported black artists, purchasing many works for the collection including those by graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), one of the few art academies that allowed black students to enroll at the turn of the 20th century, such as Archibald John Motley Jr., Walter Ellison, Eldzier Cortor, and Richard Hunt.

Today we continue to expand the collection with the distinct voices and perspectives of black artists across departments and media—architecture, design, installation art, painting, printmaking, photography, painting, sculpture, and textiles. This tour features a rotating selection of these works.

Please note that while many of these works are on view, and are noted as such, some may be off view due to the museum’s installation schedule. Click through to the artwork pages for more information.

Walter T. Bailey


Walter T. Bailey

The first black architect licensed in Illinois, Walter T. Bailey studied at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and spent his early career as a professor at Tuskegee University—a historically black university in Alabama. In 1922 he was commissioned by the Knights of Pythias, a black fraternal order (there was also a predominantly white Knights of Pythias order at the time), to design their national headquarters in Chicago’s thriving Bronzeville neighborhood. When it was completed in 1928, the building was the largest and most significant in the country to be designed, built, and financed by African Americans. This terracotta fragment was recovered from the temple’s Egyptian Revival facade—a style which likely held great significance for the black Knights of Pythias at a moment when many African American intellectuals looked to the history of Egypt as a source of cultural pride. Although the structure was demolished in 1980, the Pythian Temple remains an important part of the rich history of Bronzeville and Chicago’s South Side.

This work is on view in Gallery 200.

Richmond Barthé


Richmond Barthé

After studying painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Mississippi native Richmond Barthé moved to New York where he achieved success as a sculptor. His works were exhibited widely by the Harmon Foundation, an organization that promoted African American artists and writers, and earned the praise of Harlem Renaissance critic Alain Locke. Barthé, who frequently explored the expressive potential of the body’s form, pose, and movement, modeled Boxer from memory, inspired by the famed Cuban featherweight Eligio Sardiñas Montalvo, better known as “Kid Chocolate”—who, Barthé said, “moved like a ballet dancer.” In this work, Barthé conveys the boxer’s immense strength and agility with lyricism and grace.

This work will be on view in Gallery 161 starting February 10.

Elizabeth Catlett


Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett made this sculpture early in her career, just after a formative period in Chicago. Its angular features and deep carvings demonstrate Catlett’s confident abstraction of the human form. She was inspired by African art, which she saw as the precursor to modernist abstraction; “After all,” she said, “abstraction was born in Africa.” Catlett continued to build on these formal qualities through sculptures, prints, and paintings, developing an expressive, modern aesthetic to depict African American subjects.

This work is on view in Gallery 264.

Augusta Savage


Augusta Savage

In this dynamic rendering of a musical partnership, Augusta Savage celebrated everyday people in her local community of Harlem. The two sculptures aesthetically respond to one another: the musician twists at the waist, throwing back his shoulders and head and lifting his wind instrument high in the air. The dancer likewise leans off his vertical axis, his arms bent close to the body, full of kinetic energy.

Savage was an influential sculptor, teacher, and intellectual leader. Determined from childhood to become an artist, she moved from Florida to New York in 1921 and studied at the Cooper Union. Two years later she won a scholarship to train in France—an offer later rescinded because she was black. Savage would go on to found her own school and also lead the Harlem Community Art Center.

This work is on view in Gallery 263.

Martin Puryear


Martin Puryear

© Martin Puryear

Over a five-decade career, Martin Puryear has devoted himself to exploring organic forms in various materials, but most often wood, creating suggestive, playful, and transformative forms anchored to our world. In Sanctuary, Puryear pairs a carefully fashioned block with wild tree saplings, celebrating the beauty of wood in both its natural and refined states. Puryear made the work just five years after a fire destroyed many of his sculptures and worldly possessions. This “period of grieving followed by an incredible lightness and freedom” sparked a new interest in themes of movement and shelter. Sanctuary embodies what the artist described as “mobility with a kind of escapism, of survival through flight.” The sculpture looks like it’s paused in the middle of an action, the wheel at its base threatening to lurch forward at the smallest touch. Whimsical and sophisticated, the piece balances a longing for stability with a need for change. 

This work is on view in Gallery 297.

Lorraine O’Grady


Lorraine O’Grady

An artist of African, Caribbean, and Irish descent, Lorraine O’Grady has mainly focused on representations of black female subjectivity, often through the lens of family, literary, and art-historical narratives. Her work Miscegenated Family Album is a series of diptychs, each containing an image of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti paired with a corresponding image of the artist’s deceased sister, Devonia Evangeline O’Grady Allen, or members of their respective families. The physical resemblances between the individuals within any given diptych are sometimes startling. Both families, in fact, reflect the consequences of generations of cross-cultural exchange and interracial marriage.

This work is on view in Gallery 295.

Henry Ossawa Tanner


Henry Ossawa Tanner

The son of a prominent minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Henry Osssawa Tanner was perhaps the most renowned American painter of religious works at the turn of the 20th century. After studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Tanner moved to France in 1891 in an effort to escape the trenchant racism that limited his career in the United States. The Two Disciples at the Tomb depicts an event from the Gospel of Saint John in which Peter and John arrive at Christ’s empty tomb. Tanner grounds the scene in the figures’ thoughtful expressions—Peter looks downward with a somber gaze, while John appears transfixed, his face bathed in a golden light that signifies the presence of Christ’s spirit.

This work is on view in Gallery 273.

Sargent Claude Johnson


Sargent Claude Johnson

These teacups are rare examples of functional objects made by artist Sargent Claude Johnson. Best known for carved figural works from the 1920s and ’30s that depict the beauty and dignity of African American people, Johnson experimented with a wide range of media over the course of his career, including painting, printmaking, frame making, and ceramics. Here, he focused on geometric forms to shape and decorate his vessels, using contrasting semicircles and rectangles for the handles of his cups and abstract patterns, silhouetted figures, and musical instruments in the glazed imagery.

These works are on view in Gallery 264.

Hughie Lee-Smith


Hughie Lee-Smith

© Estate of Hughie Lee-Smith/ARS (Artist Rights Society), New York

Starting art classes at age ten and graduating from the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art), Hughie Lee-Smith became a painter of uncategorizable images—scenes of lone enigmatic figures in bleak landscapes that are realist yet surreal, romantic and mystical. The artist linked the starkness of his imagery to his experience as an African American man, later recalling, “Unconsciously it has a lot to do with a sense of alienation … and in all blacks there is an awareness of their isolation from the mainstream of society.” In Desert Forms, as in many of Lee-Smith’s works, the isolation can also be interpreted as a universal statement about the loneliness that can be experienced by all of humanity.

This work is on view in Gallery 262.

Norman Lewis


Norman Lewis

© Estate of Norman Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

New York painter Norman Lewis began his career working in the social realist style. Around 1946, however, he started exploring a gestural approach to abstraction and became the only African American among the first generation of Abstract Expressionist artists. Although his work avoided overt representation, he still sought to address social concerns. The title of this painting alludes to the United States’ struggles and potential after World War II. With reference to lines from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” (first published in 1855), Lewis commented on his own time and the productive complications his socially engaged abstraction brought to American painting at this moment: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.).”

This work is on view in Gallery 262.

Charles White


Charles White

Born and educated in Chicago, Charles White was one of the preeminent artists to emerge during the city’s Black Renaissance of the 1930s and ’40s. As a child, White sketched in the galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago and in high school earned a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. White believed that art could be a force in promoting racial equality: “Paint is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent.” 

In This, My Brother, White depicts a man with outstretched hands emerging from a demolished structure. The artwork title comes from a 1936 novel about a rural white miner who, after a political awakening, joins the proletarian struggle against capitalism; in his depiction, White transforms the protagonist into a Black man who breaks free from a mountain of rubble, a hopeful image of the possibility of social change.

This work is on view in Gallery 262.

Norman Teague


Norman Teague

Norman Teague is a Chicago-based designer and educator whose practice focuses on the complexity of urbanism and uses design as a mechanism to empower black and brown communities. His projects range from a collaboration with Theaster Gates and John Preus for dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, to a 2017 contribution to the Chicago Cultural Center exhibition Wall of Respect: Vestiges, Shards, and Legacy of Black Power exploring the legacy of a seminal 1967 mural developed by black artists in Chicago’s South Side communities. Teague’s Sinmi stool takes its title from the word “relax” in the African language of Yoruba. This sleek seating in plywood and rubber was inspired by the American rocking chair as well as the relaxed positions—straddling, sitting, or perching—commonly assumed when lounging and socializing on city streets.

This work is currently off view.

Gearldine Westbrook


Gearldine Westbrook

Gearldine Westbrook became a member of the Gee’s Bend artistic community in Alabama when she moved there after her marriage (Westbrook and her husband, Miree, both worked in nearby cotton fields). She had been quilting since childhood, learning from the many quilters who surrounded her, including her mother and grandmother. In describing her work, Westbrook noted, “I’ve been making quilts for a long time … I don’t follow no pattern.” Strips exemplifies her experimental, yet ordered, practice. Westbrook used actual strips of fabric to build wider and longer rectangles, which she then connected to form a single large strip. Continuing this play between piece and whole, the gently undulating edges of the quilt mirror the irregularities of the individual fabric elements, possibly offcuts from local factories.

This work is currently off view.

Lorna Simpson


Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson first became known in the 1980s for work that confronted race, gender, and history. Employing the African American woman as a visual point of departure, she combined large-scale, multi-panel photographs with affixed text in order to put text and image into a poetic confrontation. In Outline, the photographs—a woman with no face, an isolated rope of braided hair—make reference to anthropological studies of Africans whose subjects were stereotypically portrayed in terms of isolated physical features. Simpson provides a voice in the form of text fragments, which join to form new words—”backlash” and “back pay,” for example—that evoke historic and contemporary forms of exploitation.

This work is not currently on view.

Joshua Johnson


Joshua Johnson

The first known African American painter to gain professional recognition in the United States, Joshua Johnson had trained as a blacksmith before being freed by his enslaver (and father) in 1782. Johnson worked throughout the Baltimore area as both a portraitist and limner (someone who decorates manuscripts), advertising himself as “self-taught” in the city’s newspapers. Among the more than 80 paintings attributed to Johnson is this one of Elizabeth Beatty and her daughter, both fashionably dressed. The child holds a brightly colored strawberry, a delicacy often featured in Johnson’s portraits.

This work will be on view in Gallery 161 starting February 10.

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