African American Artists Created Fruitful, But Fraught, Relations with European Modernism

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The canvas is dramatically pushed back, disrupting the familiar bright blue sky of Claude Monet’s impressionist painting with layers of murky black tar.

It’s a striking image that captures the theme of the thrilling show at the Phillips Collection, “Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition.” The painting, “Pushing Back the Light” by Titus Kaphar, hangs across from and in powerful conversation with Monet’s “Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son.”

This exhibition, which explores and traces the influence of modernism on black artists, is a tension-filled experience that at once both celebrates and challenges the European art history canon. It’s a stylish, thoughtful and genre-bending show that contrasts and recasts European modernism in surprising new ways.

“Riffs and Relations” includes 53 artists, including Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Renee Cox and Wangechi Mutu, among many others, and features 72 works spanning the 20th and 21st centuries.

“I was looking to expand the understanding of contemporary art by putting it in an exhibition with historical artists that were doing similar things and who had been thinking about these relationships for literally decades. To see if and how this practice has changed over time, and to make sure audiences realize that black artists have been linked to modernism from the very beginning,” guest curator Adrienne Childs told The Washington Diplomat in an email. “It is an important relationship. And that race does not always create a boundary. Artists exchange freely.”

By hanging works by modern and contemporary African American artists beside those done by iconic names that anyone with a passing interest in art would have heard of, this show raises the question of why these artists may have not been in the same position on a museum’s walls before.

“It was also very important to have the European art in the room with the African American artists. These dialogues are palpable when the works are shown together. Plus, once we installed the exhibition, there were more resonances than we had even imagined. It was really exciting,” Childs said.

The show both effectively critiques and embraces European art history, showcasing the ways it has influenced and held back black artists.

Filled with prints, collages, paintings, sculpture, photography and quilts, the show critically assesses modernism in a way that riffs most resonantly on the Phillips Collection’s own familiar holdings. Rooms are dedicated to themes and artists ranging from cubism to modernist “primitivism” to Édouard Manet’s large-scale painting “The Luncheon on the Grass.” We see how some African American artists took inspiration from European iconography, while others used humor and satire to challenge the supposed superiority of European art.

One of the two works created for the exhibition, Janet Taylor Pickett’s “And She Was Born,” is particularly striking, a companion to Matisse’s “Interior with Egyptian Curtain.” Childs calls the painting a “stunner” and noted that the artist had previously created an entire series dedicated to her artistic connection to Matisse.

It’s just one example of how current this exhibition feels, with modernism and impressionism — the heart of the Phillips Collection — still at the core.

“Riffs and Relations is a concept that I have been thinking about for years,” Childs said. “I have been teaching African American art history since I was in grad school.… I often took note of the black artists who engaged or ‘appropriated’ European art. In recent years I have noticed that many younger artists, or contemporary artists, continue to mine the history of art.

“I realized that although we talk about this practice in the field, nobody had really taken a stab at doing a book project or an exhibition about this. My first idea was a book that focused on black diaspora artists and European art history writ large — not confined to modernism. For a book that would be fine, but for an exhibition we needed to narrow it down. So, for the Phillips, modernism made sense,” she added.

There’s so much of interest in this show, so much to rethink and refashion — from the color and form of William H. Johnson’s “Cagnes-sur-Mer” together with Chaïm Soutine’s “Landscape at Cagnes,” to the challenge Faith Ringgold throws down in her quilt painting “Picasso’s Studio,” which tells a story through the artist’s historical alter ego and in doing so upends Picasso’s own world — that it demands a thoughtful, extended visit whenever the Phillips Collection reopens. In the meantime, however, you can watch a gallery-by-gallery video tour of the exhibition online, along with a conversation between Childs and Taylor Pickett.


Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition

through Jan. 3, 2021
Phillips Collection
1600 21st St., NW
For more information, visit

About the Author

Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on May 6, 2020