Gordon Parks: a Farm Security Administration and Life Magazine photographer. Jacob Lawrence: created the famous series, “Migration,” now exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. James Van Der Zee: an important Harlem Renaissance photographer who documented artists and game changers while becoming one himself. What do they all have in common? From now until August 19, along with many other famed African American artists, they have works on view at Vassar’s very own Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, as a part of “Triennial XII—Celebrating the Contributions of African American Alumnae/i, Students, Faculty, Administrators, and Staff of Vassar College,” an annual event held by African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College (AAAVC).
The weekend-long program featured many Vassar alumnae/i attending different events and panels, and also provided the opening of the “Reflections: Portrayals of and by African Americans” exhibition at the Loeb, which focuses on African American artists of the 19th through 21st centuries, according to the exhibition catalog. Open later than usual to host the reception for AAAVC’s event, the Loeb had students, faculty, alumnae/i, students and even Poughkeepsie residents mingling for over two hours, as they viewed both the new exhibit and the museum at large on a walking tour of campus.
Through the museum’s atrium, down the left hallway, through the 20th-century galleries, and straight back lies the Focus Gallery, a space where shorter-term exhibits can be displayed. An exhibit on French fashion in the 19th century closed on April 8, and before that “A Neoclassical Portrait of a Classicist” was on display. It runs on a more flexible schedule than the rest of the Loeb and allows for the display of faculty curated exhibits, as well as showcases of pieces from the permanent collection.
This exhibition was co-curated by Curator of Academic Programs Elizabeth Nogrady and Assistant Director for Strategic Planning Mary-Kay Lombino. Nogrady explained that the duo organized this show in conjunction with the project, “Buildings and Belonging: Mapping the African American Experience at Vassar College Since 1861,” which was also spearheaded by the AAAVC for their triennial. Within the exhibition catalog, Lombino wrote, “In recent decades, the Art Center collection has been enhanced through the acquisition of works by artists from the African diaspora.” Lombino went on to specify the types of imagery depicted: “Several of the works on view here are not straight portraits but instead disrupt the gaze of traditional portraiture through critique, appropriation, humor, and self-reflection.”
The catalog’s front cover features an image of Fred Wilson’s “X,” a 2005 work juxtaposing an inverted grayscale image of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of a Parisian socialite, “Madame X,” with an image of Malcolm X. What is striking at first about this piece is how much it looks like an unaltered photographic negative of a portrait of a man with a painting in the background. Wilson superimposed “Madame X” onto a separate photograph, making the transition between the imagery ambiguous. Since the image is in a negative format which the human eye is not used to, the transition is even harder to gauge.
Viewer Julianna Bencze ’21 paid a visit to the Loeb over the weekend, and commented on how she enjoyed the content and layout of the show, impressed by the curation of the work: “This exhibit brings well-roundedness to the realm of the art museum with its focus on culture that is often underrepresented in artistic installations.”
The catalog also mentions image appropriation, which brings to mind Hank Willis Thomas’s 2006 work, “So Glad We Made It, 1979.” The image is a highly saturated photo of an African American family sitting around a table playing backgammon and eating fast food. However, the image was not originally produced by Thomas; ite is actually a photograph of a McDonald’s advertisement from Ebony magazine with all of the references to the branding edited out, thus highlighting the racial issues that arose in advertisements during the period that are re-portrayed in this image.
Another notable piece in the exhibition was commissioned by Vassar for the 20th anniversary of the Africana Studies program at Vassar in 1989. The piece, a large-scale lithograph, is titled “Memorabilia.” It features bold colors in blocks as well as figures spread throughout.
When asked which piece best embodied the exhibit, Nogrady responded in an emailed statement, “It’s challenging to select one work that embodies the exhibition, but I would say that as the Curator of Academic Programs, I have found that Hank Willis Thomas’s ‘So Glad We Made It 1979’ (2006) has led to some fascinating conversations with students in the classroom. It is from his series ‘UNBRANDED: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968–2008,’ and depicts a McDonald’s ad from the 1970s, with all overt branding removed. I have found that this work invites a wide-ranging conversation on race in the U.S., advertising, fashion, leisure time, fast food, and on and on.”
Curator of Public Education Margaret Vetare was pleased by the amount of light that is being shed on the Loeb’s collection, which includes upwards of 20,000 pieces. Vetare mentioned how she feels about the chance to improve representation: “As the Curator of Public Education, I work with visitors and tour groups from the wider community to make the resources of the Art Center accessible. Any time we can diversify the works on view to convey the richness and variety of artists in the collection, I’m happy, because we are reflecting a more true picture of the range of artistic expression— a good goal for any museum, but particularly one that is located in such a diverse area. But more specifically, this exhibition features extraordinary works that inspire, provoke, and intrigue, both individually and on a collective level.”
Since the exhibit will be up for the remainder of the semester and into the summer, it is well worth a visit to see a wonderfully curated sampling of innovative works by African Americans. Spanning over a century and a half, these works subvert traditional norms of portraiture.