The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has been ramping up its acquisitions of African American art over the past few years.
Now, those recent acquisitions are going on view at the new exhibit, “Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South.”
“We’ve spent 28% of our privately endowed funds on African American art since 2015,” Alex Nyerges, director of the museum, said at a preview of the opening. “Most art museums are spending 2% on African American art.
“Our goal is to be in the top three (museums) in the world when it comes to African American art,” he said.
Quilts by the women of Gee’s Bend, Ala., sculpture by Thornton Dial and drawings by Purvis Young are just a few of the pieces highlighted in the new exhibit.
“The quilts are optically and visually stunning works of art,” Valerie Cassel Oliver, the VMFA’s contemporary art curator who arranged the exhibit, said. “The women who created these quilts were able to improvise upon known patterns to create innovative pieces of movement and color.”
Most of the quilts were created in the early 1970s, with the oldest dating to 1945. The quilts, made from fabric remnants and pieces of corduroy, were created by the women of several families, including the Bendolphs, Bennetts and Pettways, all of whom can trace their roots to slavery.
She compared the use of color in the quilts to that of Wassily Kandinksy.
“The colors are so unexpected,” Michael Taylor, the chief curator of the museum who also worked on the acquisitions, said. “This one, you sort of need to sunglasses to wear,” he said, pointing to one of the quilts.
Another, Jennie Pettway’s color-blocked “Housetop,” has a few stains on it from use.
“People slept under them, they kept warm in them during winter. And now they’re hanging in an art museum. There’s something wonderful about that,” Taylor said.
Colorful sculptures by Thornton Dial are shown at the center in the exhibit.
Dial was an Alabama metalworker at the Pullman Standard railroad car plant. When the plant closed in 1981, Dial devoted himself to making sculpture out of metal scraps and rods, as well as works on paper.
His artwork has been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. He died in 2016.
A book containing paintings and drawings by Purvis Young is also on view at the exhibit. Young was a self-taught artist from the Overtown neighborhood of Miami who gained a cult following.
The book was digitized and visitors can scroll through the pages to explore drawings in ballpoint pen, marker and paint.
Young’s work can also be found at the American Folk Art Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Philadelphia museum and at the Purvis Young Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He died in 2010.
The works in the exhibit come from the Atlanta-based Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which was created by art historian and collector William S. Arnett. He and his sons collected more than 1,200 works created by self-taught African American artists from the South. Their goal is to shed light on unknown parts of African American culture and history.
Nyerges described the museum’s newly built-up collection of African American art as “leap-frogging from great to the edge of spectacular. No one will be able to mention African American art without mentioning the VMFA.”