30 Americans at the Corcoran Gallery

1 of
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat
    Bird On Money, 1981
    Courtesy the Corcoran Gallery

  • Nick Cave
    Soundsuit, 2008
    Courtesy the Corcoran Gallery

  • Mickalene Thomas
    Baby I Am Ready Now, 2007
    Courtesy the Rubell Family Collection/Contemporary Arts Foundation

  • Kara Walker
    Camptown Ladies, 1998
    Courtesy the Rubell Family Collection/Contemporary Arts Foundation

  • Kehinde Wiley
    Equestrian Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares, 2005
    Courtesy the Rubell Family Collection/Contemporary Arts Foundation

Every once in a while, we are gifted with an exhibition that reminds us just how spectacular black art can be—30 Americans is that exhibition. Now on display at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C., 30 Americans features 76 works from the Rubell Family Collection by 31 black artists—many of whom sparked my interest in art.
Imagine three decades of artwork created by some of America’s most influential artists; the show was grand to say the least. It’s hard to pick highlights from a show with so many fantastic works, but visitors flocked to works by Kehinde Wiley, Nick Cave, Jean Michel Basquiat and Mickalene Thomas.

In naming the show, the Rubell family noted their conscious choice to call the show “30 Americans” instead of “30 Black Americans” or “30 African Americans.” They wanted to encourage the audience to ponder the ways in which each individual artist tackles identity and race. Like Freestyle (2001)—one of the Studio Museum in Harlem’s most well known exhibitions—30 Americans aims to demonstrate the artists’ diverse perspectives on blackness.

Upon entering the gallery I began speaking with a museum guard standing under Kehinde Wiley’s, Equestrian Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares (2005). I asked him about the success of the exhibition and he mentioned that he had never seen as many black people at the Gallery as he had in the week since the show’s opening on October 1st. We began to speak about the works and the guard mentioned Kara Walker’s Camptown Ladies (1998). Walker’s art is known for its complex themes that often force viewers to ponder extensively. Although the guard did not draw immediate conclusions as to the meaning of the work, he recognized its value—it is a work about black history.
For the guard and for many visitors, 30 Americans inspires a sense of pride for black art enthusiasts.  The Corcoran Gallery promotes the Say It Loud program—inspired by James Brown’s 1968 hit song—which uses videos, social media, and public events as outlets for visitors to express their enthusiasm for the exhibition.  Just outside of the gallery at the Corcoran is a wall for people to write their immediate responses upon leaving the exhibition.

The 30 Americans exhibition is sandwiched between Hank Willis Thomas: Strange Fruit and Gordon Parks: Photographs from the Collection. It was as if the Corcoran created a Black Art section, separate from the rest of the museum. The celebration of black art was clear and appreciated. However, it was hard for me to really appreciate the varying expressions of identity in this environment; the organization contradicted the Rubell Family Foundation’s objective of highlighting the each artist’s individualized approach to exploring race.

Still, the artwork in the show is undoubtedly awe inspiring.  I found myself holding back tears for much of my journey through the galleries. The show was much more to me than a show about blackness. It proved that all of the artists were fantastic artists in their own right, who just happened to be black.