“Rather than choose between abstraction or realism, Lawrence deftly navigated between the two. ‘He found narrative to be very important. That act of storytelling and reviving history and really thinking about events of the past and how you communicate those in a very modern way—it was really central to his practice and his process as an artist,’ [curator Theresa Papanikolas] said.”
“The Langs were intentional in collecting art, he said, listening to friends and dealers but ultimately making independent decisions about what they liked. They lived with these paintings and sculptures; everything they owned was up on the wall or on display. And in a similar spirit, this donation is intended for the public good—these babies need to be seen.”
“‘It was amazing how many people recognized me the first couple of years I was here,” said Turner. “While walking down the street, I would often get asked the question was I the chief librarian.’ That appreciation was a pleasant and welcome surprise, but it didn’t put more pressure on Turner. Rather, it increased his awareness that it was more than just library staff and the board of directors keeping tabs on his performance. The Seattle community would also be a vocal stakeholder.”
“[Curator Lydia] Gordon is pinning her hopes on the huge community of Lawrence’s former students and supportive gallerists and curators in Seattle, where the painter lived for the last three decades of his life after leaving New York. ‘Oh, we’re totally going to find them!’ she said firmly.”
Rebekah is one of the most prominent women in the Hebrew Bible—a woman, whose act of kindness, decidedly shapes her future:
Rebekah went one evening to fill her water-jar at the well. As she was returning, a stranger in charge of a string of laden camels stopped the comely young girl and asked for a drink. She gave it to him and offered to draw water for his camels as well. He bestowed upon her a gold earring and two gold bracelets. The man was [Eliezer,] Abraham’s trusted servant, sent to find a wife for his master’s son Isaac from among his kinfolk. Having earlier enlisted the help of an angel, he knew that this was the girl he sought.
In this image, photographer Eveleen Tennant Myers (British, 1856-1937) pays homage to an important female figure, but also establishes herself as an artist of merit—one that employs skillful darkroom techniques, staging, and an austere composition to create a truly modern photograph.
Myers was born in 1856 to English society matron Gertrude Collier Tennant (1819-1918). Her mother’s connections and patronage of artists, and her own social position, allowed her to pursue her interests as a freelance artist, rather than a commercial one who depended on a steady income to make a living. Through her mother, Myers was acquainted with the cultural elite of her time: the writers Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo and painters Edward Burne-Jones, Frederic Leighton, and Edward John Poynter. As a girl, she was a sitter for Julia Margaret Cameron and this encounter had a profound impact on her pursuit of photography. As a young woman, she sat for some of England’s most prominent painters, including John Everett Millais and George Frederick Watts, and became familiar with the act of being a model.
Myers married poet and psychical researcher Frederic William Henry Myers (1843-1901) in 1879. He had seen her portrait by Millais, and exclaimed to his friend, the writer George Eliot, “I have fallen in love with the girl in that picture.” Around 1888, in the early years of motherhood, Myers began her work as a photographer using her own children as models.
Working under the well-known Cambridge photographer, Albert George Dew-Smith (1848-1903), Myers developed a firm grasp of the technical and expressive subtleties of the medium. Her experience as a model allowed her to develop an easy rapport with her subjects—the politicians, scientists, scholars, writers, and artists of her day—and assisted her in becoming a successful portraitist. Wanting to develop her artistic practice she worked to perfect her “pictorialist” compositions and darkroom techniques—she experimented with poses, settings, and costuming, and, like Cameron, often emulated poses and compositions of great master paintings.
Rebekah at the Well, created in 1891, is one of her best known “aesthetic” photographs. It establishes Myers as an important women photographer in late Victorian England. In depicting the Biblical matriarch, Myers implores the staging and costumes she might have seen in amateur theater productions, but it’s the austerity of the figure that makes the photograph modern. A critic of the day noted that Myers masterly handles the drapery of Rebekah’s robe, “reminding one of the folds of a Greek chitôn in some marble of the Attic age.” Her expertise in the darkroom is demonstrated in the tonal values achieved in the model’s dark hair and folds of her gown. “The structure of the living person is felt beneath the dress, which clothes but does not conceal the limbs.” 
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I chose this work as its creation involved a number of women: the women who played a role in creating an artist, Myers’s mother and Cameron; Rebekah, the woman who inspired the image; the model; and Myers, the photographer who constructed Rebekah at the Well.
– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian
 This succinct telling comes from Joan Comay, Who’s Who in the Old Testament, together with the Apocrypha (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971): p. 320; see also Chiara de Capoa, Old Testament Figures in Art (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003): p. 102-107.  Judy Oberhausen and Nic Peeters, “Eveleen Myers (1856-1937): Portraying Beauty: The rediscovery of a late-Victorian aesthetic photographer,” The British Art Journal v. 17, no. 1 (Spring 2016), pp. 94-102.  Judy Oberhausen and Nic Peeters, “Excavating the Work of Eveleen Myers: The Rediscovery of a Late Victorian Photographer,” Understanding British Portraits, https://www.britishportraits.org.uk/blog/excavating-the-work-of-eveleen-myers-the-rediscovery-of-a-late-victorian-photographer/ (accessed 2/25/2021) and Oberhausen, “Eveleen Myers,” p. 94.  Oberhausen, “Eveleen Myers,” p. 94-96.  Ibid., p. 99.  John Addington Symonds, “Mrs. F.W.H. Myers,” Sun Artists, no. 7 (April 1891): pp. 53-54.
Image: Rebekah at the Well, 1891, Eveleen Myers, photogravure, 7 x 4 7/16 in., Mary Arrington Small Estate Acquisition Fund, 188.8.131.52
Following the debut of the reinstalled and reimagined Asian Art Museum, SAM deepened its commitment to South Asian art by appointing Natalia Di Pietrantonio as the museum’s first-ever Assistant Curator of South Asian Art. In this new role, she’ll foster the next direction of the South Asian collection at SAM and collaborate with curatorial colleagues, especially Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, and FOONG Ping, Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art. Rachel Eggers, Associate Director of Public Relations, interviewed her to learn when she fell in love with South Asian art, her first exhibition for the museum, and the natural beauty of Seattle.
Tell us about your background and how you came to specialize in South Asian art.
I’ve loved art since I was very young and decided to study art history at UC Davis. During a required Asian art survey course, I found myself falling in love with South Asian art. It was completely unexpected! I had not been exposed to South Asian art before then, but starting with that one class it became my career.
I further developed this interest in the classroom of Heghnar Watenpaugh, a notable Islamicist who brought a gender studies approach to the study of art history. Based on a research paper that I wrote during one of Professor Watenpaugh’s courses, I decided to continue my studies and pursue graduate work at Columbia University. After completing a masters at Columbia, I completed a PhD at Cornell University. Both Columbia and Cornell have wonderful South Asian centers with excellent language programs, which were pivotal resources that enabled my research. After I completed my studies, I held two postdoctoral positions: one as the Consortium for Faculty Diversity Visiting Professor in South Asian Art History at Scripps College, and the other as a postdoctoral fellow at the Bard Graduate Center’s Islamic Art and Material Culture. Being hired in both South Asian and Islamic art history fields highlights my interdisciplinary training and diverse professional experience.
My personal and familial background is very different from my chosen career. Both of my parents were immigrants to this country: my father from Italy and my mother from Mexico. My mom in particular was very unsure of my chosen path in the arts but she remained supportive. As a museum curator, however, she recalls her own experiences in museums and sees a lot of value in my work bridging scholarship with community engagement and education through the arts.
Your inaugural exhibition for SAM at the Asian Art Museum, Skin as Allegory (working title), is tentatively scheduled for late 2021. How did you choose the focus for the show?
Due to Covid-19, we’ve had to be nimble. Initially, my first show would have concentrated solely on our historical permanent collection. However, as I became more aware of the important holdings within the private collections of the Seattle community, I expanded the theme of the exhibition to weave in these special works. Skin as Allegory will be the first special exhibition at the Asian Art Museum that blends contemporary and historical objects from South Asia. It will explore visual practices that contain representations and refigurations of the human body, featuring objects from the 3rd millennium BC to present day in a range of diverse material such as terracotta, bronze, metal, painting, and textiles.
You’ll see the poignant works of Chila Kumari Burman (b. 1957) and F.N. Souza (1924-2002) who were active members of British Black Arts Movement after they immigrated to London. In their work, they connect the representation of the body to the broader development of feminist, gender, and racial justice as they struggled against anti-Black racism as South Asians in England. Through their art, they fought for social and racial justice on behalf of communities who were part of the British crown’s former colonies, including those from Africa and Asia. Alongside these exciting loans will be works from our permanent collection, such as photographs by Pushpamala, whose work restages herself and her body to question gender norms in religious and national mythologies within the Indian public sphere.
As you see it, what is the future of this newly formed curatorial department at the Seattle Art Museum?
The future of the South Asian collection is in the hands of all of you! I see my role as an educator, facilitator, and more importantly someone who cares for the collection. I have many ideas of how we can grow the collection while at the same time balancing the need to do justice to our current permanent collection. I have devoted the majority of my career to the study of South Asian objects and have the privilege of working on behalf of this collection everyday. However, I also work on behalf of the public; curators do not act alone. Internally, we work in teams with wonderful colleagues. Externally, we speak and network with many students, collectors, donors, and art lovers.
SAM is the largest museum in the Pacific Northwest, and I have a duty to preserve and honor the current South Asian collection. At the same time, I need to explore how the collection can better reflect the Pacific Northwest community in all of its diversity. For instance, we can become a center for South Asian folk art, showcase more contemporary South Asian female artists, or highlight more artworks in new media to reflect this tech city. It’s a yes/and, not an either/or. I look forward to holding conversations with all of you about how you would like me to honor and grow the South Asian collection.
This exciting new position at SAM came at a very challenging moment in the world. How has it been for you, joining the museum in the midst of a global pandemic?
The SAM staff has been very welcoming. But it has been somewhat difficult to connect with the rest of the Seattle community. The general public is integral to curatorial practice. As a nonprofit, SAM holds its art collection in a public trust. For my work to be meaningful, it has to reflect public needs and desires. For the safety and health of everyone during the pandemic, we must all physically distance ourselves based on the information and advice coming from public health experts. Right now, a large part of my job as a curator and cultural facilitator cannot be undertaken in the usual manner of one-to-one meetings or large group gatherings.
So I, along with the rest of the SAM team, have moved to digital platforms to continually serve the public and bring art into your homes. I have also embraced more of the research aspect of my job, such as writing and researching on SAM’s permanent collection, since it can be undertaken in a more isolated fashion. In this regard, I recently published a research article in one of the most influential journals in my field, Modern Asian Studies. I look forward to the day when we can all safely be in front of the art again and develop more lively connections.
Tell us what you’ve been enjoying about Seattle so far. Any favorite places or experiences?
I have been enjoying the natural beauty of Seattle, waking up everyday to the sight of snowcapped mountains and the Puget Sound. As a former Californian, I forgot how much I missed seeing the mountains everyday! To live with such beauty is truly a gift. To soak up the sunshine as much as possible, I’ve been taking long walks to the Arboretum. My favorite place in Seattle so far is Golden Gardens Park. Any place where I can see and hear the ocean will forever be my favorite place to be.
This newly-created position would not be possible without the vision and generosity of the following individuals
Mimi Gardner Gates Anu and Naveen Jain Rajesh Jha and Sudha Mishra Shirish and Mona Nadkarni Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan Suri and Mala Raman Darshana Shanbhag and Dilip Wagle Gursharan and Elvira Sidhu Rubie and Pradeep Singh Narender and Rekha Sood Vijay and Sita Vashee
Skin as Allegory Supporting Sponsor Blakemore Foundation
Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggleopens this Friday, March 5, and tickets to opening weekend are already sold out! But, don’t worry, future dates are available and released on a rolling basis, every week on Thursdays. Meanwhile, we all love the sound of free—find out how you can experience this revolutionary story as told by Jacob Lawrence and contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas for free.
Free community passes are available to any requesting individual, family, or group as passes are available. Passes are especially those for whom the cost of a ticket is prohibitive and groups who have been historically excluded from the museum space due to systematic oppression, including communities of color, immigrant and refugee communities, low income communities, queer communities, and the disability community.
First Thursdays are back and better than ever starting April 1 (no foolin’)! Previously, admission to special exhibitions wasn’t included as part of Free First Thursday but now the entire museum, including The American Struggle, is free on the first Thursday of every month.
First Friday: With this reopening, we’ve also expanded benefits on First Fridays. Now, admission to The American Struggle is free for anyone 65 years and older and $7.99 for everyone else!
SAM is for everyone and we’re here to make sure anyone can see the art they love! Don’t forget, entry to SAM’s permanent collections is always suggested admission! You can experience our global collection year-round and pay what you want by calling our customer service center. At this time, capacity at the museum is limited and everyone must get tickets in advance of their visit. We can’t wait to see you at the museum again.
Last week, the Seattle Times announced some major news for SAM: The museum received a gift of 19 artworks and dedicated funds for their care and conservation from the Friday Foundation, which celebrates the legacy of two exceptional, art-loving philanthropists. The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection at SAM features significant examples of Abstract Expressionist and post-war European art and will be on view later this fall.
“Now the Bellini has been isolated in a room of its own, in a gallery bare as a monastic cell. Light falls, from the same angle as in the painting, through a small Breuer window that the Whitney and Met often obscured. As I sat in that empty room, the cold February sun streaming in, it felt like a space worth a pilgrimage.”
Artist Andy Warhol said, “Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there, but they can’t see…” Before getting started, it’s important to acknowledge the America that I live in: I am a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman who was born in the northeast United States during the 1980s. I am looking at a work of art created by Kerry James Marshall: a Black, cis-gendered, able-bodied man who was born in the segregated South during the 1950s. Both Marshall and I are artists and educators, but sadly I don’t have a MacArthur Genius Award or paintings in any major museums. I’ll be approaching this work of art using my own lens and the same facilitation strategy I use for my (now virtual) tours of SAM’s collection: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). VTS is used to spark dialogue and empower people to approach a work of art using their own observations and experiences, asking three simple questions. I encourage you to follow along and ask yourself these questions, noticing where our backgrounds may overlap or differ.
The first question of VTS is, “What’s going on in this picture?” This is a portrait of a young boy––his skin is a rich, dark black matte, and his features are defined by white outlines. He has heavy-lidded, almost tired eyes and his mouth is neutral, conveying an expression that is difficult to read. Radiating outward from his head are straight thin lines, evocative of a halo. The background is divided horizontally: the bottom third is a golden color, almost a desert landscape; the top is a deep blue overlaid with white shapes, bringing to mind a sky with clouds, though closer inspection reveals that the organic shapes are actually white roses. The paint looks to be hastily applied, as evidenced by the drip down the forehead of the young man. The drip, although white, mimics blood, similar to depictions of Christ or another martyr and links this to religious iconography.
The next question, “What do you see that makes you say that?” challenges our assumptions and biases. As we conclude Black History Month after a year of increased visibility in mainstream media of the racial inequities for Black Americans, I’ve seen myself get caught up in the imagery of Black trauma, recounting video and photos of the brutal murders of Brianna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Aubrey. I start to wonder if calling this Black figure a martyr is Marshall’s intention, or my own prejudice? Marshall’s own words confirm that I need to dig deeper: “I paint things I care about. It would have been easy to represent these places (and situations) as zones of hopelessness and despair, but I know they’re more complex than that.”
As I read the label, the curatorial voice chimes in and indicates that Marshall is memorializing Black boys who have lost their lives, stating that the leading cause of death for young, Black men is homicide. In fact, when comparing statistics among racial groups, Black youth (0-18 years old) are seven times more likely to die by homicide than white youth. As an educator, I also can’t help but think about the school-to-prison pipeline and the fact that Black students are three and half times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled, and that Black youth disproportionately make up those youth incarcerated in juvenile detention centers.
The final question is, “What more can we find?” The language here is intentional—creating meaning is a generative process. This is where, if I were actually speaking to people, I would hear different perspectives and my understanding of a work would evolve. However, when at home, I take this question as an invitation to start researching. After procrastinating on this blog post, watching hours of interviews with Marshall, I was especially struck by one quote by the artist: “If you’re constantly being reminded of the ways in which your history and your narrative as a people were rooted in loss and decay, then you’re in deep trouble. Once you make a certain kind of peace with the past, then you should be completely oriented towards speculation about the future.”
I challenge my initial response to this work. I start to see glimmers of hope in the white roses— symbols of youth, innocence, and new beginnings. I begin to unpack the ways that this painting may embody Afrofuturism, the cultural movement that explores the intersection of the African diaspora with technology, science, and liberation. A few Google searches quickly link the Eurocentric religious iconography that I saw in my art history classes to contemporary icons such as Solange Knowles’s appearance on SNL
In asking, “What more can we find?” we open ourselves up to dialogue and start to imagine a different world, a different America––maybe one that’s fantasy, or maybe one that could be our reality? Marshall’s work gives me hope and I’m reminded of the contemporary author and educator bell hooks’s words, “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is––it’s to imagine what is possible.”
– Kelsey Donahue, SAM Assistant Manager for Gallery Learning
The Friday Foundation has gifted 19 significant Abstract Expressionist artworks from the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection to SAM. In recognition of this occasion, SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda, sat down with Lyn Grinstein, President of the Friday Foundation, to discuss the gift’s impact, her late mother and stepfather Jane Lang Davis and Richard Lang, and their love for Seattle and the Seattle Art Museum.
Catharina Manchanda: Tell us a little bit about the history of Jane and Richard Lang’s collection.
Lyn Grinstein: My mother had always been a visual arts person, but we had lived overseas most of our lives and moved a lot, so she didn’t have the chance to collect art. Dick cared deeply about Seattle and about the Seattle Art Museum, a critical pillar in the cultural community. When they married in 1966, my mother could finally settle down and Dick was about to discover contemporary art.
In 1968 they bought a house in Medina and spent the next two years completely remodeling it. By 1970 they were in a new house, with a new living room, and a new couch with a big empty wall above it. And Mom said to Dick, “I think we should get just one really good painting to put above the sofa.”
Dick had graduated from Stanford University and had made great connections there, so they went to his friend, Dr. Al Elsen, an eminent art historian in the Stanford Art Department. With his guidance, they ended up with their first acquisition, the 1951 Franz Kline masterpiece, Painting No. 11. The exhilaration of learning, selecting, negotiating, and acquiring that first painting was addicting, and they were hooked, eventually filling their house with art.
Manchanda: Tell us a little bit about watching the house gradually fill up with art. What was it like from your perspective?
Grinstein: Mom and Dick had a wonderful time with it. We would all gather when a new crate arrived, and I remember particularly when the Adolph Gottlieb was delivered. It came shortly before Christmas, and when I saw it, I said, “It looks like a great big Christmas decoration with that beautiful red burst.” Mom gave me this, “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that” look.
Her office—where that ferocious 1960 Lee Krasner, Night Watch, and the brutally self-confrontational 1976 Philip Guston, The Painter, were facing each other—had been converted from a two-car garage, so the ceilings were low, and the room felt compressed. She enjoyed the tension between these two floor-to-ceiling tough paintings.
She created a mood of peace for the bedroom. Joan Mitchell’s The Sink was installed over the bed and dominated the room, flanked by Helen Frankenthaler’s contemplative Dawn Shapes. My mother and I sat on that bed, in front of that Mitchell and discussed every important decision in my life from the time I was 33 years old.
Manchanda: The Alberto Giacometti always looked so gorgeous in the living room near the windows.
Grinstein: Giacometti’s slender Femme de Venise II looked exactly like my mother. When they acquired it, she had that same hairstyle, and she had those long hands and legs and elongated body. I have a photo of her with her hair just like the Femme, standing in that living room in that same spot when the house was first completed.
Manchanda: What attracted Dick and Jane to these artists?
Grinstein: Abstract Expressionist art is so profoundly raw. When you think about the artists who were producing it, they were part of a community comprising intellectuals, many of whom had fled the most awful horrors in Europe. In America they had found a place where they could continue their rigorous inquiries without fear. That whole community—writers, architects, musicians, visual artists—met and exchanged ideas, each intensifying and clarifying the concepts of the other.
I think that was what attracted Mom and Dick to it. Neither one of them was a sentimental person. They were both smart, thoughtful, gutsy, and had lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They were strong people and the art they loved was created by equally strong people.
Manchanda: Dick and Jane were longtime SAM Trustees and it’s extraordinary that this collection is coming to SAM at this time. What do you think their hopes were for SAM and the city of Seattle?
Grinstein: When they were collecting in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Northwest was considered a young, quickly-evolving region. Some people really cared about experiencing and sharing art, like Jinny Wright and Mom. And some, like Dick, cared especially about the civic progress and had high aspirations for the city. He knew that a world-class museum would be essential to Seattle’s evolution.
As trustees of the Friday Foundation, our assignment is to consider all the expressed intentions and indications of the benefactors throughout their lives, and work to realize them today. Those intentions had to then be transformed through significant gifts to fulfill their vision. And the big vision was that Seattle would be a globally important player, and the visual and performing arts would be critical contributors, attracting international recognition.
The Langs hoped that the most significant artworks in their collection would join others already at SAM, and those yet to be given from the region’s premiere collections. They knew that the extraordinary quality of these works together would enable SAM to mount internationally significant exhibitions, for SAM as well as in partnership with their peer institutions around the world. If we do a good job, these works will provide an emotional and intellectual escape from the noise of everyday life.
Let’s bring everyone in and invite them to get inside themselves. That’s what these paintings can do for us if we give them time and quiet attention. They will talk back to you. Find the fire of the Clyfford Still, the calm of the Mitchell, the twilight of the Mark Rothko. These are powerful human emotions, and they are just under the surface of these objects. But it takes time, and it takes the commitment of the viewer to linger and absorb the emotions within these works. We hope everyone who passes through the galleries at SAM will give themselves the precious gift of lingering with these distinguished and profound objects.
Remember the snow days? (All two of ‘em?) The Stranger’s Charles Mudede had the wonderful idea to spend it with John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History, which is streaming on the Criterson Channel as part of its Afrofuturism collection.
“The pandemic has laid bare and amplified the issues that have eaten away at jazz far before the novel coronavirus’ first sour note. Those challenges include a daunting and shifting economic model, widespread lack of understanding among Americans about one of their few truly indigenous art forms, and underlying causes steeped, unsurprisingly, in race.”
The New York Times reports that the president of Newfields, home to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has resigned, after the organization posted a job posting for a new director that would attract a more diverse audience while maintaining its “traditional, core, white art audience.”
Artnet’s Brian Boucher on the New Museum’s new exhibition, Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, one of the final projects of curator Okwui Enwezor. A high-profile group of artists, curators, and scholars came together to achieve his vision.
“‘Okwui’s framing of the project takes the idea of a political crime and transfers it to the register of psychological impact,’ said curator Naomi Beckwith, who worked on the show, in a Zoom conversation with Artnet News. ‘The show’s title alludes not to a historic event, but rather to a state of being.’”
Last month, inaugural poet Amanda Gorman captured the country’s attention with the performance of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the Presidential inauguration, speaking of our country’s fractured history and hopes for its future:
“…being American is more than / a pride we inherit, / it’s the past we step into / and how we repair it.”
– Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb, 2021
In her words I’m reminded of those of another great American writer, which echo just as loudly now as they did over 60 years ago:
“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”
– James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village, 1955
If history is intractably part of the present, then how do we move forward? In Joseph Norman’s 1993 portrait of poet, essayist, novelist, and activist James Baldwin, history gazes directly out at the viewer. Made just five years after the influential writer’s death, Norman portrays him not as the larger-than-life figure he had become, but in an intimate and personal portrait. Baldwin faces straight ahead, his eyes aligned with our own, in direct confrontation—or perhaps conversation—with us as viewers. This perspective is one that Norman also employed in his Notorious series (examples of which are also in SAM’s collection), in which he asks viewers to read the humanity in the eyes of young Chicago gang leaders. “You do in a sense have pity on those boys,” the artist noted, “because you are looking directly into their eyes, and you see emptiness at times. You see that these are children.”
Norman imbues Baldwin’s iconic visage with this same sense of humanity and personal connection with the viewer. Stylistically, Norman eschews the sharpness of a photographic image and renders Baldwin in a darkly shaded and richly textured manner. With the seemingly unfinished upper left quadrant and thick diagonal line crossing Baldwin’s nose and eye, it reads more like a sketch than a finished portrait. Of his own work, Norman said: “The work has to have veracity, otherwise it is fantasy. So the type of work that I make is poetic realism.”
Poetic realism, indeed. What could be more real than the weighty gaze of history confronting us in the present, or more poetic than the suggestion of work still left to be done?
Norman titled the series that includes James Baldwin and other portraits of Black cultural icons, “The Last Poets.” But Baldwin himself had something to say about the idea of being the last of anything, as he wrote to his nephew, James, offering advice for the future:
“Great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy peasant stock… You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.
And, in the words of the latest in that long line of great poets:
“For while we have our eyes on the future, / history has its eyes on us.”
– Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb, 2021
With the eyes of history gazing out at us, may we all have the courage and wisdom of poets past and present to move towards that unknown future.
– Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A7el32Hd74w  James Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” in The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial Press, 1963).