The Harvard Art Museums have acquired U.S.A. Idioms (2017), a monumental drawing created by artist Kara Walker in the summer of 2017 amid heightened political turmoil and racial violence across the country. This unrest culminated most visibly in the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August that left one dead and more than twenty injured.
The large-scale work—nearly 12 by 15 feet—was included in Walker’s highly regarded Fall 2017 exhibition, Sikkema Jenkins and Co. is Compelled to Present the Most Astounding and Important Painting show of the fall Art Show viewing season!, presented at the New York gallery.
In her artist’s statement for the exhibition, written and delivered after the Charlottesville rally, Walker wrote: “I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice,’ or worse, ‘being a role model.’ Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche… I roll my eyes, fold my arms, and wait. How many ways can a person say racism is the real bread and butter of our American mythology…?”
Walker became famous in the 1990s for large-scale, cut-paper, silhouetted figures that narrate her candid investigations of race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity. In 2014, the artist gained still more renown with A Subtlety, the gargantuan “sugar sphinx” installed in the defunct Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn. Her latest work, which merges collage, political cartooning, and history painting, has been described by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith as “a brawl of works on paper.” In U.S.A. Idioms, the artist explores a theme that has long been evident in her work: the brutal legacies of slavery, including the simmering racism and oppression that remain painfully present today. Using sumi ink on paper, Walker renders her by now iconic African American figures and their oppressors within a sparse landscape of knotty, twisted tree trunks and bare limbs, cutting and pasting these figures and the landscape onto an enormous white-gessoed ground. The work is a volatile collage of recognizable figures from Walker’s oeuvre; multiple narratives play out and interweave in a statement that is as monumental in its message as in its scale.
“This is a powerhouse of a work—provocative in its subject and scale and also, as a drawing, incredibly beautiful and technically exhilarating,” said Martha Tedeschi, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums. “Given the teaching and learning mission of the Harvard Art Museums, and our legacy as a site for the study of great drawings from across time and place, it feels especially appropriate us for to bring this new and compelling work to Cambridge. Harvard’s president Drew Gilpin Faust, a scholar of the Civil War, slavery, and the American South, has drawn attention to the university’s institutional history and has prompted the campus community to examine painful realities of African American heritage that have until recently remained unspoken and unaddressed. Walker’s willingness to foreground ‘contentious images and objectionable ideas,’ to use the artist’s own words, challenges us to look, not look away.”
The acquisition of U.S.A. Idioms comes as Faust completes her final year as president of Harvard; it is the among the first major purchases of contemporary art under Tedeschi, who became director of the Harvard Art Museums in July 2016. The museums are currently developing an exhibition plan for U.S.A. Idioms.
The acquisition of the work was orchestrated by Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Edouard Kopp, the Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings. The two have been working together with other colleagues at the Harvard Art Museums to bolster the collection of contemporary drawings. Well aware of Kara Walker’s work and impact, they actively sought to acquire a major example of her draftsmanship. They were among the first museum representatives to reserve one of Walker’s new works from the Sikkema Jenkins & Co. exhibition.
“Kara Walker is one of the most thought-provoking and ground-breaking artists of our time,” said Schneider Enriquez. “She has an incomparable vision, articulating biting issues like racism, oppression, and gender in a way that demonstrates her mastery of visual expression.” Added Kopp: “You know a great work of art when you see one. Here is a magisterial drawing that combines graphic power, expressive force, and narrative ambiguity on the grand scale of history painting. Intensely thought-provoking and sadly topical, U.S.A. Idioms seems to both invite and defy interpretation.”
Schneider Enriquez and Kopp expect that U.S.A. Idioms will draw interest from a wide variety of disciplines, including history, law, literature, political science, religion, philosophy, art history, and visual and environmental studies. The museums will support exploration of Walker’s themes, as well as her artistic practice as a whole, both in the galleries and in the Art Study Center, where students, scholars, and general visitors can view other works by Walker in the collections.