Lewis

‘A Face Is Not Just a Face’: Is It Finally Time for the Gay Gaze of Unsung Portraitist Gilbert Lewis?


“I didn’t realize until recently what a profound effect he had on my life,” Anthony Rullo said of the Philadelphia-based figurative painter Gilbert Lewis. He first posed for him in 1986, and would do so, about twice a week, for $6 an hour for the next ten years.

At the time, Rullo was 23 and working at a clothing boutique on South Street, which was still a buzzing bohemian and nightlife area. “My life was total chaos,” he recalled. “I was struggling to pay the rent, going out to clubs, and partying.” Lewis’s studio was nearby, and Rullo would come by after work for two-hour sessions. It didn’t even look like anyone lived there. Paintings were stacked all around. The few pieces of furniture looked scavenged from the street. No TV. No answering machine. The artist was only about 41 at the time, but seemed much older to Rullo.

An undated photo of Gilbert Lewis. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

An undated photo of Gilbert Lewis. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

Gilbert Lewis always wore a uniform of khakis and a chambray shirt and was almost as broke as Rullo. It confounded Rullo that selling his work was not part of Lewis’s process. He didn’t even seem to try and would deflect any suggestions. “I know that I’m a good painter,” he said to him. “When I’m dead somebody’s gonna find my paintings and then I’ll be famous and I’ll be appreciated.”

Each day, Lewis painted the pendulum of life. He worked as an art therapist in a nursing home. By day, he painted portraits of the elderly, engaging with them as he rendered them.

Tribute, September 5, 1984, by Gilbert Lewis. Gouache on paper, 39 x 59 1/2 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2017)

Gilbert Lewis, Tribute, September 5, 1984. Gouache on paper, 39 x 59 1/2 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2017)

“One of my motivations in painting has been to celebrate the beginning of adulthood for the young and the final period of life for the old,” Lewis said in a 2004 catalogue interview. “What struck me is that both young men and the old are ignored by society. Despite our ostensible focus on youth, young men are in a sort of nether world, no longer teenagers and yet not full adults. They’re in transition with no established identify and no real place in society.” After work, his salary went to paying the male models who populated his vision.

Both jobs could bleed into each other. “When I’d sit for him, it felt like a therapy session,” Rullo said. “He’d want to know all about you. Going to Gilbert’s was the only thing in my life that was normal, consistent, and calm.” These sessions were reciprocally beneficial to Lewis. Most of the portraits took place in his studio and say as much about the painter as they do the subject, documenting intimate human connection and exchange and a pathway of desire.

Rullo insisted he wasn’t a muse, just one of the legion of models who posed for Lewis. The 60 or so portraits produced over the decade prove otherwise and are a fascinating, varied series. The artist would give Rullo slide images of the completed paintings. Many years later, Rullo lined them up in chronological order.

A selection of the slides Gilbert Lewis would give Anthony Rullo after completing a portrait of him. There are around 60 completed works. Courtesy of Anthony Rullo.

A selection of the slides Gilbert Lewis would give Anthony Rullo after completing a portrait of him. There are around 60 completed works. Courtesy of Anthony Rullo.

“I could see the trajectory of my life,” he said. “The beginning pictures, I look very young and innocent. And then my attitude toward life changed.” Anthony Rullo was diagnosed with AIDS. “There was no medication, there was no treatment. You could lose your job, your friends, your family,” he said. “I never told Gilbert. You wouldn’t even tell a gay brother or anything. My boyfriend and I and people at that time that were positive, kind of had this ‘fuck it’ attitude. You’d open credit cards and max them out. I’m never paying for this stuff! I was buying expensive clothes, and what I was doing, maybe subconsciously, was creating my legacy. This is how I wanted to be remembered, in these gorgeous clothes. Like I was some important person, which I wasn’t.”

Anthony Rullo wearing a Jean-Paul Gaultier top in 1987. Courtesy of Anthony Rullo.

Anthony Rullo wearing a Jean-Paul Gaultier top in 1987. Courtesy of Anthony Rullo.

On the day his boyfriend Keith died in 1990, Rullo went to Lewis’s for a session and the truth came out. “He was shocked. Why didn’t you tell me? For the whole year of 1990, every picture looks like I’m crying. Then over time the next five years, you see another change. By the end I’m doing nude paintings and they’ve become more sophisticated.”

Like much of his work, Lewis’s series of Anthony Rullo is a meditation on male beauty and form. But he also captured the gay emotional condition in the throes of the AIDS epidemic. “But he wasn’t making a political statement,” Anthony says.

Lewis was out-of-step with the straight art world for being too gay, but his longing gaze was anachronistic in the queer art of the time—lacking the transgression and hypersexuality of Robert Mapplethorpe or the clarion militantism of David Wojnarowicz and other firebrands in the Act Up 1980s. The tide has now shifted where the quieter voices from the era are now being recognized.

In an undated artist state, Lewis wrote: “The painting of a face is not just a face. My feelings are expressed through these images. My paintings speak to anyone in touch with their own humanity; to anyone else my art may be dismissed as ‘too personal.’”

Rullo stopped sitting for the artist in 1996 and moved to Miami in 2008. They remained friends and kept in touch until they couldn’t. Gilbert Lewis is in a Pennsylvania nursing facility with advanced stage Alzheimer’s. His large body of work must speak for him, and it seems the world is now ready to listen.

Untitled [Dennis Dunwoody], December 2, 1981 (L) and Untitled [Dennis Dunwoody], October 10, 1981, by Gilbert Lewis. Gouache on paper. (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2020)

Untitled [Dennis Dunwoody], December 2, 1981 (L) and Untitled [Dennis Dunwoody], October 10, 1981, by Gilbert Lewis. Gouache on paper. (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2020)

“The special part of Gilbert’s work is just how contemporary it was,” said Daniel Kapp. “As young gay men just looking around the room, we see ourselves in all of these works.” Earlier this month he was at Kapp Kapp, the Tribeca gallery he co-founded with his brother, installing “Portraits 1979–2002,” the Gilbert Lewis solo exhibition they curated (until February 25). It’s an inspired and intimate primer.

Installation View: Gilbert Lewis Portraits 1979 – 2002. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

Installation view, “Gilbert Lewis Portraits 1979–2002.” The Swimmer is in the foreground. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

Anthony Rullo makes some striking cameos, and the charcoal sketches carry emotional resonance and are installed atop a Gilbert Lewis nautical wallpaper design. Some portraits seem like quick, casual neighborhood visits in his daily painting routine. He’s most compelling when he’s serenely grandiose, as in the languid, sumptuous Untitled (Basking Nude) of 1985 and The Swimmer (1984). The latter is on loan from Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, who presented a solo Lewis show of 49 paintings in 2004 when it was a much smaller institution. It was his first and only solo show in the city, and the museum is the only New York institution to have his work in their permanent collection.

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled (Basking Nude), 1985 Signed and dated '5-19-85' Gouache on paper 60 x 44 inches

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled (Basking Nude), 1985 Signed and dated ‘5-19-85’ Gouache on paper 60 x 44 inches. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

“A big part of why we’re so interested in his work is this anonymity to New York City, at least in the last 20 years,” said Daniel Kapp. “He flew under the radar in Philly too. There really wasn’t a market for his work. The male nude is still not the most popular thing to buy. Lewis had contemporaries working in similar ways in New York, and those artists have gotten more of their dues.”

If the Kapp Kapp show doesn’t edge Gilbert Lewis into greater art world acceptance, it should at least push him into the greater gay canon beyond being a regional luminary.

The year 2020 should have been the year Gilbert Lewis broke into the mainstream. A quadruple blitz of overlapping solo exhibitions in Philadelphia coincided with the pandemic, which limited the impact of the joint efforts at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (“Only Tony” was comprised solely of Anthony Rullo portraits), the William Way Community Center, Kapp Kapp’s prior locale. The Woodmere Art Museum’s robust survey, “Many Faces, Many Figures” captured the painter’s expansive scope.

Untitled, February 2, 1982, by Gilbert Lewis. Gouache on paper, 22 1/4 x 30 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of Eric Barton Rymshaw, 2017)

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled, February 2, 1982. Gouache on paper, 22 1/4 x 30 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of Eric Barton Rymshaw, 2017)

“Gilbert was thought of in the arts community as one of the major figurative artists working in his time,” Valerio said, “and somebody who managed to define a compelling idea of what realism could be. Historically, the mainstream of the arts in Philadelphia is realism. We’re the town of Thomas Eakins and Charles Wilson Peale. Gilbert Lewis attended PAFA. He went through the curriculum that was designed by Eakins: Paint what you see, paint what you feel, don’t be afraid of your sexuality. It all comes out in his work.”

He continued, “A lot of people have said that Gilbert didn’t achieve the success that he should have because his subjects were perceived to be gay. Gilbert wanted people to pose in the way they wanted, the way they wanted to be seen.”

After getting his BFA from Philadelphia College of Art in 1974, Gilbert Lewis worked at the Aramis cologne counter at the Wanamaker’s department store, which at the time was a gay hotbed. He decamped to New York for a stint at Bloomingdales. It was a disastrous detour. He lived in a hovel, had no money, and was mugged. He returned to Pennsylvania for a career pivot and in 1978 received his master’s degree in Creative Arts Therapy from Hahnemann University (his thesis was “The Spontaneous Art Productions of an Institutionalized Geriatric Population”).

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled (Designer Jeans), 1982 Gouache on paper 30 x 22 inches

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled (Designer Jeans), 1982 Gouache on paper, 30 x 22 inches. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

“Therapists become therapists because they need their own therapy,” said Eric Rymshaw, who met him 1979. “He had an odd, unsupportive family. His father was in the military. They lived near a military base in Norfolk, Virginia. Gilbert’s brother never acknowledged him after he came out.”

Rymshaw and Lewis dated for three years. Art was a lynchpin. “A lot of our time was going to museums,” Rymshaw recalled. “In 1982 we followed David Hockney around the Metropolitan Museum. I wouldn’t go up and say hello. Gilbert loved Hockney. He liked paintings that looked fresh and, didn’t look overworked. Immediacy mattered. So, when Gilbert was painting, it was about what he saw, and immediately putting it on canvas, there were never layers and layers and overworking and reworking.”

Still Life with Tulip, 1984, by Gilbert Lewis. Gouache on Arches paper, 22 x 30 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of Eric Rymshaw and James Fulton, 2017)

Gilbert Lewis, Still Life with Tulip (1984). Gouache on Arches paper, 22 x 30 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of Eric Rymshaw and James Fulton, 2017)

Rymshaw remembered bringing a lily home from a wedding Lewis wouldn’t attend with him. “Flowers would inevitably go to the studio, he loved them,” Rymshaw said. Lewis spent the following days drawing a series of the bloom decomposing.

“Gilbert painted every day,” he said. “One of the reasons that we didn’t survive was that he so intensely wanted to be in his studio, painting. There was never any time for me. He was always having people come in. He did everything from live models. He never did any photography.”

He added, “Gilbert was sexually driven. I was always very aware that often. I’m sure he had sex with many of the young men.”

Reclining, 1987, by Gilbert Lewis. Gouache on paper, 40 x 48 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2016)

Gilbert Lewis, Reclining (1987). Gouache on paper, 40 x 48 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2016)

Lewis’s business acumen mixed obstinance with self-sabotage. “He hated commissions. A couple of friends commissioned him to paint their kids and he never finished the paintings.” The artist was a perennial at local art shows and group shows. “He’d always cause a problem by what he chose to put on the walls,” Rymshaw said. “He hated the gallery system and how they treated him.”

Rymshaw would overlap with Lewis socially sporadically throughout the years and remembered Anthony Rullo. “Tony was a fashionista and very much an aesthete,” Rymshaw said. “That was their commonality. I would party with them a little bit, and he met many models through Tony’s social circle. All of Gilbert’s attempts at finding his art seemed to happen through Tony. Whether it was a sketch or finished work, if you put them in a row you can see Gilbert trying out one style to another through Tony and it allowed him to experiment.”

Rymshaw met his current partner James Fulton (the two have an architecture and design firm). They’d buy paintings from Lewis when he’d run out of money, and place some with clients.

Gilbert Lewis in 1988. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

Gilbert Lewis in 1988. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

Lewis eventually settled down with an abstract painter named Doug Bealer whom he met when he was an art school senior. Doug moved into his sparse row house. Each occupied a separate floor and painted in symbiotic isolation. Their relationship lasted many years. After Doug moved out, he committed suicide about a year later. “That’s sort of when Gilbert started to change, and I think not appreciate life as much,” Rymshaw said.

In 2015, the painter Bill Scott ran into Lewis, who hadn’t shown up at the opening of a group show Scott had recently put him in. Scott greeted him. “He was standing there very politely, kind of with armor on, like he had a boundary. He finally said very politely, ‘Excuse me, but have we met?’ And I said, ‘Gilbert, I’ve known you since 1974.’” Scott contacted Rymshaw and the two began meeting at the artist’s house, which was in a state of severe disrepair, to assist him.

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled (Laying Man), c. 1980 Charcoal and graphite on paper 22 1/4 x 30 inches

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled (Laying Man), ca. 1980. Charcoal and graphite on paper 22 1/4 x 30 inches. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

Even when they were boyfriends, despite being younger, Rymshaw was the caregiver of the pair. That dynamic maintained after their breakup throughout their friendship and would evolve to a higher plane. “I don’t think we actually ever fell out of love,” Rymshaw said. Lewis’s dementia progressed and he had to be moved to a full-time facility. Rymshaw and his husband Jim supported his round-the-clock nursing care for over five years.

Rymshaw became director of his estate, and he and Bill Scott began cataloguing the estimated 400 artworks that filled his row house. For the first time in Lewis’s career, there was a concerted sales effort behind him with funds raised going directly to his care. Many works were donated to museums, such as the Woodmere, to maintain his legacy. “These were important pieces that I didn’t want to end up going into some mysterious collection,” Rymshaw said. Their efforts led to the 2020 exhibitions in Philadelphia.

Scott said of the vast archive, “He was out of step with the world and with the trends. It was like looking at a bunch of portraits by Hans Memling for me. You know how you can look at Renaissance portraits and write ten novels about them from what you intuit from seeing them. Gilbert created a whole world of characters.”

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The Art World at Home: Amani Lewis Is Painting Portraits of Family and Reflecting on Artist Charles White’s Wise Words


Just five years out of art school, Amani Lewis has gained a long list of admirers for the artist’s portraits, which use digital imaging, photo manipulation, collage, and textile to create vivid images of the people in their community.

It is not surprising, then, that Lewis is equally skilled at bringing together the work of other artists to create a show that serves as a snapshot of their creative circle of influence.

Lewis, who lives between Baltimore and Miami, brought together the work of 13 artists, including Shaunté Gates, Ambrose Murray, and Khari Turner, for “When Two or More are Gathered,” an exhibition on the art-sales platform LiveArt and on view IRL at Sperone Westwater in New York. The works were consigned directly from the artists, who also set the pricing and will have input into their final sale.

Ahead of an anticipated debut solo show at Salon 94, Lewis checked in with us from their Miami home and studio.

Amani Lewis, Celestial Kiki: Ode to Lit Liv (2021).

What are you working on right now?

I’ve just curated a show with LiveArt, “When Two or More Are Gathered,” which opened June 29. The show features 13 artists whom I love dearly and whose crafts I greatly respect.

I’m also super excited for a solo show opening with Salon 94 in New York in November. All of the paintings in the exhibition will be of close family members who’ve raised me, or contributed to the person I am today. It’s really a tribute to them—it’s about them, and for them.  

Walk us through the when, where, and how of your approach to that project on a regular day.

This exhibition truly started as a collection effort on my part. I wanted work from all of these artists for myself and eventually started engaging with them over Instagram.

Pretty quickly, I realized there was a synergy between all of these artists; many of them were in partnerships together, which was a beautiful thing to see. Knowing that, you can observe where one is influencing and supporting the other in the work. But these observations just prompted more conversations and dialogue about friendship, reciprocity, romance, growth—all good things.

We all rode that wave together to make things happen. It’s been a team effort all the way through—Marisa Kayyem from LiveArt has played a huge role, and all of the artists have heavily participated in the process. 

"When Two or More are Gathered," LiveArt.

“When Two or More are Gathered,” LiveArt.

What is your favorite part of your house and why?

My living room in Miami is my favorite part of my house. I have this beautiful balcony that lets in natural light, without any building blocking the view. I get to see the sunset every day, and it’s always different and calming. The living room also happens to be where my PS5 is… so I get to play video games, be with the sun, sit on my luxury couch and just be.  

What’s your favorite work of art in the house and why?

I just bought a piece by Hana Yilma Godine, who’s an Ethiopian artist represented by Fridman Gallery. 

When Iliya Fridman showed me her exhibition, I immediately had a deep connection to this particular work of a woman and her mother. The mother-guardian is sitting in a chair, with her daughter’s body overlaying her own; the two women share space, but there’s a protective element with the daughter being foregrounded, the mother nested in the background.

Godine’s use of the canvas—the way she breaks out of the conventional rectangle and adds an extension, or annex, where the work continues on, stretched—is breathtaking. I was just drawn to the subject matter, and how she handled it.  

Exhibition view, featuring the work of Murjoni Merriweather and Adrian Armstrong

What was the last thing that made you laugh out loud?

I laugh all day, every day.  

Are there any movies, music, podcasts, publications, or works of art that have made a big impact on you recently?

A Quiet Place Part II was an extraordinary film. So was A Quiet Place. Watch them now. 

Are these any causes you support that you would like to share?

Recently the podcast Being Seen asked to include my artwork for the cover of their episode, “The Trans Masculine Experience,” [described as] “an exploration of masculinities through the eyes of trans-masculine people, gender-expansive individuals, and the ones who love us.”

Trans-Masculinity is a cause I care about and live, and being seen on this podcast and in general feels good—it’s something I want for those who want it. There are infinite causes I want to get to and care about, but I’m starting where I am. 

What’s going on in the kitchen these days? Any projects? And triumphs or tragedies?

Lamb. Lamb’s cooking in the kitchen, properly seasoned with rosemary and thyme. Bathed in butter.

In the art kitchen, the focus is my solo exhibition at Salon 94 in November. I’m solely focused on this tribute to my family, which is a first step in sharing myself more intimately as opposed to sharing other people.

There’s more of me in the pipeline. 

Amani Lewis in the studio. Photo: Albert Grant.

Amani Lewis in the studio. Photo: Albert Grant.

Which two fellow art-world people, living or dead, would you like to convene for dinner, and why?

I hope I’d get to be at this dinner. I’d absolutely bring together Charles White and Gordon Parks.

White’s words have stuck with me the most through time. He said—and I may be paraphrasing—”As a Black artist your work has to have the forces of liberation embedded into it. You have to be talking about freedom.” What I appreciate about White’s work is that talking about freedom doesn’t equate critiquing society through harsh images. Rather, it’s depicting what we want freedom to look like for us.

Parks did the same thing, sharing images of black people mining, playing in water bursting out of fire hydrants; he archived an everyday existence, which is important because we need to be represented everywhere, in various contexts. 

I’d want to talk to these two artists about how they managed to see this road forward, and thank them for seeing it.

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Art Historian Sarah Lewis on Why Black Artists Have Been ‘Over-Exhibited and Under-Theorized’


This article is part of a series of conversations with scholars engaged with Black art for Black History Month. See also Folasade Ologundudu’s interviews with Richard J. PowellBridget R. Cooks, and Darby English.

***

One cannot consider the present-day field of African American art history without mention of Sarah Lewis. The associate professor of the History of Art and Architecture and African and African-American studies at Harvard University whose groundbreaking Vision & Justice project has become a part of Harvard’s core art history curriculum is a force to be reckoned with.

With her widely watched 2017 TEDX Talk on visual imagery as a change agent for narratives of Black life, Lewis argued that the power of photography can affect our perceptions of justice, reshaping our understanding of society. She has served both on Obama’s National Arts Policy Committee and as a curatorial advisor for Brooklyn’s high-profile Barclays Center.

In correspondence, Lewis shared the intimate family moments that propelled her into the fields of academia and art, the ways in which Black artists combat injustice through their work, and how the field of study—African American art and art history—has changed over the past two decades.

 

What is your personal story of entering the field? What initially drew you to the fields of art history, architecture, photography, and social justice? 

I came into the field because of my grandfather, Shadrach Emmanuel Lee. He was expelled in the 11th grade from a New York City public school for daring to ask why his history textbooks only showed images of white Americans. He wanted to know where the whole world was, and didn’t believe the teacher who said, in that year of 1926, that African Americans in particular had done nothing to merit inclusion. His pride was so wounded after being expelled for daring to ask about this that he never went back to school. But he became a painter, and, a bit like the impulse of a Kerry James Marshall or Kehinde Wiley, if you will, created images where he knew he should have been able to expect to find us.

My name, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, is meant to honor my grandfather. I wish he could see that I’m now teaching and researching the very topics that he was expelled for asking about nearly 100 years ago, focusing on representational justice.

By the time I got to college, I thought I was going to be a painter. I learned to draw and paint at my grandfather’s knee. But I got hooked on the history of the field after a few history of art classes. A proctor in my freshman dorm room sensed my interests and, I’ll never forget it, gave me one of Richard Powell’s fantastic books, Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (Thames & Hudson, 1997). (Ironically enough, in full disclosure, I joined the board of Thames & Hudson last month). She signed the book, “with great expectations.” At home, my parents had a few books by Deborah Willis out in our living room. The signs were all around.

What would you say the status of Black art history within the discipline of art history today? Is progress being made?


That is a great question and an important one. The status of Black art history—African American, African diasporic or Black Atlantic art history—within the discipline is that it no longer needs a status update—a good thing. It exists. It is established. I am fortunate to be working at a time when that is the case. We salute not only the extraordinary senior art historians working today for that fact, but the legacy and lineage of those who also made this possible—including James Porter, Alain Locke, David Driskell, and so many more.

Art historian James A. Porter. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Art historian James A. Porter. (Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Your first museum job was at the Museum of Modern Art and you’ve worked at the Tate in London. Can you briefly describe these experiences, and some of the biggest observations you made about the institutions with regards to their approach to the stewardship and/or lack thereof of African American art and history?

I’ve been so fortunate with the curatorial opportunities I worked for early on. After a brief internship at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I worked as a curatorial intern at the Tate Modern in London, working directly with Donna De Salvo before she came to the United States and worked at the Whitney. I was in graduate school then. She was wonderful to learn from; a clear, visual thinker.

After graduating from Oxford University and the Courtauld, I worked at the Museum of Modern Art in two departments—the Department of Painting and Sculpture and then the Department of Photography. I supported Robert Storr on his retrospective of Elizabeth Murray. Working with them both opened my eyes to so much about the politics of the art world.

Installation view of "The Dissolve," the 2010 SITE Santa Fe Biennial, co-curated by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis and Daniel Belasco. (Photo courtesy SITE Santa Fe.)

Installation view of “The Dissolve,” the 2010 SITE Santa Fe Biennial, co-curated by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis and Daniel Belasco. (Photo courtesy SITE Santa Fe.)

I also co-curated the SITE Santa Fe Biennial in 2010 and then became the inaugural curator at the Barclays Center. What shifted my path was when I was asked to research the holdings of African American art in the collection at MoMA and this is what fueled much of my time there. I would stay late, very late, just studying the collection.

At MoMA, I realized that we can get so fixated on the “what” that we forget the “why.” I needed to go to graduate school full time in order to place my study of African American art in a historic context.

In your opinion, how do museums and institutions hold power within the realm of art history? How do they continue to shape our views of what African American art history is as a field of study and a culturally lived experience? 


Another important question. Museums are central for establishing and redefining the narratives that shape the history of the field. In fact, much of the field of African American art was forged through arguments made via exhibitions. One good example is David Driskell’s “Two Centuries of Black American Art” at LACMA.

Poster for David Driskall's "Two Century of Black American Art" at LACMA, featuring Charles White, <em>I Have a Dream</em> (1976).

Poster for David Driskall’s “Two Century of Black American Art” at LACMA, featuring Charles White, I Have a Dream (1976).

What is interesting about our current moment, however, is that we are seeing, I would argue, power shift not so much away from museums, but becoming shared with the work of scholarship to properly position Black artists within the grand narrative of history. When you study the work of even the most celebrated Black artists—as I noted when finishing the MIT Press October File on Carrie Mae Weems—you often find that their work has been over-exhibited and under-theorized, and this has created an asymmetry between acclaim and the discourse on their work. This has all sorts of consequences for market value, yes, but for me, most importantly, their place within history.

Cover of <em>October Files: Carrie Mae Weems</em>, edited by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis (MIT Press, June 2021).

Cover of October Files: Carrie Mae Weems, edited by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis (MIT Press, June 2021).

You guest-edited the award-winning “Vision & Justice” issue of Aperture (May 2016) and developed the related “Vision and Justice: The Art of Citizenship” course at Harvard, which has become part of the core curriculum. How will these two important efforts affect change in the study and focus of African American art history? 


My hope is that this ongoing Vision & Justice Project supports the investigation of the inextricable connections between art and law in this country, a relationship best studied through an investigation of the history of Black cultural production. Lately, this project has extended into a discussion about what we mean by the figure/ground relationship and opened up a question about Black art teaching us about what we call the ground.

One of two covers of <em>Aperture</em> 223, "Vision and Justice," featuring Richard Avedon, <em>Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights leader, with his father, Martin Luther King, Baptist minister, and his son, Martin Luther King III, Atlanta, Georgia</em> (1963).

One of two covers of Aperture 223, “Vision and Justice,” featuring Richard Avedon, Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights leader, with his father, Martin Luther King, Baptist minister, and his son, Martin Luther King III, Atlanta, Georgia (1963).

How are artists, and how is the discipline of art history, responding to the hyper-visuality of racial injustices on American ground? We see that a number of artists including Mark Bradford, Theaster Gates, Amy Sherald, Xaviera Simmons, Hank Willis Thomas, and Kehinde Wiley, and new landmarks such as the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, have initiated a set of what I consider to be “groundwork” aesthetics in the Stand Your Ground Era (see Art Journal, Winter 2020 issue).

By “groundwork,” I mean a set of aesthetic strategies through which the literal and figurative meaning of “ground” is destabilized productively to establish new conditions in the era of Stand Your Ground (SYG) law. SYG laws define the right to self-defense, to claim the ground on which one stands if there is a perception of “reasonable threat.” The law disproportionately affects Black lives today. These artists ask the questions the law often does not: What does it mean not to be able to “stand your ground”?

The groundwork project asks questions of art history itself. Is there methodological room in the discipline of art history to consider what we make of these artistic practices focused on bodies denied this upright position of self-sovereignty and agency? Beyond providing a new framework of analysis via groundwork, engaging with the meaning of the term “ground”—as both reason, fact, but also soil itself—to address the injustices wrought at our feet, I see this work as laying out questions for the discipline of art history and related fields to engage more decisively with the sociopolitical life that informs artistic production in the context of racial contestation.

One of two covers of <em>Aperture</em> 223, "Vision and Justice," featuring Awol Erizku, <em>Untitled (Forces of Nature #1)</em> (2014).

One of two covers of Aperture 223, “Vision and Justice,” featuring Awol Erizku, Untitled (Forces of Nature #1) (2014).

People are referring to this period as the Black Renaissance: a time of racial uprising, and an increase of African American, and African diaspora artists, curators, and professionals working today. Are there significant moments in history that have brought us here or that are worth reconsidering? 


It does feel as if there is a greater visibility paid to Black cultural production, but I’m not sure that I equate this with an increase in activity by Black artists so much as a shift in how the work in the field is acknowledged and celebrated.

In your tenure at Harvard, has the interest from the student body changed? Are you noticing an increase in the interest and participation in the scholarship of African American art?

The student body at Harvard is more inclusive and diverse than many think, more so than when I was a student. I remember my shock on the first day of my Vision & Justice class. I was assigned to a large auditorium, one that holds nearly 300 people. The classroom was full and I had to pause for a while before beginning because I was stunned by what I saw—the sea of Harvard students seemed to have no racial majority. It felt as if the future had rushed in the room.

What does it mean to teach history if whiteness is not centralized in the classroom? That’s the note that I jotted down before I started the lecture that day. I think of it all the time. Yes, it certainly increases not only the interest in scholarship on African American art. It changes our attention to inclusive narratives in the discipline at large.

Cover of <em>Aperture</em>'s second "Vision & Justice" issue, a free publication released on the occasion of "Vision & Justice: A Convening" with the Vision & Justice Project.

Cover of Aperture‘s second “Vision & Justice” issue, a free publication released on the occasion of “Vision & Justice: A Convening” with the Vision & Justice Project.

Black Lives Matter has opened up a huge new conversation about representation. What opportunities do you see for the field of art history and Black art historians? Are their pitfalls, too?


I appreciated and so agree with what Richard Powell mentioned in your interview—part of what Black Lives Matter has done has opened up a question around representation. This moment has also made me think a great deal about Paul Taylor who has tied the idea of Black aesthetics to that of “assembly.” I think of it as the operational term that defines the opportunity for Black art historians now—to consider how we will continue not just the constitution of the field, but how we impact the assembly of other fields within the discipline of art history.

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