The first punch-you-in-the-gut moment comes right away at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Viewers who take the prescribed path will start at the bottom, at the third basement level, in the galleries devoted to slavery and the Middle Passage. The first hit-you-over-the-head moment comes after that, in the form of a statue of President Thomas Jefferson. This one greets viewers once they work their way up from the lowest concourse. Those galleries—dark, constrained, and trenchant—open up to a massive hall that takes viewers through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and beyond.
Greeting viewers at the opening is a typical likeness of Jefferson—framed by a wall of 609 bricks, each representing a slave Jefferson owned in his life (280 bricks bear the name of a slave he owned up to 1776). The statue will help viewers cast their impressions of the museum (and also other historical narratives they’ve seen on the National Mall). But the Jefferson stage is ultimately a statue-graphic: a chart in physical form designed to convey the magnitude of the horrors at Monticello. The truth is jarring; the statue, not as much. For a more profound interaction with an art object, visitors will have to wait until they get to the fourth floor.
By then, many visitors may need a break from their brains. The African American Museum offers many provocative and uplifting moments. Most of all, though, it offers information—a relentless flow of facts in the form of historical artifacts. The building is chock full of photos, texts, and video, but relatively little of it comes in the form of photography, literature, or film.
The visual art galleries on the fourth floor will hit viewers like a cool blast of air conditioning. Serene yet still soaring, these rooms have no cousin in the museum. The inaugural installation of the museum’s fine-art collection is not just a relief for over-exercised eyes and ears. It’s an opportunity for visitors to indulge and rejuvenate their senses—and it’s one of D.C.’s finest art collections to boot.
Curated by Jacquelyn Serwer, who served as the chief curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art from 1999 to 2006, the fine-art installation at the new museum begins with some of its coolest work, temperature-wise. Contemporary paintings and a few sculptures open the main galleries, including Minimalist and Washington Color School works with a heavy focus on formalism. “April 4” (1972), the finest piece Sam Gilliam ever painted, is one of them. A spattered all-over painting the color of Easter egg shell, the work includes a splash of red and a fold or gash that betrays the violence of its title—April 4, 1968, is the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It is as if to say that life is full and gorgeous but permeated throughout by an insistent, awful, nagging violence. That could be one way to read the museum—or black history writ large.
‘April 4’ is not one of Gilliam’s larger works or his drape paintings, and it fits in the museum’s collection, which tends toward smaller works. Fine ones include Gregory Coates’ “Blue Feather” (2013), a painting in brightest Yves Klein blue with a rich texture (from goose feathers applied to the canvas). Also Edward Clark’s “The Big Egg” (1968), an ovular, shaped abstraction that looks something like the surface of Jupiter mixed with Neptune. Paintings in the contemporary galleries run the gamut of the postwar period, although Serwer trends toward academic work, including Felrath Hines’ “Untitled” (1978), a geometric painting driven by logic and color theory.
Jefferson Pinder’s “Capsule (Mothership)” (2009) is one of few sculptures on view—but what a knockout. The artist, who recently moved from D.C. to Chicago and still holds strong ties to this town, made this Mercury Spacecraft–shaped vessel using tin and the wood from President Barack Obama’s inauguration platform. The piece is capped by sub-woofer that plays the bass line from Sun Ra’s “Space Is the Place” and Stevie Wonder’s “Living in the City.” The piece has always struck me as a celebration of blackness—narratively, for sure, but also in its earthy, rusted tones and decorative elements. Pinder’s piece is a counterpoint to the fragmented, unmonumental found art that was so popular over the last decade but hasn’t held up as substantive.
The galleries are divided into roughly thematic rooms: “Religion and Spirituality,” “The Struggle for Freedom,” and so on. It’s much easier to think of the collection in two modes: abstract and representational. The museum collection, while regrettably light on photography, sculpture, media, installation, and other formats, boasts an embarrassment of riches in painting. Romare Bearden’s “A Walk in Paradise Gardens” (1955)—an elegant Cubist scene, and surely one of the highlights of the museum—is the kind of painting that obsessives will travel to see.
Loans from Spelman College, Howard University, and other important African-American art collections round out the permanent collection hanging. Jacob Lawrence’s “Praying Ministers” (1962), Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “Disciples Healing the Sick” (1924), and a pair of paintings by Aaron Douglas are here to help round out some of the themes on view. Sharper still is the inclusion of Barkley L. Hendricks’ “New Orleans Niggah” (1972), a swag portrait of a young black man who wouldn’t look out of place, sartorially, in 2016. Hendricks’s portrait hangs in dialog with Amy Sherald’s “Grand Dame Queenie” (2013), a Renaissance-styled portrait (from the museum’s own collection) that condemns respectability politics. Both of these works prefigure the bravado of Kehinde Wiley. While his work is absent here, Hendricks and Sherald are harder to find anywhere else.
The African American Museum may be the museum that finally bridges the gulf between the National Mall and the District. From a post–Washington Color School painting by Alma Thomas (who is truly overlooked) to a mystical installation by Renée Stout, artworks by D.C. artists might even be over-represented in this collection. Serwer had the foresight to include “Blue Horse” (2009), a bonkers sculpture by BK Adams, a D.C. artist who showcases the nonsensical and absurdist side of black art history.
Serwer faced an impossible task: How can a curator convey the riches of African-American art history, so totally overlooked by American museums, without hanging a highlight reel? While the collection spans the relevant history, from Joshua Johnson’s 1807–08 portrait of a white plantation owner forward, the museum emphasizes moments between works rather than any overarching thesis. Like the best rooms in the Phillips Collection or the National Gallery of Art, the visual art galleries in the National Museum of African American History and Culture are a place to get lost for a spell. In a museum that can make viewers feel overwhelmed, the fine-art hall is an essential destination.
1400 Constitution Ave. NW. Free, but reservation required to get in. nmaahc.si.edu.