By Emma Zavodny, Curatorial Intern in Contemporary Art
The S. Mueller Family Galleries of Contemporary Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art displays a variety of works that expand and, at times, upend viewers’ conceptions of artistic expression, as well as the larger art historical canon. The galleries feature works by artists from around the globe, allowing visitors to consider identities and perspectives that have historically been underrepresented in art museums. The CMA seeks to reflect this geographic scope in the art that it acquires and presents. In recent years, the Department of Contemporary Art has increased its representation of diverse cultures, heritages, and backgrounds. Earlier this month, several newly acquired contemporary works were installed in the museum’s galleries. Let’s explore a few of the new works now on display.
The oil painting He was meant for all things to meet of 2022 by Amy Sherald, now on display in Toby’s Gallery for Contemporary Art, depicts the artist’s nephew, Keith, after Sherald was inspired by a photograph of Keith wearing his lacrosse jersey (fig. 1). Sherald’s use of bright colors in combination with the shades of gray for the skin tones is striking, but visitors to the gallery may notice something else unique about the painting. He was meant for all things to meet is hung at a lower height than other works, for a very specific reason. The painting’s height was specified by the artist and positions the lone figure approximately at eye level to viewers. This increases the effect of realism and gaze employed by Sherald. As visitors look at the canvas, Keith looks back, inviting them into his world and seemingly bringing him to life.
Sherald’s painting is located in the front corner of the gallery, where it is positioned in conversation with impressive figurative works from the 1970s by Emma Amos and Alice Neel, whose painting Jackie Curtis and Ritta Redd, like He was meant for all things to meet, conveys a strong sense of the personalities of the portrait’s subjects. The use of a direct gaze in both works places them in conversation with one another and encourages viewers to think about the psychology and inner worlds of the figures represented. Additionally, Sherald’s work has a connection to Amos’s Sandy and Her Husband, in which she captures the everyday intimacy and love between the central couple as they dance together. Throughout Amos’s career, her work frequently explored African American life and culture, especially the role of women, which is evident in Sandy and Her Husband. He was meant for all things to meet, on the other hand, is an exploration of young Black masculinity. This facet of the work creates a conversation with Augusta Savage’s Gamin, located in the nearby American galleries. Interestingly, recent scholarship has posited that Gamin is a portrait of the artist’s nephew, just as He was meant for all things to meet depicts Sherald’s nephew.
Another new acquisition displayed in the contemporary galleries is Untitled (Plate 36. Vertical and Animal Distribution of Animal Life) of 2022 by Firelei Báez (fig. 2). The large-scale composition draws visitors in with its expressive use of bright pinks, yellows, and oranges. This work is composed of a 1911 map printed on the surface of the canvas with layers of painted animalistic imagery applied over it. Báez depicts a diverse distribution of animal life, from feathery plumes to scaley tentacles, from the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. The impastoed surface adds a level of tactile dimensionality that invites the viewer in for a closer look, encouraging an intimate relationship with the canvas. Through the juxtaposition of the linearity of the map and the abstraction of the animal forms, this work raises questions of how the global natural world has traditionally been measured and categorized.
Báez is a leading Latinx artist of her generation. She works across a multitude of media addressing themes of colonization, popular culture, and the natural world. In this painting, she combines bold and colorful abstraction with acutely detailed figurative elements. Báez’s style of abstraction in this work is reminiscent of the work of many other artists in the contemporary collection, such as Lee Krasner’s large-scale composition Celebration, located in the nearby gallery featuring masterpieces of Abstract Expressionism. Báez joins the CMA’s permanent collection following an exhibition that the CMA mounted in conjunction with the 2023 FRONT International. To breathe full and free: a declaration, a re-visioning, a correction (19°36’16.9″N 72°13’07.0″W, 42°21’48.762″N 71°1’59.628″W) was on view July 16, 2022, to January 15, 2023.
Adjacent to Báez’s work is Sirius #2 of 2022 by Ouattara Watts (fig. 3). The works by Báez and Watts together convey the breadth of expression in abstract art. This large-scale painting with mixed media combines a variety of materials, from painted elements to a lace doily in the center of the canvas. Included in these painted components are core pieces of the artist’s visual vocabulary that he has developed throughout his career. One of the most notable elements is the depiction of a West African mask that appears to float in the center of a mathematical diagram. The mask has been identified as a kanaga mask and is characterized by its double-barred structure. The distinctive shape of the mask has a variety of interpretations, including a bird, a crocodile, Amma (the creator god), or the cosmic realms of sky and earth.
The inclusion of the kanaga mask is inspired by Watts’s own multicultural background. Born in the Ivory Coast, Watts immigrated to France for art school and ultimately the United States for his artistic practice. “My vision is not bound to a country or a continent; it extends beyond borders and all that can be found on a map,” he says. “While I use identifiable pictorial elements to be better understood, this project is nevertheless about something much wider. I am painting the Cosmos.” This ethos is seen in Sirius #2, which brings together diverse ideas gathered over his travels and impressive 45-year career and rejects being categorized as simply one thing.
These three works are excellent representatives of the various forms of contemporary art, from figurative to abstract compositions. Each distinct from another, they contribute something unique to our understanding of the current state of contemporary art. The acquisition and the display of these artworks reflect the desire of the CMA’s Department of Contemporary Art to better represent the range of this era of art. Unlike other movements and periods, contemporary art is not bound by a geographic region. To best illustrate the global nature of our current world, the CMA must present objects from a diversity of artists, communities, and cultures. We invite you to explore these exciting new additions to the contemporary galleries during your next visit to the museum.