Bricklayer quilt. Linda Diane Bennett (American, 1955–1988). Denim, 80 1/2 × 64 1/2 in., ca. 1970. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014
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Self-Taught, Brilliantly Accomplished

The Souls Grown Deep Foundation’s gift of works by self-taught African American artists forms the basis of a new exhibition—and an extraordinary addition to The Met collection

Joe Minter, Thornton Dial, and Mary Proctor may not be familiar names to those outside the art world. Yet thanks to a major gift to The Met of 37 artworks from the Souls Group Deep Foundation, their work and that of other innovators may soon be recognized alongside the output of Henri Rousseau, Joshua Johnson, Horace Pippin, and other renowned “outsider” artists. 

History Refused to Die. Thornton Dial (American, 1928–2016). Okra stalks and roots, clothing, collaged drawings, tin, wire, steel, Masonite, steel chain, enamel, and spray paint; 8 ft. 6 in. × 87 in. × 23 in.; 2004. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014

 

In recent decades, Atlanta-based collector William S. Arnett has established an important and remarkable body of works by little-known, self-taught black artists working in the Deep South. Established in 2010, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation seeks to develop recognition of and scholarship around this important part of American cultural history, and bring these artworks—sometimes beautiful, sometimes enigmatic, always exciting—to a wider audience. Carefully selected and negotiated, the foundation’s gift to The Met represents perhaps the most important effort yet toward this goal. The group of works is on display at The Met through September 23, in the exhibition History Refused to Die.

Hobo # Birdman. Joe Light (American, 1934–2005). Place mats, glass, enamel, and spray paint on wood, 48 × 96 in., 1988. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014

 

The artists represented work in a range of media, and pursue their visions in wonderfully varied ways, from Joe Light’s beautifully imagined, brightly painted collages in two dimensions, to the ambitious and meticulous constructed assemblages of Ronald Lockett and Thornton Dial. Uniting this diverse group is the almost uncanny ability of these self-taught artists, honing their practices far away from the centers of the art world, to evoke themes, trends, and techniques from some of the most influential artists of the 20th century. These works fit right in with works by Anselm Kiefer, Robert Rauschenberg, and others on display in the Museum’s Lila Acheson Wallace Wing.

Victory in Iraq. Thornton Dial (American, 1928–2016). Mannequin head, barbed wire, steel, clothing, tin, electrical wire, wheels, stuffed animals, toy cars and figurines, plastic spoons, woods, basket, oil, enamel, spray paint and Splash Zone compound on canvas on wood; 83 1/2 in. × 11 ft. 3 in. × 16 in.; 2004. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014

 

Sure to be a crowd-pleaser, the gift/exhibition includes some 19 quilts made by the famous collective of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The work of these quilters is a visual delight, and provides remarkable proof that beauty can be conjured from the most humble materials. Whether they qualify as works of abstract art will be up to individual viewers—who will be able to evaluate these striking quilts against works by El AnatsuiPiet Mondrian, and other modern masters hanging in nearby galleries.

Housetop and Bricklayer with Bars quilt. Lucy T. Pettway (American, 1921–2004). Cotton, corduroy, cotton knit, flannel, even weave, 91 3/8 × 80 1/8 in., ca. 1955. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014

 

Though joy courses through these works, many of these artists face down directly the hardships faced by African Americans living in the Deep South. An enormous sculpture by Joe Minter includes rusted chains that evoke the difficult specter of history—while juxtaposing the utilitarian tools of agricultural life in a way that creates abstract beauty, too.

Four Hundred Years of Free Labor. Joe Minter (American, born 1943). Welded found metal, 8 ft. 9 in. × 60 in. × 54 in., 1995. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014

 

Buy My Soul Has Grown Deep, the catalogue accompanying this exhibition, at The Met Store.

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