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.
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.
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.
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 Anatsui, Piet Mondrian, and other modern masters hanging in nearby galleries.
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.