Pictures at an exhibition, and what they might show about how we live
Enter the exhibition by the front. Seeing it in roughly chronological order is a revelation. Here’s his famous portrait of his friend Henry Miller; there’s the nude “Dark Rapture” for which the then-unknown James Baldwin posed in 1941; around the corner, works like “Jazz Quartet” and “Washington Square,” on loan from private collections, well-known to scholars and collectors but never publicly exhibited here before; and, finally, the self portrait that serves as the cover illustration for Amazing Grace. Much of it resembles Gauguin or Matisse.
How it all got here should be part of the exhibit. If you were to do a film treatment of the story of a major modernist black painter, who wouldn’t set it in early 20th-century Knoxville, a conservative, segregated Southern city where black teenagers’ realistic career choices spanned the gamut from janitor to gardener. To make it plausible you’d feel obliged to show the talented boy ignored or abused by the white establishment, wasting a life working in obscurity, perhaps to be discovered too late to enjoy it, in the civil-rights era.