Exhibition | The Real Thing

Feb 5, 2020 — Mar 27, 2020

Selected from the GCMA permanent collection, The Real Thing reflects the authenticity of experience that informed the creation of powerful works by African-American artists. The exhibition title is derived from the 1968 song Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson and originally performed by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.

Artists Diane Edison and Gary Grier employed traditional representational techniques to portray a family member and an adopted hometown, respectively. Beauford Delaney and Benny Andrews likewise depicted their urban neighborhoods in New York City, but each used abstracted color, form, and texture to convey more emotional content.

Continuing in a loosely representational vein, Robert Colescott satirized “modern” art history with comic style; Alison Saar dramatized the beheading of John the Baptist using salvaged sheets of hammered tin and painted marble; and Merton Simpson documented low points of the 1960s Civil Rights movement through the violently painterly expressionism of his Confrontation series. Each work is a powerful reminder of injustices suffered at the hands of authority.

Even purely non-objective abstraction, in the service of such sophisticated painters as Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas, achieved personal results. Gilliam’s heavily textured, raked surfaces and irregular, geometric forms evoke his rural Southern roots through a profound work whose surface reads like tilled farmland transformed into a giant patchwork quilt. Thomas’s orchestration of pure color memorializes the unbounded joy she felt in the midst of her simple flower garden.

Self-taught artists Bessie Harvey, Mary T. Smith, and Thomas Sills—unfettered by the academic strictures of either mainstream realism or abstraction—were driven by inner necessity to reveal their truths. Each used humble found materials to pay homage to the creative urge that inspired them.