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The Barnes Foundation Presents Elijah Pierce’s America

Major Retrospective Featuring Rarely Seen Works by a Virtuoso Woodcarver

September 27, 2020–January 10, 2021
Press preview: Wednesday, September 23, 9:30 am

Philadelphia, PA, July 13, 2020—In September 2020, the Barnes Foundation will present Elijah Pierce’s America, a landmark exhibition featuring the rich and varied sculpture of woodcarver Elijah Pierce (1892–1984). On view in the Roberts Gallery from September 27, 2020 through January 10, 2021, this is the first major retrospective of Pierce’s work to be presented outside his home city of Columbus, Ohio, for more than 25 years.

Elijah Pierce’s America at the Barnes is sponsored by Northern Trust and Comcast NBCUniversal. Critical support for the exhibition is also provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Born on a farm in Baldwyn, Mississippi, Pierce joined the Great Migration and settled in Columbus, Ohio, in 1924. After years spent working as a barber and preacher, in 1954 he opened his own barbershop, which became a social hub and functioned as his studio. Pierce created a unique body of work over the course of 50 years, producing his virtuoso woodcarvings in moments between cutting hair. His work features remarkable narratives—religious parables, autobiographical scenes, episodes from American politics, and includes figures from sports and film, with subjects ranging from Richard Nixon to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and from Hank Aaron to Warren Beatty. Pierce once said, “I’d carve anything that was a picture in my mind. I thought a pocketknife was about the best thing I’d ever seen.”

Co-curated by Dr. Nancy Ireson, Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions & Gund Family Chief Curator at the Barnes, and Dr. Zoé Whitley, Director of Chisenhale Gallery in London, Elijah Pierce’s America features more than 100 rarely seen works created between 1923 and 1979, including painted bas-reliefs and freestanding carvings. Using wood, corrugated cardboard, crepe paper, house paint, aluminum foil, glitter, and rhinestones, Pierce created extraordinary objects that expressed his faith, values, and perspective on the world. His art reflects the complexities of life in 20th-century America.

“Today Dr. Albert C. Barnes is best known as a visionary collector and pioneering educator, but from the turn of the 20th century, he was also a fierce advocate for the civil rights of African Americans, women, and the economically marginalized,” says Thom Collins, Neubauer Family Executive Director and President. “Barnes’s commitment to racial equality, social justice, and education, which he believed was the cornerstone of a truly democratic society, is the historical legacy that we have worked hard to extend and grow in everything we do at the Barnes.”

“In Elijah Pierce’s America, we are looking at Pierce as the artist he was—not as a ‘folk’ or ‘outsider’ artist simply because he was self-taught,” says Zoé Whitley. “One of our goals with this exhibition is to raise key questions about the writing of art history: are self-taught artists automatically considered ‘outsider’ even if they were denied formal education by circumstance and social status? Within the history of early 20th-century art, how can we begin to recontextualize the contributions and innovations of self-taught artists? Through his woodcarvings, Pierce not only succeeded in telling a personal history alongside the history of African American people, but also revealed a dynamic visual history of the United States.”

Elijah Pierce’s woodcarvings strike a chord with the diverse aesthetics present in the Barnes collection. As a collector, Dr. Barnes was interested in art for its formal characteristics and was not concerned with artists’ social origin. As a result, the Barnes collection is home to many works by artists with little or no formal art school training, including Paul Gauguin, Horace Pippin, and Henri Rousseau. In his display, Dr. Barnes placed renowned canvases by Matisse, Picasso, and Cézanne alongside household items he collected, such as furniture and wrought-iron objects, overturning traditional hierarchies to reveal universal elements of human expression.

“We are proud to present this long-awaited exhibition, which honors Dr. Barnes’s commitment to championing artists regardless of their training,” says Nancy Ireson. “The COVID-19 health crisis, which required our current temporary closure, forced us to adjust our exhibition schedule and delay the opening of Elijah Pierce’s America until September. We are incredibly grateful to the lenders for their flexibility and for the opportunity to keep this important exhibition on view until January 2021. This is an exciting opportunity to celebrate an important yet under-recognized figure whose work still deeply resonates today.”

Exhibition highlights include:

  • The Book of Wood (1932), the tour-de-force volume of biblical scenes for which Pierce is best known, featuring seven large, didactic polychrome reliefs
  • Major and rarely exhibited large-scale works from private collections, including Joy (1930s–1940s) and Bible Stories (c. 1936)
  • Works inspired by Pierce’s biography and his calling as a pastor, including The Place of My Birth (1977), The Archangel Michael (1948), and Prayer (1966)
  • Vividly allegorical works featuring animals, including Monkeys at a Card Table (1938–1940) and The Little Elephant (c. 1923), the earliest carving he made as a gift for his wife
  • Works documenting Pierce’s take on popular culture and sports, including Popeye (1933) and Archie Griffin (1976)
  • Works chronicling American political themes, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedy Brothers (1977), Love (Martin Luther King, Jr.) (c. 1968), Watergate (1975), and Abraham Lincoln (1974)

This exhibition is co-curated by Dr. Nancy Ireson, Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions & Gund Family Chief Curator at the Barnes Foundation, and Dr. Zoé Whitley, Director of Chisenhale Gallery, London.

Elijah Pierce received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982, a lifetime achievement award recognizing how his art demonstrates and reflects our nation’s living cultural heritage. His work has been shown in museums such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Pierce’s work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; the California African American Museum, Los Angeles; and the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH—the largest repository of Pierce’s work—among others.

Dr. Nancy Ireson is the Barnes Foundation’s Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions & Gund Family Chief Curator. A specialist in European art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Dr. Ireson began her post at the Barnes in August 2018. On completion of a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art, she began her curatorial career at the National Gallery, London, before taking on roles at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Courtauld Gallery. Dr. Ireson was the Rothman Family Associate Curator at the Art Institute of Chicago before becoming Curator, International Art at Tate Modern, London. Notable exhibitions she has curated and co­curated include Cezanne’s Card Players (Courtauld Gallery, 2010), Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge (Courtauld Gallery, 2011), Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor (Art Institute of Chicago, 2014), Modigliani (Tate Modern, 2017), and Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy (Tate Modern, 2018). She has published and lectured on a wide range of related subjects.

Dr. Zoé Whitley is the Director of Chisenhale Gallery, London. Most recently, Dr. Whitley served as Senior Curator at the Hayward Gallery in London, prior to which she was Curator, International Art at Tate Modern. She has conceived numerous site-specific artist commissions, film screenings, and special projects internationally. Exhibitions to her credit include curating the British Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale and co-curating the acclaimed Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power (Tate Modern, 2017). Author of The Graphic World of Paul Peter Piech and the children’s book Meet the Artist: Frank Bowling, she has also written exhibition catalogues, essays, and interviews on Grace Wales Bonner, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Lubaina Himid, Alexander McQueen, and Jack Whitten, among others. Dr. Whitley was named one of Apollo Magazine’s 40 Under 40 Thinkers in Europe, and one of Artlyst’s 2019 “100 Alternative Powerhouses” in the not-for-profit contemporary art world.

Co-published by the Barnes Foundation and Paul Holberton Publishing, London, the fully illustrated exhibition catalogue features essays by co-curators Nancy Ireson and Zoé Whitley, as well as contributions from Dr. Sampada Aranke of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, artist Theaster Gates, and Michael D. Hall, Adjunct Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio. As the first substantial book on Elijah Pierce to be published in more than 25 years, this catalogue marks a new phase of the artist’s critical reception, building on the pioneering work of the Columbus Museum of Art in the 1980s and 1990s.

Elijah Pierce’s America is sponsored by

Northern Trust
Comcast NBCUniversal
The National Endowment for the Arts

Additional support for the exhibition is provided by Jeanne Ruddy and Victor F. Keen, Amy A. Fox and Daniel H. Wheeler, Jack and Barb Hafner, Pamela and James Hill, John J. Medveckis, Lisa Roberts and David Seltzer, Frank and Kathleen M. Seidman, and other individuals.

The publication is made possible by a generous grant from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Foundation.

Ongoing support for exhibitions comes from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Exhibition Fund, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, and Aileen and Brian Roberts.

In addition, support for all exhibitions comes from contributors to the Barnes Foundation Exhibition Fund:

Joan Carter and John Aglialoro, Julia and David Fleischner, Leigh and John Middleton, Jeanette and Joe Neubauer

John Alchin and Hal Marryatt, Christine and Michael Angelakis, Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, Lois and Julian Brodsky, N. Judith Broudy, Laura and Bill Buck, Elaine W. Camarda and A. Morris Williams, Jr., Gloria and John Drosdick, Eugene and Michelle Dubay, Christine and George Henisee, Lisa D. Kabnick and John H. McFadden, Marguerite Lenfest, Maribeth and Steven Lerner, Victoria McNeil Le Vine, Leslie Miller and Richard Worley Foundation, Hilarie and Mitchell Morgan, Kay and Michael Park, The Rittenhouse Hotel, Adele K. Schaeffer, Katie and Tony Schaeffer, Dr. and Mrs. Eugene E. Stark, Joan F. Thalheimer, van Beuren Charitable Foundation, Kirsten White, Anonymous.

The Barnes Foundation is a nonprofit cultural and educational institution that shares its unparalleled art collection with the public, organizes special exhibitions, and presents programming that fosters new ways of thinking about human creativity. The Barnes collection is displayed in ensembles that integrate art and objects from across cultures and time periods, overturning traditional hierarchies and revealing universal elements of human expression. Home to one of the world’s finest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern paintings—including the largest groups of paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne in existence—the Barnes brings together renowned canvases by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Vincent van Gogh, alongside African, Asian, ancient, and medieval art as well as metalwork, furniture, and decorative art.

The Barnes Foundation was established by Dr. Albert C. Barnes in 1922 to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture.” A visionary collector and pioneering educator, Dr. Barnes was also a fierce advocate for the civil rights of African Americans, women, and the economically marginalized. Committed to racial equality and social justice, he established a scholarship program to support young black artists, writers, and musicians who wanted to further their education. Dr. Barnes was deeply interested in African American culture and became actively involved in the Harlem Renaissance, during which he collaborated with philosopher Alain Locke and Charles S. Johnson, the scholar and activist, to promote awareness of the artistic value of African art.

Since moving to Philadelphia in 2012, the Barnes Foundation has expanded its commitment to diversity, inclusion, and social justice, teaching visual literacy in groundbreaking ways; investing in original scholarship relating to its collection; and enhancing accessibility throughout every facet of its program. Hours and ticket prices are listed on our website.

Deirdre Maher, Director of Communications
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