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The Barnes Foundation Presents William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision

Major interdisciplinary exhibition reexamining the life and work of sculptor William Edmondson, featuring newly commissioned work by internationally acclaimed artist Brendan Fernandes

June 25–September 10, 2023
ress Preview: Wednesday, June 21, 9:30 am

Philadelphia, PA, April 24, 2023—In summer 2023, the Barnes Foundation will present William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision, the first major East Coast exhibition dedicated to the work of self-taught American sculptor William Edmondson (c. 1874–1951) in decades. Though Edmondson was considered one of the most important Black artists of the American South in the early 20th century, in-depth attention to his work has been sporadic. Co-curated by the Barnes’s James Claiborne, Curator of Public Programs, and Nancy Ireson, Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions & Gund Family Chief Curator, this exhibition sheds new light on Edmondson’s practice and artistry and explores the artist and his oeuvre within the context of African American social history.

Major support for William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Additional support is provided by Comcast NBCUniversal, the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, and the Henry Moore Foundation. This exhibition is on view in the Roberts Gallery from June 25 through September 10, 2023.

Edmondson made carving his vocation around 1932, having previously worked as a hospital orderly in Nashville, Tennessee. Inspired by a vision—described by the artist as a divine calling—he developed a career making headstones for the city’s Black cemeteries. Soon he expanded his repertoire to include freestanding figurative sculptures, depicting nurses, teachers, angels, and preachers. Following a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1937—the institution’s first show dedicated to a Black artist—he increasingly found buyers beyond his immediate community, attracting the attention of East Coast intellectuals and collectors. As Edmondson found fame beyond Nashville, media coverage of the artist played into racialized stereotypes about the Southern Black experience, with many journalists framing Edmondson’s sculptures as the work of a “modern primitive.” Such readings may have been encouraged by how white photographers, including Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Edward Weston, captured the artist at work in the 1930s and 1940s.

More than 80 years later, William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision presents over 60 works by Edmondson. Acknowledging the complexities of his early critical reception, the Barnes exhibition also presents a selection of Dahl-Wolfe’s and Weston’s photographs, not as documentary evidence of Edmondson’s practice but as independent works of art that at once celebrate and romanticize their subject. The show reassesses the artist as more than a passive actor in an unfolding drama—a self-taught sculptor “discovered” by white patrons and institutions—and explores how Edmondson’s identity and position within history influenced his life and work.

This exhibition also examines the complex relationship between Black cultural production and the American museum. To further investigate this theme, acclaimed visual and movement artist Brendan Fernandes—who works at the intersections of dance and visual art, addressing cultural displacement, migration, labor, and queer subjectivity—has been commissioned to create a new work, which will activate the exhibition on select dates throughout the summer. In Returning to Before, Fernandes, a classically trained dancer, has choreographed a piece that will employ the techniques of ballet and modern and contemporary dance to respond to and interact with Edmondson’s sculptures. In considering the guiding role that spirituality plays in both his own work and that of Edmondson, Fernandes prompts audiences to interrogate a museum’s capacity to serve as a space for spiritual creative expression. He and exhibition designer Yaumu Huang have created a contemplative display space—constructed as a kind of altar or memorial—that includes a Jacquard tapestry designed by Fernandes. A corps of dancers will activate this environment, evoking, as Fernandes describes, “the innate choreographic nature of Edmondson’s own sculpture making, chiseling, and carving.” Through this collective movement of the dancers and audiences within the Roberts Gallery, the museum space becomes a place for communal homage to the artistic and spiritual legacy of Edmondson.

Returning to Before will begin on July 14, with an evening performance and conversation featuring Brendan Fernandes. Following the opening, performances will take place in the exhibition space on Saturdays from July 15 through September 2 at noon and 2 pm. (Included with admission.)

“Across our programs, we extend and grow Dr. Albert C. Barnes’s commitment to racial equality, social justice, and education. William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision is representative of our commitment to presenting underresearched and underrepresented artists, and to demonstrating the contemporary relevance of historic works of art,” says Thom Collins, Neubauer Family Executive Director and President at the Barnes. “This exhibition expands our understanding of William Edmondson as a major figure in American art and marks the first in a series of collaborations that elevate the role of performance in exhibitions. Recognizing the interpretive potential for performance to build new pathways into historical art, we are expanding and deepening our program, developing our capacity for collaboration and placing performance at the heart of exhibition development.”

Arranged thematically, the works in this exhibition are on loan from museums and private collections across the US, including many from the Cheekwood Estate and Gardens in Nashville, which holds the largest collection of Edmondson’s work. In addition to the animals, angels, and other religious iconography Edmondson was known for, exhibition highlights include:

  • Ancient Egyptian Couple (limestone sculpture, c. 1940), from the Museum of Everything, London
  • Edmondson’s only sculpture of a male nude, made for Sidney Mttron Hirsch: Reclining Man (limestone sculpture, date unknown), from Cheekwood Estate and Gardens, Nashville, gift of Michael LeBeck in memory of Sidney Mttron Hirsch
  • Important works from the collection of KAWS, including Untitled (Angel) (c. 1940), Untitled (Seated Girl) (date unknown), and Untitled (Crucifix) (c. 1935–45), all limestone sculptures
  • Mermaid (limestone sculpture, c. 1932–41), the collection of Robert and Katharine Booth
  • 12 photographs of William Edmondson by Louise Dahl-Wolfe (c. 1895–1989)
  • A rare carving of Eleanor Roosevelt (limestone sculpture, c. 1940), from a private collection

“Recognizing the gaps in Dr. Barnes’s collection, we focus on presenting the voices and work of women and artists of color in our exhibition program,” says co-curator Nancy Ireson. “Through this exhibition, we seek to recontextualize William Edmondson, reinstating the importance of community in his work and rejecting narratives that oversimplify his life and practice. As we highlight Edmondson’s position in art history, questions about equity in the cultural sector arise that still resonate today, making the exhibition a space for important discussions.”

“This exhibition is our first to draw a holistic connection between the Barnes’s performance and exhibition programs,” says co-curator James Claiborne. “By bringing Brendan Fernandes’s performance directly into the exhibition, we hope to create new and compelling points of entry for audiences and engage visitors in an active dialogue about multifaceted Black experiences across time and place. We are excited to showcase Fernandes’s new work, Returning to Before, and witness how it brings Edmondson’s sculptures, and the stories they tell, to life in new ways.”


Public Programs:
Curators in Conversation: A Monumental Vision
Sunday, June 25, 1 pm
Guests are invited to join members for an engaging conversation about the artist and his work, featuring co-curators Nancy Ireson and James Claiborne. Includes access to the exhibition.

Returning to Before: Artist Talk & Opening Performance
Friday, July 14, 7 pm
Curatorial talk, featuring exhibition co-curator James Claiborne, Brendan Fernandes, and catalogue contributor Christina Knight, Assistant Professor of Visual Studies, Haverford College, followed by first performance of Returning to Before.

PECO Free First Sunday Family Day
July 2, August 6, September 3; 10 am–5 pm
On the first Sunday of every month, the Barnes partners with PECO to offer a free day of family fun. Along with art making, educational activities, and featured performances, the event includes complimentary access to the Barnes collection and William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision.

First Friday!
July 7, August 4, September 1; 6–9 pm
Enjoy an evening of art, live music, cocktails, and light fare at our monthly First Friday mixer and performance series. Programming highlights include an evening of music with jazz vocalist and composer Ruth Naomi Floyd in September. Includes access to the Barnes collection and William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision.

Barnes on the Block
Sunday, July 16, noon–5 pm
Barnes on the Block, presented by PNC Arts Alive and in partnership with Mural Arts Philadelphia, returns for another round of outdoor fun for the entire family. Meet us on the Parkway for visual art displays, family-friendly art making, live performances, food trucks, a beer garden, and more. Includes free access to the Barnes collection and William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision. Advance registration required.

Education Initiatives:
On-Site Workshop: Wringing Water from Stone: Edmondson on His Own Terms
Wednesday, August 16, 10 am–4 pm
Dig deeper into the work of sculptor William Edmondson, focusing on his artistic voice and his place within Black culture. Includes access to the exhibition. Instructor: TK Smith, Assistant Curator: Art of the African Diaspora.

Community Engagement:
Through extensive partnerships with social service organizations, our deeply collaborative community engagement programs embed the Barnes in the life and education of people in our community, including Spanish-speaking early learners and their families, and intergenerational audiences in historically Black communities. Throughout the exhibition, holders of the Barnes’s Art for All Community Pass will be able to access the exhibition at their convenience. A free membership distributed to participants in our partnership programs, the community pass makes the Barnes financially accessible every day. Individuals eligible for public benefits can also make use of these memberships, eliminating any feelings of social stigma that may come with presenting a benefits card at admission.

William Edmondson (c. 1874–1951) made carving his vocation around 1932, having previously worked as a hospital orderly in Nashville, Tennessee. Inspired by a vision—described by the artist as a divine calling—Edmondson began to carve gravestones, freestanding figurative sculpture, and garden ornaments. These pieces, distinctive for their clean lines and succinct expression of character, soon attracted the attention of curators and collectors, and in 1937, Edmondson became the first Black artist to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Brendan Fernandes (b. 1979, Nairobi, Kenya) is an internationally recognized Canadian artist working at the intersection of dance and visual arts. Currently based out of Chicago, Fernandes addresses issues of race, queer culture, migration, protest, and other forms of collective movement in his work. Always looking to create new spaces and new forms of agency, his projects take on hybrid forms: part ballet, part queer dance hall, part political protest, always rooted in collaboration and fostering solidarity. Fernandes is a graduate of the Whitney Independent Study Program (2007) and a recipient of a Robert Rauschenberg Fellowship (2014). In 2010, he was shortlisted for the Sobey Art Award and is the recipient of a prestigious 2017 Canada Council New Chapters grant. Fernandes is also the recipient of the Artadia Award (2019), a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (2020), and a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation grant (2019). His projects have shown at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; and MAC Montreal, among others. He is currently an assistant professor at Northwestern University and represented by Monique Meloche Gallery in Chicago. Recent and upcoming projects include performances and solo presentations at the Noguchi Museum, New York; Munch Art Museum, Oslo; the Richmond Art Gallery, British Columbia; and the DR Vocal Ensemble, Copenhagen.

James Claiborne is Curator of Public Programs at the Barnes. A program and visual arts curator and educator with over 15 years of experience in the nonprofit cultural sector, he most recently served as the Public Director of Programming at the African American Museum, Philadelphia. Prior roles include positions at the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, Visit Philadelphia, and First Person Arts. Claiborne has taught audience development in the arts at Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. As an independent curator, he has organized exhibitions on Deborah Willis, James Dupree, Amber Art and Design, Richard J. Watson, Ruth Naomi Floyd, and Barkley L. Hendricks, among others. Claiborne is a board member of the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and has served as a board member or adviser to organizations including FringeArts, Mural Arts Philadelphia, and Philly Youth Poetry Movement.

Nancy Ireson is Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions & Gund Family Chief Curator at the Barnes. A noted scholar of late 19th- and early 20th-century European art, Ireson has held curatorial positions at the Tate, National Gallery, and Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Notable exhibitions she has curated or co-curated include Modigliani Up Close(Barnes, 2022); Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel (Barnes, 2021), Elijah Pierce’s America (Barnes, 2020); Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy (Tate Modern, 2018), Modigliani (Tate Modern, 2017); Temptation! The Demons of James Ensor (Art Institute of Chicago, 2014); Jane Avril and Toulouse Lautrec: Beyond the Moulin Rouge (Courtauld Gallery, 2011); and Cézanne’s Card Players (Courtauld Gallery, 2010). She manages the Barnes teams responsible for collections management, conservation, exhibitions, and publications activities.

The 160-page illustrated exhibition catalogue, William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision, is published by the Barnes Foundation in association with Yale University Press. Edited by exhibition co-curators James Claiborne and Nancy Ireson, the book includes essays by Leslie King Hammond, Founding Director of the Center for Race and Culture at Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, and Kelli Morgan, Professor of Practice and Director of Curatorial Studies, Tufts University, Boston, who consider what Edmondson’s work meant in his Nashville community and in the New York art world, respectively.

The catalogue also includes a transcription of a conversation between artist Brendan Fernandes and Christina Knight, Assistant Professor and Director of Visual Studies at Haverford College, moderated by co-curator James Claiborne, who in the light of Edmondson’s example, discuss the ongoing complexities of showing Black artists in spaces that, historically, have been characterized as white.

William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision is organized by the Barnes and curated by James Claiborne, Curator of Public Programs, and Nancy Ireson, Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions & Gund Family Chief Curator.

Major support for William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Additional support is provided by Comcast NBCUniversal, the Wyeth Foundation for American Art, and the Henry Moore Foundation.

Funding for the exhibition comes from Amy A. Fox and Daniel H. Wheeler, Jack and Barb Hafner, John J. Medveckis, Louise Reed, and other generous donors.

Ongoing support for exhibitions comes from the Christine and Michael Angelakis Exhibition Fund, the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Exhibition Fund, the Lois and Julian Brodsky Exhibition Fund, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the Christine and George Henisee Exhibition Fund, Aileen and Brian Roberts, and the Tom and Margaret Lehr Whitford Exhibition Fund.

The exhibition publication is made possible with generous support from Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.

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

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, medieval, and Native American 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 programs.

The Barnes Foundation is situated in Lenapehoking, the ancestral homeland of the Lenape people. Read our Land Acknowledgment.

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Deirdre Maher, Director of Communications
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