Photo by Minneapolis Institute of Art, The John R. Van Derlip Fund
Bob Thompson Homage to Nina Simone (1965) Oil on canvas
Bob Thompson Homage to Nina Simone (1965) Oil on canvas

The Phillips Collection is offering a virtual tour of Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition.


Works by African American artists of the 20th and 21st centuries together with examples by the early 20th century European artists with whom they engaged are explored. Romare Bearden, Robert Colescott, Renee Cox, Wassily Kandinsky, Norman Lewis, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Faith Ringgold, Hank Willis Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems are among the featured artists.

Hank Willis Thomas Icarus (2016) Quilt (Photo by: © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York) Hank Willis Thomas Icarus (2016) Quilt

African American artists have interrogated and immersed themselves in European modernist art since its rise to prominence in the early 20th century. This period also saw a critical growth of professional African American artists, many of whom engaged modernist styles and sensibilities as they claimed the power to represent and define themselves, their histories, and their cultures. In the early part of the century, African American artists were nourished by the advances of Post-Impressionist, Cubist, and expressionist art.


They contributed to modernism’s new languages of form, liberated use of color, and complex engagement with the arts of Africa. But in later years, artists began challenging master narratives. Using humor and satire, they created “riffs” to question the supposed superiority of European art, exposing its fraught association with people of color. The push and pull of these relationships became a distinct tradition in African American artistic practice. 

Hale Woodruff The Card Players (1930) (Photo by: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, George A. Hearn Fund, 2015 ) Hale Woodruff The Card Players (1930)

The African American and European artists in this exhibition have engaged modernism in different time periods and varied artistic and social contexts. These paintings, sculptures, photographs, and works on paper enhance the story of modern and contemporary American art by presenting compelling works born of these riffs and relations.


Enjoy a gallery-by-gallery tour of Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition here.