30 Americans

Artist Biographies

Nina Chanel Abney

(born 1982)

In the November 2008 issue of W Magazine, a twenty-six-year-old Nina Chanel Abney explained to Haven Thompson how celebrity scandals inspire some of her vibrant, often brazen paintings that at once suggest Francis Bacon, David Hockney, and contemporary street murals. “I’m fascinated by how celebrity news has become not more interesting, but more important than politics. I like to infuse that with race issues,” Abney said, referring to her 2007 solo debut show, Dirty Wash, at New York’s Kravets/Wehby Gallery.

John Bankston

(born 1963)

The visual and narrative language of coloring books fuels much of the fantastical sensibilities of John Bankston’s oil, acrylic, ceramic, watercolor, and sculpture works. Curator Daniell Cornell, who organized Bankston’s 2006 exhibition Locating Desire at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, expressed how Bankston juggles the art of painting and drawing, representation and abstraction, to transport viewers in a world of childlike reveries. The adventure voyages, science fiction, and fairy tales he relates in his work simultaneously touch upon themes of race, gender roles, masculinity, and sexuality.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

(1960–1988)

Born in Brooklyn, Jean-Michel Basquiat began his career in art in the late 1970s as a teenage graffiti artist. Though his roots were in graffiti, Basquiat became a well-known Neo-Expressionist in the mid-1980s, famous for his creative use of everything from windowsills to football helmets. He received national recognition for his unique, aggressive, and vibrant style. In 1985 he appeared on the cover of the New York Times and was featured in the article “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist.” Along with his great original pieces, Basquiat did a number of collaborations with Andy Warhol in the mid-1980s.

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Mark Bradford

(born 1961)

While growing up in Los Angeles, Mark Bradford used to make signs for his mother’s hair salon. In fact, at one time, he worked as a hairdresser in that salon. As he explained in an episode of PBS’s Art21, that upbringing instilled a joy and understanding with working with his hands and the art of making. “My art practice goes back to my childhood, but it’s not an art background. I’ve always been a creator. My mother was a creator; my grandmother was a creator,” Bradford explained. His initial works made use of hair salon products such as hair dyes, foil, and hair perm-wave papers, but eventually he began incorporating found objects such as street flyers, posters, newspapers, and billboard ads for evocative and textured large-scale works.

iona rozeal brown

(born 1966)

iona rozeal brown often takes cues from her explorations as a DJ when juxtaposing elements of Japan’s ganguro culture and black American hip-hop and fashion. In such acclaimed works as Untitled I (Female) (2003), King Kata #3: Peel Out (After Yoshitoshi’s Incomparable Warriors: Women Han Gaku) (2009), and A Children’s Story (2009), she also draws upon Japanese Ukiyo-E woodblock prints and paintings.

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Nick Cave

(born 1959)

While Nick Cave was finishing up his graduate degree at Kansas City Art Institute, he was also studying dance through an Alvin Ailey program in both Kansas City and in New York. Today, the performance artist, fabric sculptor, and dancer is best known for his elaborate, transformative “soundsuits.” When worn, these otherworldly garments give the wearer shaman-like characteristics, as they completely overwhelm conventional human physiology. Cave constructs these works from unlikely found material such as twigs, bottle caps, and wires. Through these soundsuits, which produce sound when dancers perform in them, Cave brings an interactive aspect to his work.

Robert Colescott

(1925–2009)

Satire plays a huge role in Robert Colescott’s vibrant, at times claustrophobic, paintings. Colescott addressed issues surrounding history and racial stereotypes with wry, transgressive humor and keen observation. In 1975 he began creating a series of works that referenced classic Western art, but recast the central figures as black.

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Noah Davis

(born 1983)

Richard Brautigan’s provocative 1968 novella In Watermelon Sugar provided the impetus for Noah Davis’s 2010 exhibition The Forgotten Works at Roberts & Tilton gallery in Los Angeles. The literary work centers around a post-apocalyptic commune that resides in a gathering house known as iDEATH. In the story, the sun constantly changes colors. One of the major characters, inBOIL, decides to leave the commune and live in a forbidden area called “The Forgotten Works,” which is built upon the ruins of a former civilization. Some of Davis’s thirteen large oil paintings correlate directly with Brautigan’s novel—particularly InBoil and Margaret, The Summer House, and What They Did to the Elephant in the Room.

Leonardo Drew

(born 1961)

The cyclical nature of life—decay and resurrection—plays a central, recurring role throughout Leonardo Drew’s elaborate and enthralling installations and multilayered sculptures, which are often composed of found objects, wood, and fabrics. As gripping as Drew’s large-scale works are, they can be enigmatic to the point of being hermetic, forcing some viewers to question the validity of their artistry. Others are captivated by the suggestiveness and mystery of the works.

Renée Green

(born 1959)

Renée Green’s transfixing installations epitomize the Information Age because they are often built upon archival material, regardless of her chosen medium—film, text, photography, prints, sculpture, music, textiles, fabrics, and new media. Her prismatic art explores themes surrounding cultural and personal history and memory. In 2009 the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland, exhibited Ongoing Becoming, a retrospective of Green’s works, spanning from 1989 to 2009.

David Hammons

(born 1943)

Bliz-aard Ball Sale is one of David Hammons’s most famous and influential performance art pieces. In 1983 he sold snowballs of varying sizes and prices alongside other street vendors in Manhattan during a winter snowstorm. The satirical performance commented on the U.S. capitalism system, the classist nature of the high-art world, and the superficial value of “whiteness” in U.S. racial politics. Hammons mostly creates art on the street, and for the people who live on those streets, for in his opinion: “The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize, not to understand, and it never has any fun. Why should I spend my time playing to that audience?”

Barkley L. Hendricks

(born 1945)

Barkley L. Hendricks’s large-scale paintings and photographs epitomize black American urban style. His portraiture works infuse realistic depictions of contemporary black people with a certain romanticism. Dignified and fashionable, his subjects are not generic types, but rather recognizable human beings.

Rashid Johnson

(born 1977)

“Black science” is an ideal description for Rashid Johnson’s absorbing photography, sculptures, conceptual work, and video works, through which the artist investigates science fiction, divination, black American history, and hip-hop culture, as well as personal memories.

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Glenn Ligon

(born 1960)

Glenn Ligon employs the practice of intertextuality in his conceptual work. This term, coined by Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva in 1966, describes how the meaning of a text is not inherent, but rather malleable relative to the time, the context it is read, the knowledge of the reader, and other non-static factors. Ligon’s intertextual works invite interpretations around race, language, and sexual identity.

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Kalup Linzy

(born 1977)

Classic daytime TV soap operas such as All My Children and The Days of Our Lives have fueled many of Kalup Linzy’s hilarious video vignettes. He lampoons the stilted acting performances and risible plots while subversively delivering pointed commentaries about race, class, and sexual identity. Perhaps part of the appeal of Linzy’s videos is the way he flips the casting script. Soap operas have long been popular in the African American community, but the actors are mostly white. Oftentimes, Linzy even provides the voiceovers for all of the characters and does the post-production editing, taking the absurdity of TV soap operas to an even more outlandish level. Last year, Linzy made his way as a performer on a bona fide soap opera classic, General Hospital.

Kerry James Marshall

(born 1955)

Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Now living in Chicago, Marshall attributes his style and focus to the years he spent in L.A. during the Black Power and Civil Rights movements. When asked about his time in L.A., Marshall said he felt a sense of responsibility, which directed the nature of his later work.

A 1978 graduate of Otis College of Art and Design in L.A., Marshall started gaining notoriety for his paintings in the 1980s. The artist is best known for addressing themes of civil rights and African American culture through large-scale paintings and sculptures, but Marshall also looks to popular culture and African mythology for his work.

Rodney McMillian

(born 1969)

In many of Rodney McMillian’s enthralling installations and performance pieces, he ignites viewers’ sensory functions as much as their cerebral ones. Whether a soiled upholstered armchair or a floppy cut canvas of the Supreme Court Building, his works evoke melancholy for bygone glory days, while depicting an emotional void. Still, there is often a sociopolitical edge to his works, as they often touch upon important events and people who are sometimes omitted from conventional historical records.

Wangechi Mutu

(born 1972)

On CNN’s African Voices, Wangechi Mutu described some of her work as “feminist intervention.” Her riveting, multilayered collages of women sometimes take on fantastical, cyborg characteristics. Mutu admitted to being obsessed with female bodies, particularly with how they can be exploited for hard labor and then deemed worthless—without beauty and undeserving of respect.

To me the female figure is enchanting and power-filled, it astounds me, it baffles me. When I was nineteen I saw middle-aged women in Nairobi protesting their children’s detention at a notorious torture prison. They slowly put a curse out—by disrobing and exposing their bodies—causing the riot police to freak out and flee. I’m interested in how the female body is enhanced and contorted for historical and cultural purposes.
–Wangechi Mutu, interview by Kirsten Fricke, “Sex Sells,” Beautiful Decay, December 2005 issue.

William Pope.L

(born 1955)

William Pope.L addresses racism, classism, and other sociopolitical ills through provocative performance art, theater, painting, and photography. He is best known for his eRacism crawl series, which began in the late 1970s. In one such “crawl,” The Great American Way, he wore a Superman suit and strapped a skateboard onto his back and crawled twenty-two miles up New York City’s Broadway; it took five years to complete.

In 2005 Pope.L created an interactive installation that traveled from Maine to Missouri called The Black Factory. Participants were encouraged to bring any artifacts considered “black”—hair picks, James Brown LPs, etc.—and the performance troupe, called the Factory Workers, then simulated a “conversion” of the products.

Gary Simmons

(born 1964)

Gary Simmons is best known for his eerie “erasure” drawings. He illustrates figures and iconic objects with white chalk and then smears them. This technique gives them a haunting, sometimes nightmarish allure as he addresses themes surrounding race, class, and personal history.

Xaviera Simmons

(born 1974)

In addition to creating dazzling photographs and gripping sculptures, Xaviera Simmons also makes critically acclaimed installations. These often investigate music, particularly cherished LP artwork. In 2006 she created How to Break Your Own Heart, stapling classic jazz album covers on the walls of New York City’s Art in General gallery, where she frequently deejays. “I constructed this installation as a site of sensorial intervention in a heavily trafficked landscape,” she explained to the New York Foundation for the Arts. “My intentions were also to create a space that was immediately educational to the passerby, a space that engages as well as surprises.” Simmons reprised the concept the following year at Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum with the installation, Electric Relaxation: Digital Good Times, which included R&B and hip-hop album covers, along with archival video footage.

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Lorna Simpson

(born 1960)

Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, Lorna Simpson’s seductive photography and paintings concentrated on themes of race, gender, and sexuality. She would often pair strategically cropped images of women’s body parts alongside enigmatic text. In January 2011 Simpson offered a very different kind of photo-based work, in the exhibition Gathered at the Brooklyn Museum, presenting re-creations of vintage photographs alongside the originals, exploring the interplay between fact and fiction, identity and history.

Shinique Smith

(born 1971)

Many found objects, from old fabrics and discarded picture frames to sneakers and T-shirts make up much of Baltimore-native Shinique Smith’s intriguing art. She sometimes incorporates street graffiti and Japanese calligraphy in works that both comment on public consumption and serve as personal reflections. Such is the case with her captivating 2007 sculpture a bull, a rose, a tempest, which she has described as part of a “big requiem.” The work incorporates memorabilia of deceased artists, including a T-shirt featuring the late rapper Tupac Shakur, who entered the Baltimore School of the Arts the year she left.

Jeff Sonhouse

(born 1968)

Jeff Sonhouse concentrates on themes of black masculinity in his striking paintings that often find his subjects donning menacing, multipatterned masks and vivid, dandy-like suits. At times focusing on iconic or controversial figures, Sonhouse has created portraits of Colin Powell, Michael Jackson, and Diddy. In 2008 Sonhouse broke with his practice of depicting only men with his exhibition Pawnography, which included a portrait of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

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Henry Taylor

(born 1958)

Various characters from Henry Taylor’s Los Angeles surroundings often inhabit his vivid paintings. Taylor has incorporated the likenesses of family members, as well as neighborhood friends, in his works. While attending the California Institute of the Arts, Taylor worked as a psychiatric technician at the Camarillo State Hospital. There he sketched various patients.

Hank Willis Thomas

(born 1976)

The world of advertising—and all the sociopolitical implications it has regarding race, gender, and class—provide the launching pad for Hank Willis Thomas’s bold photographs. Sometimes his works include autobiographical information, as in Priceless #1, which riffs off the famous MasterCard slogan (“There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”), yet depicts the funeral of his murdered cousin, Songha Willis.

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Mickalene Thomas

(born 1971)

While exploring and challenging long-held notions of feminine beauty, Mickalene Thomas uses rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel to create stupendously textured paintings. Sometimes she pairs these paintings with video installations that juxtapose Blaxploitation film imagery with that of classic Western European portraiture.

Thomas’s influences range from historical figures such as Henri Matisse and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres to contemporary artists such as Carrie Mae Weems and Kara Walker. She also looks to 1970s Blaxploitation films and music legends such as Eartha Kitt, Bessie Smith, Sharon Jones, and Billie Holiday.

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Kara Walker

(born 1969)

With a cursory glance, Kara Walker’s black cut-paper silhouettes look like benign nineteenth-century antebellum scenes or Walt Disney cartoon characters from such classic pieces as the 1946 film Song of the South. A closer, probing investigation reveals the underlying terror surrounding race, gender, and sexual identity politics in America.

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Carrie Mae Weems

(born 1953)

For more than twenty-five years, Carrie Mae Weems has explored themes of race, gender relations, and family history in her installations. In 2010, the award-winning visual artist teamed up with the critically acclaimed jazz pianist Geri Allen on Flying toward the Sound, for which she produced images and videos to accompany Allen’s amazing piano excursions.

Kehinde Wiley

(born 1977)

In the ten years since receiving his master of fine arts from Yale University, Kehinde Wiley has catapulted to the upper echelon of the contemporary art world. His super-realistic paintings of men of color in heroic, majestic, or bucolic settings deliberately reference works by the Old Masters.

Purvis Young

(1943–2010)

Self-taught artist Purvis Young made lurid and kinetic large-scale paintings and murals depicting the people of his hometown of Miami. He blended wild horses, jazz singers, and scenes from ancient battles, making poignant social commentaries on urban life. One of his most famous works is Goodbread Alley, his 1972 public mural located at the intersection of Northwest Third Avenue and 14th Street in the Overtown district in Miami.