African American Masterworks

In celebration of Black History Month and throughout spring 2016, the McNay highlights collection works by Radcliffe Bailey, Chakaia Booker, Leonardo Drew, and Sam Gilliam in the Frost Octagon in conjunction with Rashid Johnson’s films  The New Black Yoga and Samuel in Space. We Invite you to see these works in person on your next visit to the museum.

Celebrating Black History Month: Renee Smith from The McNay Art Museum on Vimeo.

Additionally, the McNay is grateful to have several works on view from The Harriet and Harmon Kelley Foundation for the Arts. Harriet Kelley was so kind to join the McNay in celebrating Black History Month by sharing with us some historical context for how Black History Month came to be, and give us insight into two works on currently on view: Charles Whites' Hear This (1942) and Jacob Lawrence's The Rebels (1963).

Celebrating Black History Month: Harriet Kelley from The McNay Art Museum on Vimeo.

The McNay library has organized a display of books relevant to Black History Month, including works on African-American art and African American artists. A selection of the books are donations from The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Foundation for the Arts.


Made from car tires held in place with black screws, Position Preferred contains rubber that is cut, twisted, and woven into undulating waves and spikes. While Chakaia Booker's tire sculptures are sometimes nonrepresentational, Position Preferred's surprising angles and hard-edged lines appear biomorphic or even anthropomorphic. 

After obtaining his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Louisville, Kentucky, in 1961, Sam Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C., where he became involved with other artists whose abstract paintings explored the relationship between color and space. To create works such as Green Lizzie, Gilliam worked through a complex process that involves splattering paint on unprimed canvas, layering different colors and glazes, and even painting the canvas that has been crumpled and left on the floor to dry. The spontaneous splotches and lines created by this process are hallmarks of Gilliam's style and are a result of his embrace of the physicality of painted surfaces.

Leonardo Drew uses natural materials and found objects to create his sculptures. By subjecting these objects to various weathering processes - such as burning and oxidation - Drew focuses the individual elements into cohesive units. The finished works continue to react and even disintegrate as a result of these treatments. The three elements that compromise Number 29A decay slowly over time, mirroring the existence of a living thing.

Radcliffe Bailey's work explores themes including memory, spirituality, family, and African American identity. Bailey is best known for his mixed-media paintings that often include found objects and personal belongings. To create UNIA, Bailey translated his painting practice into the print medium by employing three etching techniques. Bailey's use of a vintage photograph, drawings, and velvet creates one cohesive composition that celebrates the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded in 1914 by the Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey, and it's mission to "uplift the people of African ancestry."

New York-based Rashid Johnson explores complex cultural identities and issues relevant to being African American in the present day. The artist's ventures in film make use of the medium's ability to express meaning through movement. The New Black Yoga shows five young black men in a shore performing movements drawn from yoga, tai chi, martial arts, and modern dance in a meditation on masculinity, race, mysticism, and communication through the body movement. Samuel in Space, commissioned by Ballroom Marfa, Marfa Texas, continues the trajectory started in The New Black Yoga as a singular, totemic black male dancer observes the vast Southwestern landscape before him and dances through the desert at sunrise. In both works, the black male body is a site of reflection on histories past and progression towards rejuvenation and new meaning in the future.


  • Chakaia Booker (American, born 1953). Position Preferred, 2006. Rubber and wood. Museum Purchase with funds from the McNay Contemporary Collectors Forum. © Chakaia Booker.
  • Sam Gilliam (American, born 1933). Green Lizzie, 1973. Acrylic on canvas. Gift of Janet and Jim Dicke.
  • Leonardo Drew (American, born 1961). Number 29A, 1999. Dirt, paper, string, wool, fiber, paper, and found objects. Jeane and Irving Matthews Collection.
  • Radcliffe Bailey (American, born 1968). Unia, 2003. Aquatint, etching, photograph, chine collé, and velvet. Gift of the Friends of the McNay. © Radcliffe Bailey.
  • Rashid Johnson, film still from The New Black Yoga, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. © Rashid Johson.

This exhibition is organized by Renè Paul Barilleaux, Chief Curator/Curator of Contemporary Art, Mcnay Art Museum.

The Elizabeth Huth Coates Exhibition Endowment and Arthur and Jane Stieren Fund for Exhibitions are generously funding this exhibition.