Block acquires 1967 study portrait for Wall of Respect by Jeff Donaldson

The exhibition We Are Revolutionaries: The Wall of Respect and Chicago’s Mural Movement runs April 21 – June 18, 2017.  In conjunction with the exhibition the Block Museum is pleased to announce an important acquisition for the museum’s permanent collection. The museum has purchased a 1967 study portrait of trumpet player and band leader Miles Davis by artist Jeff Donaldson (1932-2004). The work is one of the rare remaining sketches for the Wall of Respect and provides valuable documentation of Donaldson’s process in thinking about his portion of the mural. In the final version of the Wall, Donaldson included his portrait of Miles Davis among other portraits of African America musicians, including John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins. The painting also has significance for Northwestern University, as Donaldson earned a Ph.D. in Art History from Northwestern in 1974, the first African American to do so.

“This is a relatively early work by Donaldson, and it shows a fresh and immediate approach to representation. It’s exciting to see how the work also hints at a fracturing of the background space, a practice that became a signature of the artist’s later work,” states Kathleen Bickford Berzock, the Block Museum’s Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs.

Janet Dees, the Block Museum’s curator of global modern and contemporary art, adds, “The acquisition of this work supports important initiatives to document the Black Experience at Northwestern. For instance, the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association is establishing a more robust archive at the University of material by and about black alumni.”

After its presentation at the Block Museum, the painted sketch will travel to London’s Tate Modern to be part of the exhibition “The Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” which will be on view from July – Oct. 2017. “The Soul of a Nation” will also travel to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The painting was also part of the exhibition “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now,” which originated at the MCA in Chicago in 2016.

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Jeff Donaldson, ca. 1970 / unidentified photographer. Jeff Donaldson papers, circa 1960-2005. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

“Do you consider yourself a Black visual artist, an American visual artist, or an artist, period?”

This question, posed by Jeff Donaldson (1932–2004) in an open letter to his peers in the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) in Chicago in 1967, motivated his work as an artist, art historian, activist, curator, and educator. Throughout his career, he remained committed to the principles of black cultural production….

As a whole, [Donaldson’s] papers show how [he] articulated a trans-African aesthetic. An artistic style that drew on interdisciplinary sources and that was characterized by vibrant hues, jazz-inspired rhythms, and political iconography of the African diaspora, Donaldson considered trans-African art an antidote to the hegemonic, Eurocentric canon. His administrative records on the formation of OBAC and the conception and planning of its famous public artwork The Wall of Respect (late 1960s) demonstrate Donaldson’s interdisciplinary and inclusive approach to making art. As has been well documented, the mural project was the product of the Visual Art Workshop in consultation with related OBAC workshops, Chicago cultural organizations, and the local neighborhood. “It seemed that overnight news of black artists painting pictures on the outside of a dilapidated tavern in the heart of the despised ghetto spread over Chicago, and the nation like flames in a windstorm,” observed Donaldson in notes on the mural.

-Mary Savig, Archive of American Art Journal (March 21, 2017)

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Top Image: Jeff Donaldson, Study for the Wall of Respect [Miles Davis], 1967, mixed media (including oil) on heavy cream wove paper 24×18, Collection Block Museum of Art, Courtesy of Artist’s Estate.

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