Kara Walker’s curatorial projects, like her art, have unflinchingly probed the lineages and occlusions of African-American history. In an exhibition she curated for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “After the Deluge” (2006), she evoked the devastation of Hurricane Katrina by pairing her signature silhouettes depicting racial and gendered violence with artworks from the museum’s collection. In “Ruffneck Constructivists” (2014), which she organized for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, she posited urban “ruffnecks” as the contemporary inheritors of the avant-garde spirit, arguing, in her catalogue essay, that “thuggishness [is] an expression of a particularly modern sentiment—like punk but with a specifically racial/macho/hip-hop overtone.” This summer, Walker organized a show perhaps even closer to her heart: a survey of drawings and paintings by her father at the gallery that represents her in New York.
It may sound overdetermined to discuss an exhibition of Larry Walker’s work through this father/daughter lens. But the exhibition encouraged such a reading. In a statement quoted in the press material, the artist-curator mentioned her “cross purposes” in presenting the show, which would serve not only as a means of exposing her father’s art to a wider audience but also as a way of “negotiating the departures and liberties” she has taken in her own work. The presentation, however, did not come across as a self-serving gesture; rather than instrumentalizing her father’s art as an autobiographical footnote to her own, Walker organized a generous exhibition that let viewers draw their own connections.
Since the 1960s, Larry Walker has pursued a rigorous artistic practice, often portraying human bodies and landscapes under duress. Raised in Harlem and educated in Detroit, he has lived since the 1980s in Atlanta, where he was the director of the Georgia State University art department. A witness to social upheavals, Walker pairs in his work a politicized sensibility and a keen reading of art history.
In drawings from the late-’60s “Children of Society” series—the earliest pieces on view—Walker cycles between abstraction and figuration, depicting bodies as ghoulish apparitions: a motif that recurs throughout his work. His style in these images recalls Symbolist and Expressionist drawings, or the tortured portraiture of Francis Bacon. The selection of works from the 1970s showed Walker gravitating to specific social themes. Last Rites of the American Sex Hero #1 (1971), a schematic acrylic drawing depicting a black man in a bedlike coffin surrounded by women of various skin tones in lingerie, suggests ambivalence about the sexual liberation movement in the civil rights era.
The works from this century demonstrated Walker’s turn to collage modes to address racial violence and pop culture. They included moody meditations like Elegy for Michael: Passage through the Valley, Metamorphic Series (2010), a drawing of Michael Jackson’s silhouette with photographic fragments collaged onto its center. Those images show the King of Pop in his later years, before his untimely death, sporting a military-style jacket and seemingly running toward a beastly figure. The “Wall Series,” consisting of large mixed-medium paintings, borrows the midcentury Neo-Dada strategies of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Several of them utilize a diptych format, stenciled letters, and painterly brushwork; between their panels hang such emotionally charged objects as a slave shackle, a phallic form made of tape, and a piece of Georgia granite. Walker’s use of modernist techniques in these works finds a new sense of gravity in the Black Lives Matter era.
Curatorial efforts to reclaim neglected artists often focus on women or “outsider” figures. But Larry Walker, a former professor represented by a prominent Atlanta gallery, is to an extent an insider, albeit one who hasn’t shown in New York since 2002. This remarkable exhibition raised questions about the dubious distinctions between “regional” artists (Larry Walker) and international artists (Kara Walker), as well as the notion that acclaimed artists (Kara Walker) are singular geniuses. The presentation showed that institutional bias persists in more complicated and intersectional ways than the art world might readily admit.