William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision

  • Duration
    January 18 – June 1, 2024
    Opening Reception January 18, 2024
  • Works by
    William Edmondson
  • Organized by
    Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
  • Curated by
    James Claiborne, Deputy Director for Community Engagement, and Nancy Ireson, Deputy Director for Collections and Exhibitions & Gund Family Chief Curator, at the Barnes Foundation
  • Facilitated by
    Maurita N. Poole, Phd, Director and Chief Curator of Newcomb Art Museum, and Alex Landry, former Graduate Curatorial Assistant

About the Exhibition

This exhibition presents works by the self-taught sculptor William Edmondson (Davidson County, Tennessee, c. 1874–1951), who is considered one of the most important Black American artists of the early 20th century. Inspired by a vision from God, Edmondson began his artistic career around 1932 by making tombstones for Nashville’s segregated cemeteries. He went on to carve religious icons, animals, and public figures, sometimes from discarded blocks of limestone.

Following a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1937—the institution’s first dedicated to a Black artist—Edmondson increasingly attracted the attention of intellectuals and collectors outside of Nashville. However, while the exhibition allowed audiences on the East Coast to see works by the artist, it promoted a limited reading of the artist’s identity—as Black, Southern, and uneducated—instead of focusing on the sculptures on view. The idea that white patrons “discovered” Edmondson has continued to gain traction, even though the artist had a viable career carving for his own community.

More than 80 years later, William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision offers a fresh opportunity to engage with Edmondson’s vision and consider the continuing relevance of his work. This exhibition emphasizes the place from which he sculpted, privileging his personal experiences, his guiding religious convictions, and the influence of those around him: the nurses, preachers, teachers who were his colleagues and neighbors. As he expressed his spirituality, and engaged with the world around him, William Edmondson monumentalized the everyday in stone.

Related Literature

William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision is organized by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Original support for William Edmondson: A Monumental Vision was provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Philadelphia.

Installation views by Jeffery Johnston.

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