Acquiring art not only to fill gaps in our collection, but also allows us to display key works that enhance the experience of our special exhibitions. In rare circumstances, an acquisition completely transforms the institution and allows it to present aspects of art history that were not previously possible through the holdings alone. Such is the case with the 62 works by 22 artists acquired by purchase and gift from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which were put on view in the exhibition Revelations: Art from the African American South. These works expand the representation of artists who reflect the historical diversity and complexity of American culture. This groundbreaking exhibition was accompanied by a panel discussion including actors Danny Glover and Delroy Lindo and an opening-night celebration with performances by the artist and musician Lonnie Holley, who is represented in this collection.
On October 26, 2017, the Board of Trustees approved a robust selection of works that also expand our holdings of works by artists that were previously under-represented. Notable among them are Purvis Young’s A Good Man (1980–1981), Carrie Mae Weems’s Lincoln, Lonnie, and Me – A Story in 5 Parts (2012), Richard Jackson’s Untitled (San Francisco Wall Painting) (1970/2017), and Louise Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral’s Presence I (1959–1962).
In Purvis Young’s A Good Man, Young mined personal experiences of blight, crime, and violence for his artistic subjects, materials, and exhibition spaces. Believing that “the street is life,” Young sought to give meaning to the cycles of life and death in his extraordinary displays of paintings and murals. A Good Man represents a haloed young man—perhaps one of Young’s neighbors—who has fallen victim to senseless gun violence. The artist later explained, "He’s a good person who got in the way of gunshot, and the angels are carrying him away.”
The haloed figure of the “good man” lies face-down, the glow from his aureole dramatically contrasting with splashes of red blood, signifying his violent end. The figure is painted at a mythological, exaggeratedly-horizontal scale, surrounded by innumerable diminutive mourners. Perhaps a comparison can be drawn between Young’s mournful throng and the modeling of such figures in earlier examples from Western art history. The artist’s reverence for El Greco could point to a correlation with El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz (Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain), wherein a large group of black-clad mourners gather around the dark figure of the deceased, who is highlighted in stark contrast with the gleaming gold robes worn by Saints Augustine and Stephen.
While A Good Man provides unique insight into Young’s feelings towards his community in the early 1980s, the work also serves to augment the larger social history narratives that run throughout the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Collection acquisition. Further, A Good Man enhances the permanent collection of American Art at the Museums, which seeks to illustrate a social history of the United States that accurately reflects our nation’s historical diversity and political complexity. It also proffers Young’s redemptive message, which still resonates today: “In all the poverty, the crime, the pushin’ drugs, there is love. There is help. There is a change.”