Rising like night, stark against the skyline of a sunny, February afternoon, the de Young Museum is a marvel all on its own. The museum, nestled opposite the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, is like an art installation in and of itself. The structure is composed of deep charcoal and brown hues meeting formidable edges, a rich respite from the flourishing greens that surround it.
This past November, the American art-centered institution opened its doors to the Tate Modern-curated exhibit, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983.” When approaching the museum, stretched across several panes of glass, the installation is announced in thick, bright yellow text. Seeing the title here feels heavy with both the renown that the internationally acclaimed exhibit carries, as well as with the significance of the month of February. With Black history — literally — on full display, it is not surprising that many patrons flocking to the de Young wind up in the arms of the exhibition.
But renown and tradition are hardly enough to hold attention and engagement in the way that the exhibition does, and it becomes immediately apparent just how much more the collection is than the sum of its parts.
Crowds lump into the deceptively small opening space of the exhibition, milling about the pieces decorating the three walls that stand at the front: one center, two on opposing sides leading back to the much larger space at the rear of the room. The way that the space is constructed allows two initially intuitive paths through the exhibition, beginning either to the left or right of the center wall. Following either route, the exhibition opens into what is most evidently considered a collocation.
Each section of the museum is partitioned with panels that categorize the works in the area and include a number that organizes each portion of the museum. This division caters to accessibility and also leaves the exhibition subject to its curators’ vision — even if guests choose not to work through the exhibit the way in which it is ordered, the themes of each section are evident and contained.
The pieces that line the opening contrast neatly with the progression of pieces that follow — a slow burn of color, mingling with the initial grayscale works. The weight of these opening pieces’ hues, however, is not exclusive to the value of their strokes, not inextricable from the materiality of the work. The images that open the exhibition feature grim histories: Norman Lewis’ “America the Beautiful,” which features an abstraction of the Ku Klux Klan, is composed of violent white outlines on a rich black background. Toward the back of the room, the American flag’s vibrant colors adorn critical pieces exploring the relationship between Blackness and red, white and blue patriotism, like in David Hammons’ “Boy with Flag,” which wraps up the intricate discourse in four colors.
These same colors meet the warm, marigold yellow hues that dress this exhibit’s advertisements as it continues. An onomatopoeic Black superhero nearly leaps out of a piece, fist raised in the familiar iconography of Black Power in Phillip Lindsay Mason’s “The Hero.” Beside this larger-than-life piece, in a work simply titled “School Crossing Guard,” Marie Johnson Calloway captures the titular image, a Black woman, against a sterile white background, holding a fiery red stop sign. Both pieces, single subjects with multitudes of meaning in their own right, evoke the full extent of the tenderness with which “Soul of Nation” regards the Black experience.
As the exhibition continues, it blooms with pieces such as the mosaic-like celebrations of prominent Black figures in Wadsworth Jarrell’s works. These kinds of pieces declare that “Soul of a Nation” refuses to dwell on the often-deafening pain of Black history. In the way bright acrylic hues drench the haunting, hanging canvases of Sam Gilliam’s “Carousel Change,” which are both beautiful and melancholic, the exhibit speaks to the plurality of Black existence, of Black art. The entirety of the exhibition’s abstraction portion infringes on all too often, all too-white spaces — giving Black artists the license and recognition to occupy these same art practices.
With “Soul of a Nation” exploring the range of the Black experience in two prominent decades of its history, the de Young brings viewers the chance to put the Black back in Black history month.